FROM LATÉCOÈRE AIRLINES TO AÉROPOSTALE
1918: End of the First World War, a conflict that for the first time used aviation, which had begun some years earlier.
Pierre-Georges Latécoère is convinced that a regular civil airline could be created between France, Africa and South America to transport mail. At that time, it took more than a month for mail to reach Buenos Aires by boat. Reconverting Salmson fighter aircraft would save time.
Latécoère submits his project to the French government, a crazy plan: the range of action of the planes is only 400 km.
To convince, Latécoère organizes at the end of 1918 a test flight from Toulouse to Barcelona, via the Pyrenees, a first. Despite the opposition of the Spanish government, which does not look favourably on flying over its territory, Latécoère continues his project.
In 1918, he successfully links Toulouse to Rabat, in Morocco under the French protectorate, after 28 hours of flight. The postal airline was opened with the support of the army, which gave up safer and larger Breguet aircraft. The first airfields are built in Spain for stopovers.
Latécoère surrounds himself with former aviator officer Beppo de Massimi and ex-war pilots, including Didier Daurat, to create "the spirit of the Latécoère Airlines" by imposing an iron discipline.
Objective: regularity and punctuality in all weathers.
The beginnings are difficult, the equipment unsuitable. The pilots navigate by sight, without instruments or radio. Emergency landings are frequent.
Airmen enter the Latécoère Airlines with faith and dedication. Before flying, they were confined to the workshops with the mechanics: they had to know the aircraft by heart and be able to repair any damage.
The next objective is to fly to the city of Dakar, Senegal.
This time, civilian pilots are recruited by Latécoère: Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, Marcel Reine and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The 1,200 km of desert between Morocco and Senegal are defeated, and the Toulouse-Casablanca-Dakar airline opened in 1925.
Radio is still not ready - in the meantime, planes fly in pairs in case of problems over the desert: in the event of a forced landing, they risk being kidnapped by the rebel tribes of the Sahara or dying of thirst before being rescued.
Latécoère develops new aircraft and keeps the objective of extending the airline to Rio. But the French government is reluctant to subsidise postal mail to South America, a costly project.
The wealthy French industrialist living in Brazil Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont buys the company in 1927, renamed Compagnie Générale Aéropostale.
Latécoère continues to supply aircraft for Aéropostale.
With the Latécoère 26, there's no more need to stopover. Their range is 5,000 km, the distance between Toulouse and Dakar. In 1927, Mermoz makes this dream come true by linking the two cities non-stop.
Despite fatal accidents, the pilots are always willing to perform new feats.
In 1928, the first airline between France and South America is opened.
On May 1st, the first flight between Toulouse and Buenos Aires, with the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by boat, takes 9 days!
The next step is the creation of the Argentine branch, which provides postal service with Paraguay, Chile and Patagonia. In Brazil and Argentina, pioneers are clearing the ground to open new routes. And to get as far as Santiago, crossing the dangerous Andes Cordillera.
Only the Potez 25, capable of climbing to an altitude of 7,000 m, can cross the Andes on a regular basis.
In 1929, Mermoz inaugurates the Argentina-Chile link, whose regular pilot will be Guillaumet. A feat, risky with every flight.
It was Mermoz again who achieved the ultimate record in 1930, with the first crossing of the South Atlantic aboard a Latécoère 28, between Saint-Louis, Senegal and Natal, Brazil.
But the experience will not be repeated. Mail continued to be transported by boat between Dakar and Natal, Brazil, the shortest distance between Africa and America, and then by air to Rio, Buenos Aires and Santiago.
After the economic crisis of 1929, Bouilloux-Lafont faced financial difficulties.
Aéropostale became a major airline, covering 17'000 km, with 80 pilots, 250 mechanics, 250 sailors, 218 planes, 21 seaplanes and 8 ships.
In 1933, the French government decided to merge all the companies in the territory and took over Aéropostale.
This was the end of the legendary adventure of the Latécoère Airlines and Aéropostale's legendary adventure, and the birth of Air France.
Developed in the aftermath of the First World War, airmail owes much to the courage of their first pilots, true pioneers of aviation, whom some consider heroes.
Indeed, in the 1920s, every flight was a risky and potentially fatal adventure.
The daily life and achievements of these pilots are recounted by the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - a Latécoère Airlines and Aéropostale pilot himself - in his novels:
Courrier Sud (1929)
Vol de nuit (1931)
Terre des Hommes (1939)
Wind, Sand and Stars