70 years ago, on July 31, 1944, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry took off on his last flight, from which he did not return. At 44, he was old for an operational pilot in World War II, and he was flying a fast, unarmed, photo-reconnaissance version of the single-seat Lockheed P38 Lightning fighter, from an American air base on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
His task was to fly into France to gather intelligence for the Allied invasion of the south (Normandy was already under way), but he was not heard from again. It was not until more than half a century later that scattered parts of his Lightning were finally found, off the southern coast of France. He is generally presumed to have been shot down by a German fighter, but no one knows for sure.
He was one of the pioneers of long distance flight, helping to establish air routes in dangerous places as far apart as the Sahara in North Africa and the Andes in South America. As a writer, from the 1920s onward, he produced a series of best-selling books, which were often turned into movies; all remain in print today.
After the fall of France in 1940, he spent some time in North America, briefly in Canada, but mainly in New York City. During that period, living mostly across the street from Central Park, he wrote 1942’s The Little Prince.
It instantly became, and remains, a colossal best-seller, translated into more than 250 languages, and made into various TV and film versions. His books often had an autobiographical element, and The Little Prince is no exception–it begins with a pilot marooned in the desert, something which had happened to Saint-Exupéry himself.
Many years after Saint-Exupéry’s death, Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff, a book (and, later, a movie) about pilots flying experimental rocket-powered airplanes in the California desert, and working on the Project Mercury space program of the 1960s. In writing the book, he brought test pilot Chuck Yeager from relative obscurity to superstar status. Even though his focus was on post-war American pilots, Wolfe paid tribute to “Saint Ex,” someone he said, who was seen by aviators everywhere as:
…flying up here at the right hand of God… the one who put it into words most beautifully and anointed himself before the altar of the right stuff.
The nose strut of Saint-Exupéry’s P38 is now displayed prominently in Paris’ Le Bourget air museum, and pilots from all over the world come to pay their respects.