Found At Sea

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's plane wreckage answers a 60-year-old riddle. Or does it?

Brad Wetzler

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“A MYSTERY has been solved,” says Bernard Chabbert, talking about French pilot, writer, and national hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “And yet the mystery remains.” Chabbert, a Bordeaux-based aviation writer, is referring to the stunning announcement in April that mangled airplane parts pulled from the Mediterranean last fall, off the coast of Marseille, France, had been identified as wreckage from the World War II–era P-38 that the beloved Saint-Ex was flying when he vanished in 1944. For Americans, the revelation might not seem earth-shattering: Saint-Exupéry, author of the celebrated adventure classic Wind, Sand and Stars and the best-selling children’s fable The Little Prince, is not exactly a Yankee icon like, say, Amelia Earhart. But in France, the disappearance of the 44-year-old aviator provoked equal amounts of mythologizing, fascination, and, until now, fruitless searching.

“Finding Saint-Exupéry’s plane is like finding the Titanic,” says Philippe Castellano, president of Aéro-Relic, the amateur diving-and-archaeology group that helped search for the P-38 aircraft. “It’s the Holy Grail.”

The mystery began unraveling in 1998, when Jean-Claude Bianco, a Marseille fisherman, found tangled in his nets a bracelet with the inscriptions SAINT-EXUPERY and CONSUELO, the latter the name of the author’s wife. Two years later, professional diver Luc Vanrell uncovered a chunk of engine, part of a tail, and some landing gear 200 feet underwater near Ile de Riou, a mile and a half from the Marseille coast. French ocean-salvage firms Comex and Geocean spent a combined $1 million to raise the parts, and an acid bath revealed a hand-engraved 2734L: the serial number of Saint-Ex’s plane. The pieces are slated to be displayed in June at the Musée de l’Air et l’Éspace du Bourget, near Paris. But what the exhibit won’t answer is the biggest question of all: What happened?

Though he was overfond of reading in the cockpit, the homme de lettres was no slouch as a pilot. By age 21, he’d spent years flying over the Sahara and South America, and he was undaunted, if not inspired, by adversity. (One of his crashes, a plunge into the Mauritania desert in 1927, provided the backdrop for The Little Prince.)

By 1944—overweight and 15 years older than his colleagues—Saint-Ex finagled his way into a unit of the Free French Air Force, based in Bastia, Corsica, and active in Sardinia and other Allied nations. In nearly a dozen missions, he photographed the Nazi-occupied Rhone Valley. But on July 31, returning to Corsica from a sortie to Lyon, he vanished.

Some speculate that the oft depressed idealist committed suicide. Others, including his relatives and experts like Chabbert, believe he ran out of oxygen and blacked out. (P-38’s had unpressurized cabins, so pilots wore oxygen masks.) A third camp argues that he was shot down. The wreckage indicates that Saint- Exupéry hit the water at a near-vertical angle, which suggests an unconscious man at the controls.

Castellano’s group and Geocean hope to keep searching the sea for more secrets—like bullet-riddled plane parts. But such a coup isn’t likely. The debris is 60 years old and probably lies scattered for miles. Perhaps in the end, says Chabbert, there is only one certainty. “The coast of Marseille is a beautiful place,” he says. “It would have been a beautiful place to die.”