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Taking to the skies in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’

The author's well-worn copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Wind, Sand and Stars,” published in French as “Terre des hommes” in 1939. (Mary Winston Nicklin for The Washington Post)
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The fourth in an occasional series on the books that spurred our love of travel.

I can’t remember the last time I flew on a plane.

It was over a year ago that the pandemic grounded the world’s citizens and airline fleets. If I really press myself to recall the time before social distancing and ubiquitous masks, before remote learning and Zoom calls, I can conjure a few unremarkable details of that flight: the hold-your-breath moment of weighing an overstuffed bag at check-in, the choreography of shoe and laptop removal in the miles-long security line, the race for overhead bin space, the tray tables in upright and locked positions, the flier’s favorite snack of pretzels and tomato juice.

What was mundane now seems extraordinary. Not just because of the tragic and trying circumstances we’ve all lived through, which have decimated air travel. But looking back on it now, maybe the world was flying too much, racking up frequent flier miles when a video call could suffice, shuttling between Washington and New York instead of taking Amtrak, needlessly inflating carbon emissions. (In France, where I live, the government aims to ban short-haul domestic flights where the train provides a viable alternative.)

And as I continue to think about that long-ago flight, I realize something else: In the days of cramped seats and low-cost carriers, I had forgotten the joy of flight. In fact, despite being a travel writer, I had actually come to dread flying. The democratization of air travel — a blessing for travelers and the interconnected, global economy — had also stripped flight of its miraculous essence. It took a book published in 1939 for me to grasp this.

Feeling hungry for adventure during pandemic lockdown, I return to “Wind, Sand and Stars,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The pioneering aviator is best known as the author of “The Little Prince.” Translated into more than 100 languages, the famous children’s book is one of the world’s top bestsellers, its whimsical allegory also resonating with adults. Much of the inspiration for “The Little Prince” was mined from Saint-Exupéry’s life as a pilot. His memoir is an exhilarating immersion into the days of early aviation.

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Born into an aristocratic French family in 1900, Saint-Exupéry was not a good student in school, nor were his flying skills exemplary — it’s said he had a tendency to daydream while in the air. But despite a string of accidents and setbacks, he persevered with his passion. Starting in 1926 as a pilot for Latécoère (later known as Aéropostale), he opened mail routes between Toulouse, France; Casablanca, Morocco; and Dakar, Senegal. He managed an isolated refueling station in the western Sahara before transferring in 1929 to Argentina, where a team of pilots established long-distance links to Patagonia. In the introduction to his 1995 Penguin translation, William Rees explains that by the time the route from France to Chile was finally established in 1930, “over 120 Latécoère employees and passengers were dead.”

The perils are poignant in Saint-Exupéry’s prose. Navigating in “rain-soaked leathers” from open cockpits, pilots toss aside error-filled maps and instead look for landmarks such as “three orange trees at the edge of a field near Guadix” in Spain and innocuous-seeming streams that can actually ruin a landing. They chart remote landscapes by “rescuing such details, known to no geographer in the world.”

Beware the danger of “sinking into the white flax” of clouds above mountainous regions, and colliding with a peak. “In bad weather,” he writes, “you had to lean out of those open planes to see anything, and the crashing of the wind went on reverberating long afterward in your ears.”

As I read, I am struck by the bravery of the pilots who trailblazed in such rudimentary machines, making way for today’s high-tech planes that are kitted out with so many amenities they are downright luxurious. He describes “the early years of the Casablanca-Dakar line” when “our equipment was fragile, and breakdowns, searches and rescues often brought landings in rebel territory.” Flying over the Mediterranean, brought down to 60 feet, he writes: “Rain squalls are driving against the windscreen and steam seems to be rising from the sea. I’m straining to see ahead and make sure I don’t hit a ship’s mast.”

I am moved by their courage and heroism. Some, like Lécrivain, who “failed to land at Casablanca,” will “never again land anywhere.” Others, like Jean Mermoz, make history in epic feats. (On the first seaplane crossing of the South Atlantic, Mermoz navigated through the Doldrums, an obstacle course of tornado-like water spouts — what Saint-Exupéry likens to a “fantastical kingdom.”) Mermoz would later disappear over that stretch of hostile ocean, and Saint-Exupéry describes the “anguished vigil,” their “brittle hopes,” as they await the radio signal that would never come.

