Notes on the life of Pierre-Georges Latécoère
Born on 25 August 1883 at Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the French Pyrenees, Pierre-Georges Latécoère, often called simply Pierre, proved a brilliant student — first at the local school, then at the Lycée Saint Louis in Paris, and finally at the École des Arts et Manufactures, a prestigious engineering institute now known as the École Centrale.
His father Gabriel Latécoère died in 1905 and his mother, showing unusual determination for the times, took over the management of the sawmill her husband had set up in 1872.
On his graduation from École Centrale in 1906, Pierre quickly showed his ambition, expanding the family business to make rolling stock for tramways in the region and on the Atlantic coast, as well as for colonial railways. He went on to win a contract with the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi, the railway company serving southern France, for a minimum of 1,000 freight wagons and opened a second factory at Pont Demoiselle near Toulouse in south-west France.
At the outbreak of the first world war, Pierre Latécoère was exempted from military service because of poor eyesight, but signed up with the artillery. After four months, his commanding general decided that he would be more useful to his country in industry than behind a gun and he returned to Toulouse to make heavy artillery shells, while the Bagnères factory made field kitchens for the army. The war was also the beginning of a lifelong passion for aviation, which was added to the business. In 1917, Latécoère won an order for 1,000 Salmson military aircraft, delivering 800 before the Armistice. For this, he built a factory and airfield at Montaudran near Toulouse in just seven months, rolling out the first plane on 5 May 1918 and then continuing production at a rate of six a day.
During this period, he regularly took part in test flights, and it was on one of these, on 25 May 1918, that he first had the idea of setting up a service between France and French colonies in Africa and Brazil. The plan was submitted to the government’s aviation office on 7 September 1918.
Not surprisingly, it met with considerable scepticism, since it involved using single-engine planes with fabric-covered wings and a range of only 500 km to bridge continents, cross mountain ranges and deserts, and brave Atlantic storms and rain.
But Pierre Latécoère believed in his project, as he showed in a pioneering flight across the Pyrenees from Toulouse to Barcelona with pilot René Cornement on Christmas Day 1918. The following year he flew to Rabat in Morocco with pilot Henri Lemaître, reaching his destination on March 9 after stops in Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga. Marshall Lyautey, France’s Resident General in Morocco, came to greet him at the airfield and received a fresh copy of Le Temps, the Toulouse daily, and a bunch of violets, the city’s floral emblem, for his wife.
Setting up air services across Spain and later to Rio de Oro on the west coast of Africa with airfields and facilities along the way was no easy task. Political problems were not the least of the obstacles, and when Beppo de Massimi, a former fighter pilot who had become general manager of the Latécoère Line, travelled to Madrid to seek an agreement he encountered much hostility not only from Spain but also from Germany.
And yet from September 1919, the Toulouse-Casablanca service was operating regularly. The Line proved such a success that it was used by a king, two French government ministers and a Marshall. Pilots included renowned aviators from Daurat, heading up operations, to Reine, Mermoz, Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet and a string of others, some of whom paid with their lives to ensure the mail got through. The route was regularly extended to cover the 2,800 km between Casablanca and Dakar, crossing deserts and the arid Rio de Oro region, with rebel tribesmen who would seize both pilots and freight in the event of a forced landing. Latécoère Airlines pushed on to Dakar on 5 May 1923, with regular airmail service between Toulouse and Dakar starting on 31 May 1925.
A host of honours followed. Pierre Latécoère was named Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur on 30 September 1920, then Officier on 20 September 1923 and finally Commandeur on 23 August 1925, at the age of 42. By then, his company was flying to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, just as in earlier years it had crossed the Mediterranean on the Alicante/Oran, Marseille/Barcelona, and Marseille/Algiers routes.
On 15 November 1926, Pierre Latécoère flew from Bordeaux to a hero’s welcome in South America. The Dakar-Buenos Aires route was served by fast mailboats carrying postbags until seaplanes came into service.
At the same time, the fledgling aircraft industry and the technicians who had founded it were being overtaken by financiers, and Compagnie Générale d’Entreprises Aéronautique — founded by Pierre Latécoère in 1921 — was eventually purchased by a consortium of bankers.
Sociétés des Forges et Ateliers de Constructions G. Latécoère, set up by Latécoère to produce rolling stock for the railways — itself the successor to G. Latécoère — was also sold, in its case to Société Lorraine des Anciens Etablissements de Dietrich.
Yet Pierre Latécoère continued to design and produce world record-breaking aircraft in Montaudran. On 9 May 1930, Jean Mermoz successfully crossed the South Atlantic in a Laté 28 seaplane, inaugurating the first airmail link between Saint Louis and Natal (Brazil).
At this juncture, Latécoère turned his full attention to flying boats, developing his first model — the 42-tonne "Lieutenant de Vaisseau Paris" — and setting up a seaplane base in Biscarosse in south-west France.
A year later, P-G Latécoère married Lucienne Granel in Ribouisse, and on 9 June 1932 a cherished son, Pierre-Jean, was born.
In 1937, P-G Latécoère built a huge factory producing flying boats in Anglet in only three months. Two years later, he sold both the Montaudran and the Anglet plants to Bréguet, along with the seaplane base in Biscarosse.
In 1940, Société Industrielle d’Aviation Latécoère, founded in 1922, built an entirely new factory in Toulouse in rue de Périole. Working closely with manager Marcel Moine, Pierre Latécoère brought out the world’s largest flying boat — the 75-tonne Laté 631.
This brief account summarizes only the highlights of a remarkable man who created new routes linking France to its colonial empire and South America.