Returning Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to the Skies
On the Origins of The Little Prince and Restoring a Classic Plane
It’s the first week of November 2016, and 20 yards from where we stand, the engine of a mid-20th-century Russian warbird—a vintage military aircraft—is making so much noise that taking pictures is uncomfortable. We can’t point our iPhone and cover our ears at the same time. We are watching two French aviators, serious, engaged, thoroughly enjoying their seemingly reckless pursuit. The pilot starts to taxi the aircraft. It’s the man perched on the olive-drab wing who gets our attention. He’s clinging to the side of the aircraft’s fuselage, one hand holding fast, the other reaching through an open panel into the engine compartment. It’s an arresting scene. It harkens back to an earlier age of aviation when wrench-turning mechanics and fearless pilots came together to breathe life into piston-engined aircraft.
We’re here, on this airstrip outside of Paris, because of a conversation a couple of weeks earlier at a party in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. We were telling our story of how we came to be interested in writing about aviation and how that led us to be Fellows of the American Library in Paris. A woman leaned in close with a conspiratorial smile spread across her face. “Would you like to go see Saint-Exupéry’s airplane?” she asked.
What would anyone who had read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s much-loved children’s book, The Little Prince, say? Yes!
After travel and translator arrangements were made, we found ourselves 20 miles northwest of Paris looking at Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s aircraft. Except that’s not exactly what we saw.
At the Pontoise-Cormeilles aerodrome, a group of French aviation enthusiasts are restoring a magnificent mid-1930s Caudron Simoun C.635. Advertisements of the time described this aircraft as a Limousine of the Skies, or limousine de l’air. These were airplanes used in daring, long distance flights of that era, the sort of flight that Saint-Exupéry himself flew. These enthusiasts are not reckless flyers but, rather, the Association for the Renaissance of Caudron Simoun, which they officially founded in 2009.
Seventy-five years ago, in the summer of 1942, the French pilot named Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry wasn’t flying. He had grounded himself in New York. France had been overrun and occupied by Nazi Germany two years earlier. Saint-Exupéry chronicled that time and his role as pilot of a reconnaissance aircraft in one of his memoirs, Flight to Arras (Pilot de guerre, originally). Having flown during aviation’s early, wild days of testing limits, when aeronautical unknowns outnumbered the knowns, accidents were not unusual occurrences, and Saint-Exupéry had incurred more than one crash. The accumulation of physical problems and political upheavals had run Saint-Exupéry down. Unable to do one thing he loved, he did the other thing that most occupied his imagination. He wrote.
Saint-Exupéry had already earned acclaim for his 1931 novel, Night Flight. He also wrote accounts of his own life and adventures as a pilot, including the award-winning memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, which included the depiction of one fateful desert accident in 1935. By 1942, he was writing yet another memoir and also writing and illustrating a novella.
That fictional tale that Saint-Exupéry began writing that summer of 1942 became one of the most beloved and most translated books in all of literature. Le Petit Prince—or, as translated in English, The Little Prince—tells the story of a stranded pilot much like Saint-Exupéry who meets a young prince after he has fallen to Earth from an asteroid. This book, now famous the world over, had its origins in Saint-Exupéry’s earlier desert crash of a sporty French Caudron Simoun aircraft, the type we had come to an airstrip in the Paris suburbs to see.
On the day of that fateful accident in 1935, Saint-Exupéry was flying with his navigator-mechanic André Prévot. They were making an attempt to win a race from Paris to Saigon and take home a substantial prize. In those days of flight, a pilot used paper maps, a compass, the airspeed indicator, and one’s own eyes to get from here to there. Pilots today have much more information, and the information they have is more accurate and updated in real time. Though Saint-Exupéry surely checked the weather forecast before taking off, meteorological prediction in that day was crude, and conditions changed. Though used to shifting conditions, he would not have known exactly what to expect and had to face the clouds as they appeared. Flying over the Libyan desert that night, the pair became disoriented in clouds, most likely losing track of their direction and altitude, before skidding into the sands.
