April 10, 2008


On the trail of a missing aviator, Saint-Exupéry (John Tagliabue, April 10, 2008, NY Times)

After the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the demise of the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on a reconnaissance mission in World War II has ranked as one of flying's great mysteries.

Now, thanks to some sleuthing by a French diver and marine archaeologist, the final pieces of the puzzle seem to have been filled in.

The story that emerged about the disappearance of Saint-Exupéry, in self-exile from Vichy France, proved to contain several narratives, a complexity that would probably have pleased the author of several adventure books on flying and the famous tale "The Little Prince," about a little interstellar traveler, which was also a profound statement of faith. [...]

Consulting archives and with the help of the staff of the Jägerblatt, a magazine for Luftwaffe veterans, he tracked down veterans who had flown in von Bentheim's unit, the Jagdgruppe 200. He contacted hundreds of former pilots, most now in their 80s; hundreds more had already died.

Then in July 2006, he telephoned a former pilot in Wiesbaden, Germany, Horst Rippert, explaining that he sought information about Saint-Exupéry.

Without hesitating, Rippert replied: "You can stop searching. I shot down Saint-Exupéry."

Rippert, who will be 86 in May, worked as a television sports reporter after the war. It was only days after he had shot down a P-38 with French colors near Marseille that he learned of Saint-Exupéry's disappearance.

He was convinced he had shot him down, though he confided his conviction only to a diary. In 2003, when he learned that Saint-Exupéry's plane had been found, his suspicion was confirmed. But still he said nothing publicly.

Over the years, the thought that he may have killed Saint-Exupéry had troubled Rippert. As a youth in the 1930s, he had idolized the aviator-turned-author and had devoured his books, beginning with "Southern Mail," in 1929, an adventure tale written while Saint-Exupéry was flying the Casablanca-to-Dakar route.

When Rippert's identity was finally made public in March, the storm of interview requests and efforts to contact him was such that he withdrew from sight.

...is why the great aviators were such good writers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2008 7:44 PM

Because great prose soars.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 10, 2008 10:35 PM

What a terrible irony, to shoot down the author you idolized and who inspired you to learn to fly....

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 10, 2008 11:42 PM

Saint-Exupéry was an engineer, not just a pilot, and what he said of aircraft design is very fine advice for writers: Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Posted by: Mike Earl at April 11, 2008 8:57 AM