The Late 25 was one of the more successful early passenger planes of Pierre Latecoere.
The Lat‚coere 26 flew the mail from Toulouse, France to Saint Louis, Senegal in 1925.
The eight-passenger Late 28 became a mainstay of Pierre Latecoereďs airline.
Latecoere and “the Line”
At the end of World War I, the planebuilders of Europe found new opportunities in commercial aviation. The war had torn up the railroads of northern France and Belgium, greatly hindering travel by train. But the great cities of London and Paris were separated by just 200 miles (322 kilometers), placing a flight between them within easy reach of the aircraft of the day. France also had extensive interests in North Africa, across a Mediterranean Sea that could easily be crossed by way of Spain. The planebuilder Pierre Latecoere came to the forefront while pursuing such prospects.
Latecoere was a French industrialist, based in the city of Toulouse. He initially had contributed to the war effort by manufacturing munitions. In 1917, he turned to the assembly of aircraft, building more than 800 fighters under license to the British firm of Salmson. He also began to design and build airplanes of his own. These included some of the first airliners, which carried up to 10 passengers. He won a strong position in the realm of seaplanes and flying boats. Several early craft of the 1920s had poor safety records, but his five-passenger Late 17 and the Late 25 were more successful. A mail version, the Late 26, also entered general use. The eight-passenger Late 28 became a mainstay of his airline.
He named his airline Lignes Aeriennes Latecoere, often called “the Line.” It initiated commercial air service between Toulouse and Barcelona, Spain, late in 1918, just six weeks after World War I ended. Continuing down Spain's Mediterranean coast, Latecoere reached the city of Alicante in Spain two months later and continued onward to Rabat, Morocco, in March 1919. In September, he initiated regular service to Casablanca.
This connection between Casablanca and Toulouse took two days, with a number of intermediate stops. Latecoere used Breguet aircraft at first, but early in 1920, he replaced them with his own flying boats. By September he was offering daily service to Morocco. He also launched additional trans-Mediterranean flights from Alicante to Algiers and Oran in Algeria, where many French people lived. In 1922 he began service within North Africa itself, serving a route from Casablanca to Oran. Three years later, he pushed down the western coast of Africa to reach Dakar, Senegal in French West Africa.
The route crossed the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro, where tribesmen were bitterly hostile. Spain had built forts in the area, and Latecoere built airfields close to these strongholds. Still, they didn't help when an engine quit and a plane was forced down in the desert. Latecoere ordered his pilots to fly in pairs, so that one could rescue the other. He employed friendly Arabs to ride on the flights and to serve as interpreters. He also made it known that he was prepared to pay ransom for the safe return of downed pilots. These measures helped, but what really solved the problem was the introduction of new and more reliable aircraft that were less likely to experience engine failure.
As Latecoere mastered the deserts of Africa, he also pitted his men and aircraft against the jungles of South America. He started early in 1925 with a test flight from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires. It required six stops and took 36 hours, while covering a straight-line distance of 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). A similar flight reached Recife, on Brazil's northeast coast, with three stops. Anticipating a serious commitment to South America, Latecoere obtained financial support from a wealthy banker in Brazil, Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont. This financier increased his stake until he took control of the Line in 1927. He gave it the new name of Aeropostale, reflecting its continuing strong involvement in airmail. Pierre Latecoere abandoned the airline he had founded and returned to building aircraft in Toulouse.
Aeropostale soon spread its wings anew. Late in 1927 it launched a weekly service from Rio de Janeiro to Natal near Recife, and to Buenos Aires. That city also became an airline center as the company set up a subsidiary, Aeroposta Argentina. It crossed the southern continent, reaching Asuncion, Paraguay, and, in 1929, Santiago on Chile's Pacific coast. Other services connected Bahia Blanca, south of Buenos Aires, with the oil-producing center of Comodoro Rivadavia in the far south. Operations near the Andes carried their own perils. Winds at times topped 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour), blowing aircraft about like leaves in a hurricane.
With operations well established both in South America and down the western African coast, the next step was to link the two domains. The first such service linked Toulouse and Buenos Aires. Taking a total of eight days, a destroyer crossed the South Atlantic, with air service resuming upon reaching South America. However, there was much interest in an all-air connection. The South Atlantic was at its narrowest—1,890 miles (3,042 kilometers)—between Dakar in French West Africa and Natal, Brazil. Winds were generally light; clear weather made navigation relatively easy, and the island of Fernando de Noronha, 250 miles (402 kilometers) from Natal, was conveniently located for use as a refueling stop.
In May 1930, he took a Latecoere 28 flying boat across the South Atlantic, flying from Dakar to Natal in slightly less than 20 hours. However, his plane went down on the return trip, though Mermoz himself survived. Better aircraft again proved to be the answer. Early in 1933, Mermoz flew a Couzinet Type 70 landplane from Dakar to Natal, covering the distance in less than 15 hours.
These early flights were part of a rivalry between France and Germany, as both nations sought to offer service across the South Atlantic. Distances along that route were shorter than those of the North Atlantic, while the weather was considerably milder. Germany was first, spanning this southern ocean in 1929 with an enormous flying boat, the Dornier Do X. It had 12 engines and carried 157 passengers, but proved impractical for routine use. Germany also flew to South America in a dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin. That country also spanned the South Atlantic by stationing ships along the route to refuel seaplanes and launch them by catapult to continue onward. By 1935, the Germans were flying from Berlin to Rio in as little as three days.
Meanwhile, Aeropostale had fallen into difficulties. Its patron, Bouilloux-Lafort, became financially overextended during the Great Depression. In 1931, the airline went bankrupt; it continued to operate on a shoestring, though its days clearly were numbered. In 1933 it joined with four other French airlines to form a single national carrier: Air France. This airline shut down in 1940 when that nation fell to Nazi conquest. It reemerged after the war and again grew strong with financial support from the government in Paris.
The firm of Latecoere remains in business to this day, still headquartered in Toulouse. It serves as a manufacturing center for aircraft parts. It thus has long survived its founder, Pierre Latecoere, who died in 1943. In addition, the Line made a permanent contribution to aviation through the writings of one of its pilots—Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
He presented the romance of flight as one who had lived it. In Africa, he allowed his skin to burn dark and flew repeatedly to negotiate with chiefs of the Berber tribes. In South America he faced the deadly winds from the Andes. He wrote books titled Southern Mail, Night Flight, Flight to Arras, and Wind, Sand and Stars. His book for children, The Little Prince, is still read and appreciated. In this fashion, the influence of the Line lives on.
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Rumbold, Richard, and Stewart, Margaret. The Winged Life: A Portrait of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Poet and Airman. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953.