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And then there is Henri Guillaumet, the pilot to whom Saint-Exupéry dedicated the book. Guillaumet’s survival after running out of fuel and crashing in the Andes in 1930 has gone down in legend. When he goes missing, Saint-Exupéry joins another pilot in searching “between the towering walls and pillars of the Andes,” the peaks rising above 22,000 feet. “Even the smugglers,” he writes, “bandits who would commit a crime for five francs, refused to venture into the foothills in any rescue party: ‘We’d be risking our lives up there,’ they said. ‘The Andes never give up a man in winter.’ ”

Guillaumet walked for five days and four nights, “with no ice-axe, no rope, no food, scaling passes 15,000 feet high, crawling along vertical walls with bleeding hands and knees and feet in 40 degrees of frost.” As recounted by Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet takes one step in front of the other, summoning the courage to keep going, trying to control his mind, which “went on working like a turbine.” Saint-Exupéry is bowled over by what his friend tells him: “I swear to you, no animal would have done what I have done.”

It is Guillaumet’s sense of responsibility that Saint-Exupéry describes as greatness. “Responsibility for himself, for his mail, and for the comrades who wait in hope.” I think about those mail bags, packed to the brim with people’s stories and sent out into the unknown. In Saint-Exupéry’s words, “it was to me that they would be entrusting their anxieties and their passions, come daybreak and the loading of the mailbags. Into my hands they would be delivering up their hopes.” Embracing a deep sense of duty, these pilots risked their lives for letters. Isn’t there something miraculous about a thin paper envelope making its way from one household to another around the world? Isn’t it fantastic to take for granted that a letter posted in a mailbox will undoubtedly reach its destination? As the U.S. Postal Service now comes under siege, I think back to what Saint-Exupéry and his “comrades” mapped out for us.

Saint-Exupéry’s evocative, often mystical descriptions bring back the magic and mystery of flight. During one night flight over the Sahara, he searches for the lights of the airfield beacons and mistakenly sets his course for a star. His words inspire my own celestial reveries, my mind flying through time and space. Suddenly I am thinking about the first time I was privy to a birds-eye view of the Potomac River, its serpentine bends separating my hometown of Alexandria from D.C. I remember the first feeling of flying through clouds, spying icebergs in the north Atlantic, admiring a dramatic sunrise framed in an oval window, the flickering lights of a strange sprawling metropolis.

And there’s the joy of reconnecting with family and friends at the end of a long flight, the serendipitous connections in the air or in waiting lounges. Once when flying to Oman, I was wakened in my window seat by the sheer brightness of the flares shooting up from the Persian Gulf oil rigs below. The passenger next to me, a security consultant for an arms shipment, was convinced I was a spy, offering champagne and banter. Of course I played along. In a small Cape Verde airport, I randomly struck up conversation with a woman who is now a good friend in Paris.

Flight, it becomes clear, is a means of human connection. And this is ultimately what Saint-Exupéry opines as he ponders the very nature of existence. From the sky, he meditates on camaraderie, fellowship and solidarity, concluding: “There is only one true form of wealth, that of human contact.” The airplane’s height above Earth allows him the distance to see the truth. “In my mind’s eye I still have the image of my first night flight in Argentina. It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain. Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness.”

Saint-Exupéry describes his own survival after crashing in the Sahara in 1935 with his mechanic André Prévot in a chapter that is both action-packed and existential. Suffering severe dehydration, they grasp at mirages in semi-delirium. The discovery of a single orange in the wreckage brings “one of the greatest joys of [his] life.” When they are at last rescued by a Bedouin, Saint-Exupéry equates him to “the nobility and generosity” of “Man” himself.

These words were published more than 80 years ago, during the rise of fascism in a Europe at the cusp of the Second World War. To me, they resonate during this time of pandemic, when a unified front is necessary to defeat both disease and the threats to wildlife habitat that will only spawn more deadly zoonotic pandemics. This unity seems fragile, and yet is fundamental in addressing these challenges, alongside the looming menace of climate change that threatens our very existence.

“I wrote ‘Terre des Hommes,’ ” Saint-Exupéry later explained, “to tell men passionately that they were all inhabitants of the same planet, passengers on the same ship.”

Nicklin is a writer based in Paris. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @MaryWNicklin.

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