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FRENCHMAN JEAN Mermoz was an extraordinary aviator in an extraordinary era of aviation. His flights crossing the South Atlantic and later the Andes were the first of their kind. Mermoz was instrumental in establishing his country’s airlines, including Air France. Together with friend and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he also helped set up the Argentine airline evolving into Aerolineas Argentinas. Along the way, Mermoz became one of the major personalities of aviation’s Golden Age.
Mermoz was shy, quiet and artistic in his youth. But growing up during World War I gave him a passion for aviation too. By the age of 20, in 1921, he had his military pilot’s license. A year later, he survived four days in the North African desert after an airplane crash.
Demobbed in 1924, Mermoz applied for work in civil aviation with la Compagnie générale d’entreprises aéronautique, in time called simply Aéropostale. Showing off his aerial bravado to Didier Daurat, his prospective boss, Mermoz was told, “Je n’ai pas besoin d’artistes de cirque, mais conducteurs d’autobus.” [“I don’t need circus artists, just bus drivers.”]
Nevertheless, Daurat sensed his passion for aviation and Mermoz got the job. In 1925, L’aéro-club de France honored him for flying the most in a single year, 120,000 km (almost 75,000 miles), logging 800 hours aloft.
The next year, his assignment was in Casablanca, (at the time French) Morocco.
In 1927, Mermoz signed on for the Aéropostale route from Toulouse, France, to St. Louis, Senegal, Africa. That same year, he set up Aéropostale operations in Rio de Janeiro, the initial goal being service between Rio and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In 1930, Mermoz piloted a Latécoère float plane in the first non-stop crossing of the South Atlantic, from Dakar, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil. Hitherto, all mail had gone by boat.
Eventually, Mermoz established—and flew—regularly scheduled airmail service between Toulouse and Santiago, Chile. The route included the South Atlantic flight followed by a high-risk crossing of the Andes.
There were Hollywood movies of the era dedicated to this corner of aviation history. Night Flight (1933) was based on Saint-Exupéry’s book of the same name. The movie starred the brothers Lionel and John Barrymore, Helen Hayes and Clark Gable.
The flick languished between 1942 and 2011 because of a dispute between MGM and the Saint-Exupéry estate. The Turner Classic Movies channel gave the movie its world television premiere in August 2012.
Another movie of Andean aviation adventure, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), appears fairly regularly on TCM. Starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, this movie is memorable for the first major screen appearance of Rita Hayworth.
A French film, Mermoz (1943), was noteworthy for its music score by Arthur Honegger, Swiss modernist and member of Les Six. Orchestral suites from the score were recorded in the 1990s.
Back to Jean Mermoz: On January 16, 1933, he crossed the South Atlantic in a flight of 14 hours 27 minutes; his aircraft of choice was the Couzinet 70, the topic of tomorrow’s mini-essay.
In 1933, both Mermoz and Saint-Exupéry resided in Argentina, where they helped set up what evolved into Aerolineas Argentinas, the country’s flag carrier. The French lycée in Buenos Aires, a bilingual school, is named in Mermoz’s honor.
On December 7, 1936, Mermoz set out on his 24th South Atlantic crossing, this time from Dakar in a Latécoère flying boat, Croix du Sud, Southern Cross.
Shortly after takeoff, engine trouble caused a return to base. “Quick, let’s not waste time anymore,” Mermoz said, as he settled for a less than full repair.
Four hours later, Mermoz radioed he had to cut power to the aircraft’s aft starboard engine. The message was interrupted abruptly, possibly with the failed engine’s propeller causing severe damage to the hull. Mermoz and his crew were never found. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013