I’m finding that with each new clipping that I discover in my father’s scrapbook opens a historical path that I never knew existed. It’s not as simple as I first thought when I was looking through his book for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I did appreciate the wealth of historical facts, but was too naïve to understand the importance of the information contained within these pages. My mindset has changed since I wrote the first blog on Vincent Burnelli and continues to evolve with each passing article. The story of Jean Mermoz is no different, and please join me while I interpret the facts and create a timeline of this alluring pioneer! And I thank my father for introducing me to these people, the historical aviators of the past for which aviation today wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their significant contributions.
A Couzinet 70 Arc-en-Ciel III, aka “Rainbow,” shown taking off in the above news clipping dated by my father, January 1933, provided by Times Wide World Photos, Paris Bureau. I didn’t recognize the French word “Arc-en-Ciel” in the description and found the title a little confusing regarding a rainbow. I thought, how strange to mention a “Rainbow” in a black and white photo. But soon enough, and with a little research, I realized the English translation for “Arc-en-Ciel” is “Rainbow” and was then able to identify the aircraft correctly. And to think, the clue was in the title all along. Now, let us return to the article, shall we?
Mermoz pilots the trimotor Couzinet 70 landplane from Istres, France to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a return flight back setting a new world record in the flying time of 54 hours and 33 minutes. This monoplane’s sleek design was ahead of its time, giving France an edge over other rivals. Plus, it demonstrated the reliability needed in making regular transatlantic airmail service possible and is Mermoz’s favorite for long overwater flights.
This simple news clipping that my father saved contains a bountiful wealth of aviation history that I find troublesome as to where to continue. I thought about focusing on the aircraft, the Couzinet 70, and the designer Rene Couzinet behind this beautiful machine, but I strongly feel that I need to explore the life of Jean Mermoz. He is an extraordinary individual, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about this fascinating man! So, find a comfortable chair, get settled in, and join me on this marvelous journey.
Recognized as a national hero and often referred to as the “French Lindbergh,” Jean Mermoz was born on December 9, 1901, in Aubenton, Northern France. He was very reserved as a child and was mostly interested in literature or writing poems. No one would ever assume that he would be interested in becoming a pilot, but that all changed when he enlisted into the French Army in 1920 at age 18. His fascination with the pilots and aircraft of World War I led to his desire to become one himself, and in 1921 he received his pilot’s license. After training in France, he is posted overseas to Syria later that year. By the end of 1922, he has flown over 600 hours in 18 months and noted for surviving a plane crash in the North African Desert. He spent four days in the desert before rescuing, where his keen survival skills kept him alive. The next two years are hard for him, and with each passing month, military life finally becomes intolerable. In March 1924, the military demobilized him from the Army as a decorated pilot. He sets his sights on becoming a pilot for a private aviation company, but things didn’t as smoothly as he planned.
Finding himself out of work in Paris with little money to his name without any responses from his resume, he has no choice but to take odd jobs and rely upon soup kitchens for food. But through his perseverance and strong will, and maybe a bit of luck if you believe in such, he finally receives a letter of interest. It is from Didier Daurat, the Director of Operations at Lignes Aeriennes Latecoere (Latecoere Airlines), requesting an interview. The interview went well, but the first flight test didn’t go as well as he hoped to impress his potential new boss. Mermoz is 23 at this time, is a decorated military pilot, and has enough self-esteem for a room full of pilots, which led to quite the aerial display of his aerobatic skills. Daurat is not impressed and quoted, saying, ” I don’t need circus artists, just bus drivers.” But his passion for aviation did impress Daurat and is offered the job. A turning point in Mermez’s life that he desperately needed where he once referred to in his own words, “his life as an outcast ends.”
