Small stories of the evening.
If you like airplanes, the name Latécoère may be familiar to you.
In the gallery of heroes that populate my imagination, there are, of course, all the great heroes of aviation – Latécoère is one of them.
He was an industrialist and a pilot – but a pilot of the planes of the First World War – those incredible & improbable planes.
He transformed his father’s company into an aviation factory : Latécoère was launched into the world.
This man had seen that aviation would be the future of the world, when almost all other French industrialists remained so French, so frightened, corrupt and greedy that they missed the boat. This is a habit in my country.
Latécoère created his first factory dedicated to aviation in Toulouse – Toulouse thus became the French city that dreamed of the sky – all this is now called Aerospatiale.
But the factories were not enough: these planes had to be flown, and for reasons other than the war.
So he created l’Aéropostale: instead of sending the mail by boat, it would be sent by plane.
France had colonies in North Africa at the time: creating a line that would pass over the Pyrenees, fly over Spain and reach Morocco was the challenge.
The line existed a little: Toulouse- Barcelone – Casablanca ; but to grow, it was necessary to invent this improbable stopover – and this technical challenge: to jump the Pyrenees from their feet.
So the line would stop in a small French town at the foot of the Pyrenees: Perpignan.
And that’s why I’m telling you this story – every time I leave my house and look at the Pyrenees, I remember it.
Flying over a mountain, with a plane taking off at its feet, doesn’t seem like a feat now – but it was back then.
And here I come to my favorite hero in the Latécoère adventure: Jean Mermoz.
He had been a pilot for the French army in Syria and had seen his plane fall countless times. When he was demobilized, he didn’t know what to do with his life – he ended up gluing stamps. When he saw an advertisement for the Latécoère company, which was looking for determined pilots to invent the skies of tomorrow, he didn’t hesitate.
He went to the test site.
He had more than 600 hours of flight time at that time.
He found that people looked down on him a bit. When he was given his flight plan to check his skills, he threw it away.
He climbed into the plane – and, as a splendid hothead, he made a series of loops with his little cuckoo clock – to see what the plane had in its belly (boys and their gut stories, we find that everywhere after all).
The engineer had a nervous breakdown – but Mermoz was an exceptional pilot and that is exactly what the Latécoère company needed.
To launch the first commercial really serious air service between France and Morocco, Latécoère had to strike a blow.
A big blow is something to be prepared for.
Mermoz arrived in Perpignan – my little town under the Pyrenees. He saw the problem: they would not have time to climb high enough to get over the most accessible pass.
It was necessary to pass a little to the left of this massif – not too much – even if it seemed easier.
First, because the final objective of the line was Barcelona – that they had to think about planes loaded with cargo and oil – heavier planes than the ones that had already passed.
Not to lose the oil – to gain distance in the end – to pass just to the left of the highest peak.
And then, the mountain is a bit treacherous too. You think you’ve passed it and just behind – heaven? a summit!
Latécoère could abandon the Perpignan stopover – he had crossed from Toulouse to Barcelona in 1918 – but the game was no longer to cross. The game was to cross with very heavy freight.
It was therefore necessary to find the pass
The adventure stops?
Not at all.
It’s all about finding the air currents and making the best of them.
Building a makeshift airfield was not difficult: the plain is big enough.
Mermoz took the controls of the small plane and began to scan the northern side of the Pyrenees: he had to find these currents – the ascending and descending ones – understand their frequency and their logic – and take into account the wind – in Perpignan blows one of the strongest winds, the Tramontane, which throws a small plane against the mountain with such ease.
One day, Mermoz thinks that it is good, he thinks he has found and understood how to jump the Pyrenees.
He takes the controls. Objective: to pass the pass, cross and return. In a word – to open the way.
The weather was fine that day, and the wind was slowly increasing.
Mermoz arrived, too low, at the foothills of the Pyrenees.
He sees – he sees very well – the mountain looming in front of him.
He continues – it is at the closest that he will find the ascending current.
He said that he could see even chamois because he got so close to the rock.
And almost before he crashed – the miracle – well: the current –
He turned, slid into the current of air that carried him upwards – once, twice, three times – and finally, finally, the plane was at the necessary altitude.
He took the course due south: the Pyrenees were crossed, starting from the stopover town that was at its feet.
The boss – Latécoère – will officially open the line, at the controls of the plane – with the stopover in Perpignan.
I know, it sounds like details – but without these details – no aviation.
Mermoz and the guys of l’Aéropostale will use this learning of atmospheric currents a little later, when they will tackle the Andes. The challenge was a lot more perilous – the planes a little more efficient.
That was not the end of my little corner of the world’s adventures with aviation.
Latécoère had – inevitably – troubles with France – that’s usual. His company sank – more or less – was forcibly sold to a better placed competitor in politics. Without it, France would have really been the first in the field of aviation, Latécoère was the first postal transport company in the world – but hey – politics, fear of the future, the: it was better before, that is also France.
Pierre-Georges Latécoère did not let himself be dismantled – and he went on to develop seaplanes.
These seaplanes will be built and tested in a village near my home – because there are also large enough and calm enough water points compared to the sea to be able to test the machines.
This will give the famous Laté – and the very very famous Croix du Sud, a Laté 300 – but that will be another story.
These are stories that I can’t imagine on a stage at all – but as I rest from this, they come back to me
Featured Image : Latécoère – Aeropostale