Friday, April 09, 2010

Giant Killer

If you both read and have any interest in flight, you have heard (even if you can't spell or pronounce) the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was a pilot and a dreamer and a writer who lived and flew in the age when every flight was a dangerous leap of faith, before reliable engines, organized search and rescue, and good aviation charts. His writing is quite simple, linking the things a pilot sees and thinks about to the general human condition. The sentences are not complex, so they are good books to read to practice French, and they work well in translation, too. Even if you haven't heard of or read Vol de nuit (Night Flight), Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars), or Courrier sud (Southern Mail) you may still have met Saint-Exupéry through The Little Prince, widely translated as a children's story. It's either about a pilot downed in the desert and hallucinating with thirst; or about a little man from an asteroid who loves a flower he believes to be unique in the universe, and who comes to earth where he discovers his flower to be common.

Saint-Exupéry disappeared during flight in 1944 and for years was like the French Amelia Earhart: no one knew what had happened, so people dreamed of the best. I only recently came across this article, revealing that they not only have found his identity bracelet and thus airplane, but they have found the German pilot who shot him down. The poignant part is that the Messerschmitt pilot, Horst Rippert, had read Saint-Exupéry's stories in school and says that had he known who was in the airplane he would never have fired. Saint-Exupéry probably inspired his own killer to take up the pursuit that lead to his death.

13 comments:

Jimmy said...

Great story. Thanks for sharing that. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered what became of Antoine.

Like Horst I was inspired in part by the man's writing. I can only imagine how long it has tormented him. Sad for both of them...

sounddoc said...

after finishing 'fate is the hunter' i moved onto 'wind sand and the stars'. although less about flying than gann's book, there was one part that stuck with me of which i was telling my girlfriend while walking home after a night at the local bar; it was his living through the shelling (of madrid?) during the spanish civil war, to paraphrase; 'it's not the look of your lover's eye, it's the twinkle in it, it's not the shape of her breast, but the swell of it.' in the same paragraph he spoke of newlyweds and in one flash a shell had left his new bride "little more than a packet of muck in the street." maybe there's something in the translation. anyway, oddly enough, seconds after telling her about this part in the book we were mugged at gunpoint. nothing serious, but pretty memorable!

Sarah said...

Ah yes... Saint-Exupéry was great. My memory is colored though, by being encouraged to read Le Petit Prince in high school French class.

My favorite literary aviation book is Beryl Markham's, "West with the Night". But I should revisit St. Exupéry now that I fly. I never did read Night Flight.

A Squared said...

My favorite literary aviation book is Beryl Markham's, "West with the Night".

Alternately, Beryl Markham's husband's book......

D.B. Cooper said...

Il était un écrivain extraordinaire, en français, et ausi en anglais.

D.B. Cooper said...

In English, I highly recommend "North Star over my Shoulder" by Bob Buck.

Aluwings said...

Someone just lent me a more up-to-date flying book that starts off well - about a fellow who ferries his Cessna 180 to Africa and back and in Africa flies for the Flying Doctors Service.

It's called My Heart is Africa by Scott Griffin.

Wayne Farmer said...

Also check out the blog "Flight Level 390", cited in the list of blogs on this page. I think his writing is beautiful in the same way as "Night Flight":

"Ahead of us, as far as the eye can see, the Great Plains extend to the western horizon. The sky is a cold blue completely absent of clouds. Every seat is full behind our hardened flight deck door. The lead flight attendant reports that no passenger is trying to light the fuse on their underwear or shoes. For the moment, things are going very well." - Captain Dave, "Flight Level 390"

kbq said...

Off topic, but 'trix says it's ok... :-)

A bad day at the airport: http://nycaviation.com/2010/04/09/photos-gulfstream-jet-collides-with-tanker-truck-at-boeing-field/

Wayne - I love Dave's writing; as someone of the same age, though, I'm distressed by his continuous references to how old he is. Makes me ache...


Kevin

Sue said...

Thank you, Trix, for this post. I am one of the many who became entranced with flight after reading St Exupery. Though we were both very young at the time, my sister must have realized how greatly I was affected by his writing, because she gave me /Wind Sand and Stars/ on my 13th birthday. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.

gmc said...

@kbq: considering how that tip tank almost nailed the truck driver to his chair, it looks like the pilots were aggressively trying to return a bad tank of gas!

Close call. "Keep alert and watch for traffic!"

majroj said...

Another writer/pilot from WWII was Roald Dahl, although he really became an author after his two crashes and the end of his intelligence/spook work for the English here in the USA. He hit his stride writing ascerbic children's fare like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

Curt Sampson said...

I love Saint-Exupéry, of course. Perhaps we don't have anybody quite like him today (though some bush pilots might not be too far off). Still, the spirit is there, I think. For example, Mariana Gosnell's Zero 3 Bravo: Solo Across America in a Small Plane is quite inspiring, and does a wonderful job of capturing a certain spirit of general aviation in America, a spirit which is inherited from Saint-Exupéry himself.