In 1925, Mermoz pilots World War I surplus Breguet 14 biplanes on the first Latecoere Airmail routes connecting Toulouse, France to Barcelona, Spain, Casablanca, Morocco, and Dakar, Senegal. These World War I surplus biplanes are purchased by Latecoere and fitted with podded containers mounted under each side’s lower wing to carry the mail bags. The Breguet 14 is mostly reliable, and Mermoz is honored for flying 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) and 800 hours of flight time logged in a single year. But in 1926, Mermoz develops engine trouble while en route with mail delivery from Casablanca to Dakar and makes an emergency landing in the Mauritanian Desert. A group of Nomadic Moors capture him and hold him prisoner until a paid ransom is received. Again, luck seems to be on Mr. Mermoz’s side or is incredibly skillful at taking control of the current situation. Most airmen forced down by mechanical failure are executed, but he survives captivity after a few days and is released when the ransom money is received. During this time, it is a common hazard of the job and a hazard that I wouldn’t like ever to experience, nor would I want anyone else to.
In 1927, Latecoere Airlines started replacing the Breguet 14 biplane with its design, the more reliable Latecoere 25 monoplane (Late 25), and changed its name to Compagnie Generale Aeropostale, aka Aeropostale. Mermoz switched to the South America route and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he would set up airmail service for Aeropostale between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. After accumulating flight time in the new Late 25, Mermoz pilots the first successful air crossing with a seaplane of 3,000 kilometers from Dakar, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil, in 1928. He completes the first South America night flight from Natal to Buenos Aires in the same year. The land route was challenging terrain and unmarked by any lighted beacon, but a few bonfires did help with navigation along the flight path. This successful night flight alleviated the limiting daylight only operations and had proven that airmail service could continue safely at night.
On September 18, 1928, he made his first attempt to shorten the Argentina-Chile route by establishing a flight path over the Andes Cordillera that would eliminate the 1600 kilometer detour typically flown to avoid the mountain range. Mermoz and his mechanic Alexandre Collenot set out to explore the terrain from Buenos Aires and establish a flight path over the Andes suitable for future postal lines within the operational ceiling limitations of their Late 25 of 4500m. On this first crossing, he decides to follow the Trans-Andean railway route to interpret the landscape and completes the flight over the Andes without any problems. He returned three days later, following the same course, and landed victorious in Buenos Aires on September 21. Once again, Mermoz proves his capabilities through his relentless determination and is ambitious for future challenges!
In a matter of no time, a new mission presented itself on February 28, 1929. Mermoz is assigned to fly his Late 25, accompanied by Collenot from Buenos Aires to San Antonio Oeste to charter the International Aeronautical Federation’s cofounder, Henry de La Vaulx, to Santiago. From there, Mermoz pilots the plane to Plaza Huincul, Neuquen, for a short layover, and then to cross the Andes on a new flight path farther South near the city of Concepcion. While en route, he develops engine failure due to a carburetor issue and has no choice but to make a forced landing on a narrow platform with a sheer drop off at 2800m. Not an easy task for the most skilled pilots and unattainable for most, Mermoz proves his exceptional ingenuity to stop the plane before falling into the ravine. He and Collenot make the needed repairs, probably a carburetor icing issue, and in an hour later, land safely in Santiago.
Not satisfied with the route he had just taken, Mermoz decides to explore for new flight paths further North for a return trip back to Buenos Aires. On March 6, 1929, he and Collenot flew several hundred kilometers, scouting the terrain and plotting potential passages over the Andes. After a few hours in the air and their field book full of notes, both men land safely in Copiapo. Unsatisfied with the previous day’s expedition, Mermoz and Collenot set out on March 9 to continue to locate a direct air route between the passes of Come Caballos and San Francisco, Argentina. They take off from the Chamonate aerodrome in Copiapo and start searching for unrestricted access through the Andes. The flying is difficult and seems almost impossible at times, but through his unmitigated determination, Mermoz spots a free passage rising to 4500m located on the side of Cerro Copiapo. He realizes the ceiling limitation of his Late 25, and the plane struggles to exceed 4200m. Still, in true Mermoz fashion and quick thinking, he takes advantage of the updrafts near the mountain walls and manages to climb to the necessary altitude. He thought he made it for an instant, but the turbulent winds pushed his exasperated plane towards the other side of the slope in a matter of seconds. With the engine at full throttle, but powerless against the wind’s velocity, Mermoz knows he is out of choices and immediately needs to land if they are to survive. He throttles back on the engine and chooses the best location for a hard landing on an unfavorable snow-covered area with an altitude of 4000m. The airplane is severely damaged, and Mermoz knows they need to make the necessary repairs for any chance of getting off this plateau alive. A quote from a letter Jean Mermoz wrote to Vova de Martinoff dated April 1929 describes this disastrous event.