Though they weren’t badly injured, the two men had few rations to sustain them. Their coffee thermos survives in a small museum and contains desert sand that Prévot scooped up. They had only poor maps to guide them. Over four lost days, before local denizens happened upon them, they became seriously dehydrated and even hallucinated, often walking in search of water or safety only to find themselves back with their wrecked Caudron Simoun. Out of this experience, several years later, Saint-Exupéry conjured up the story of The Little Prince and his fantastical desert sojurn.
The Caudron Simoun sky limousine was a four-seat aircraft with a single low wing, a two-blade propeller, and a Renault engine. This long-distance flyer was used in numerous record-setting challenges in the 1930s. Maryse Bastié, a female pilot from France, bought an earlier Caudron aircraft in 1927 and established the first women’s record from the World Air Sports Federation, or FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale).
Despite its popularity decades ago, not a single Caudron Simoun is still flying. The only one on public display is at the Museum of Air and Space (Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace) in Paris, and it’s unable to go anywhere of its own power.
Longtime pilots Stéphane Lanter and François Minard acquired this particular Caudron Simoun in 2003, the same year that pieces of Saint-Exupéry’s last plane, a military P-38, were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea. Their C.635 version of the aircraft, one with a stronger engine, is like the one Saint-Exupéry crashed in Guatemala in 1939, after he replaced the C.630 he’d crashed a few years earlier in the Sahara. Seventy-five years after Saint-Exupéry began writing his masterpiece, we talked with the members of the Association for the Renaissance of Caudron Simoun. What struck us was how keenly aware they are of their project’s connection to both aviation and literary history.
Garbed in aviator’s coveralls that would be immediately recognizable to Saint-Exupéry, Lanter and other association members showed us around their mechanical aviary. There’s a credible sense of adventure, of the audacity of the project they’ve set for themselves: returning one of the two surviving Caudron Simoun aircraft to airworthy status and then using it to recreate some of the aircraft’s most challenging flights, including Saint-Exupéry’s.
The work involves painstaking reconstruction, part by part, to remake this Caudron Simoun as if it were the one Saint-Exupéry himself flew, complete with the bright red and white paint. Our instigator from the party had seen this plane weeks earlier, but, because she did not speak French herself, she had conflated this simulacrum with Saint-Exupéry’s actual plane. That’s the goal of the restoration. Shaping the curve of the underbelly, connecting the cockpit controls to the plane’s control surfaces, and fitting together the metal of engine parts is a slow and steady process. The work requires historical research, mechanical expertise, patience—and money. The group is pulling all of that together to recreate the experience of Saint-Exupéry.
Association member Jean-Pierre Chellet explained that they have all the necessary parts. The only adaptations they are making for safety reasons are to the fuel system and swapping a few older bits with up-to-date radios, transponders, and other equipment to meet current aviation regulations. In other words, the only deviations from the original aircraft are those necessary to be sure they will be allowed to fly the plane once the restoration is complete.
Though not yet all pieced together, Saint-Exupéry’s aircraft is taking shape in its return to life. Chellet and his partners are as determined to get the Caudron Simoun back into the air as Saint-Exupéry himself was.
The members of this association want to fly this plane, just as they already get a thrill when that old Russian warbird we saw takes to the air. They know how to reverently reassemble old aircraft. They know how to get a vintage plane bombinating down the runway until thrust and lift overcome drag and weight and the machine rises skyward. Even more than flying a plane, however, these men seek to tell the story of the Caudron Simoun as the part of French aviation history that led to Saint-Exupéry’s enduring philosophical fable, The Little Prince.
While Saint-Exupéry disappeared flying a P-38 during a mission in July 1944, it is the Caudron Simoun that epitomizes Saint-Exupéry’s adventurous spirit and allies him with the sporting days of aviation. Chellet emphasizes that, while people don’t know the name Caudron Simoun, they know well that airplane that brought a pilot to meet the petit prince in the desert. This is the airplane they are recreating before our eyes. When the Caudron Simoun soars overhead once again, Saint-Exupéry and his little prince, too, will take to the skies in our imaginations.