“Three days and two nights at 4000 m altitude, 16 to 26 degrees below zero, starving (my mechanic having forgotten the reserve food), repairing our landing gear very slightly sagged on one side and our tail unit a little torn off on a ledge of rocks. Water pipes burst from the cold. Repairs made with chatterton, canvas tape and enamel. Take off after 3 km of jumps over three ravines. Ceiling of the device maximum 4500 m. Full engine speed 1580 turns or 330 HP. I had spotted in advance the places where I had to touch the wheels to make the planned leaps. Everything went well and 1 hour 40 minutes later I landed at Copiapó, my starting point. Three days later, I left for Santiago then, crossing the Cordillera, I brought the aircraft back to its starting point …”
He and Collenot landed at Copiapo on March 12, around noon in his Late 25 in deplorable condition. Both men were almost unrecognizable, weakened by both the cold and hunger, but still managed to stay conscious for the hour-plus flight back to the Chamonate aerodrome. “It’s a miracle,” one airman shouts out when he can’t believe what he sees. Do my eyes deceive me, he thought? The other airmen rush over to see for themselves. It’s true, they’re alive, and to survive for three days without a trace is a real miracle because they all know it’s almost impossible for anyone to return from the Cordillera after missing for so long. The Chilean Army sent a team to investigate the crash site and to confirm this unbelievable feat. They returned with some of the aircraft’s debris at the location Mermoz told them about, and the myth of the “Archangel” is born!
Aeropostale receives news that Mermoz and Collenot have returned safely to Copiapo, but in a badly damaged Late 25 that proves to be incapable of flights over the Andes Cordillera. The company immediately acquires five Potez 25s for the newly plotted Buenos Aires-Santiago Line to replace the inadequate Late 25. The Potez 25 is a biplane built initially for observation and bombing purposes but quickly found useful in civil aviation due to its high ceiling altitude of 7200m. It has a range of 1260m with a payload of 500kg perfect for the new air routes.
After recovering from his accident, Mermoz accumulates flight time in the Potez 25 with multiple crossing for Aeropostal. He invites Henri Guillaumet, a friend he met previously in the military, to accompany him on July 14 and 18 to take over the Cordillera’s new flight path establishing the Buenos Aires-Santiago Line. Mermoz sets his sights on future quests across the South Atlantic. At the same time, Guillaumet continues to fly this dangerous route for 393 flights, including a similar accident as Mermoz on June 13, 1930, on his 22nd crossing.
On May 12, 1930, a Late 28-3, F-AJNQ, named “Comte de la Vaulx” in honor of French aeronaut Henry de la Vaulx and fitted with pontoons established the first postal link across the South Atlantic piloted by no other than Jean Mermoz. A fully loaded seaplane with 122 kilograms (269 pounds) of mail and enough fuel for a 30-hour flight leaves Saint-Louis, Senegal, en route to Natal, Brazil. Guiding Mermoz on this historic flight is his co-pilot and navigator Jean Dabry, and radio navigator Leopold Martial Emile Gimie. They fly southwest across the South Atlantic ocean with a planned flight path of about 3100 kilometers. The flight crew completes this mission in 19 hours, 35 minutes, as reported by the US Centennial of Flight Commission, and becomes the first non-stop flight to cross the South Atlantic! Previously, boats were the only option for mail delivery between France and South America, taking an average of 5 to 6 days, but this commemorated flight significantly shortened that delivery time.
Mermoz and his crewmates became national heroes, in their home towns and Argentina, and set a new hydroplane record for flying the longest distance in a straight line. His very close friend and fellow Aeropostal pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is quoted saying, “Pioneering thus, Mermoz had cleared the desert, the mountains, the night, and the sea.”
After the much-deserved celebrations and waiting for enough new mail to fully load the seaplane, the three crewmembers depart Natal on June 8 for a return flight to Senegal. After 14 hours into the flight, the engine develops an oil leak, and Mermoz decides to make a forced landing in the ocean near a dispatch boat named “Phocee” about 900 kilometers from their destination. With the mail safely transferred to the ship, they try to tow the seaplane behind the ship. The aircraft is eventually lost at sea when it becomes too difficult for the boat to pull.
In 1933, the formation of Air France began from the nationalizing of Aeropostale and four other airlines due to economic and political troubles along with the continuing worldwide depression. During this transition and distancing himself from any controversy, Mermoz starts a series of long-distance flight known as “Raids” by the French.
We have come full circle to my inspiration for this post’s title and a time when my father first saw that news clipping of Jean Mermoz in his Couzinet 70 Arc-en-Ciel during one of his “Raids.” I won’t trouble you by recapping the details of this event that I’ve already covered at the beginning of this post, and I thank you for your commitment so far. I find Jean Mermoz awe-inspiring and understand why he made it into my father’s scrapbook, so let’s continue.
After completing his short series of “Raids,” in 1933, Mermoz moves to Buenos Aires with his close friend Saint-Exupery to help set up new flight lines for the newly developing Aeroposta Argentina, later to become Aerolineas Argentina. The two men go on to be considered the essential people in the foundation of Argentine Commercial Aviation history. Mermoz is also appointed as General Inspector by Air France in the same year. During 1934 and through 1936, Mermoz pilots private expeditions using Latecoere 300 seaplanes and completes over 20 voyages.
The Late 300 seaplane’s sole design was to transport mail on the South Atlantic line between Dakar, Senegal, and Natal, Brazil, for Aeropostale in 1931. The first flight went well, but it sank shortly after in the Etang de Berre in December due to a centering issue. At the beginning of 1932, Latecoere rebuilds the aircraft and names it “Croix-du-Sud” or Southern Cross and is operational in October. The seaplane, or more commonly known as the “flying-boat,” is a monoplane design featuring a parasol-wing with four 650 hp Hispano-Suiza 12NBr water-cooled engines mounted in tandem pairs. The sheer size is impressive with a 44.20m wingspan, a length of 25.86m, a height of 6.50m, and a gross weight of 23,000 kilograms. The ceiling altitude is 4,600m, with a cruising speed of 210km/h at 4,450 kilometers. On December 31, 1933, pilot Jean Bonnot sets an international record in the “Croix-du-Sud” for covering a 3679km non-stop flight in just over 23 hours in Senegal.
On the early morning of December 7, 1936, Jean Mermoz takes off from Dakar piloting the Late 300 “Croix-du-Sud” soon to be his 24th crossing of the South Atlantic. The aircraft proudly displays the new Air France colors, and Mermoz feels comfortable knowing that his friend Henri Guillaumet is overseeing the operation as base chief. Five flight crewmembers onboard this flight include the pilot Mermoz, the co-pilot Alexandre Pichodou, the flight engineer Jean Lavidalie, the navigator Henri Ezan, and the radio operator Edgar Cruveilher.
Things didn’t go as smoothly as Mermoz hoped, and he immediately returned to the hydro base with engine trouble around 6 am. Mermoz radioed in “one of the variable-pitch propellers is not going fast,” and would like to switch to a different plane after having the mail transferred to land. Guillaumet informs him that no other aircraft is available, and his only option is to make the necessary repairs to the “Croix-du-Sud.” Knowing the importance of the mail delivery schedule, Mermoz decides on a quick repair to get back into the air as quickly as possible. The repairs don’t take long, and as he boards the plane, he says, “quick, let’s not waste time anymore.” The aircraft departs just before 7 am and things seem to be ok for the moment. Around 10 am later that morning; the Dakar base receives a radio message that everything is fine.
In an unforeseeable event, the base receives a brief radio transmission from Mermoz at 10:47 am, “Right rear engine cut,” then cuts out abruptly. A search and rescue mission leaves immediately, but are unsuccessful in locating the aircraft or crewmembers. The most logical assumption is that the right rear engine’s reducer ruptured, causing the propeller’s release from its axis. The result would have badly damaged the fuselage rendering the flight controls unresponsive or completely severing the tail section. Either situation is an inevitable catastrophic failure.