Wreck of hero author's plane found

SIXTY years after the mysterious disappearance of one of France’s most beloved authors, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French researchers said yesterday they have identified the wreckage of the warplane he was piloting over the Mediterranean when he vanished.

The author of The Little Prince disappeared on 31 July, 1944, on a wartime reconnaissance mission over southern France.

Saint-Exupry’s last secret mission was to collect data on German troop movements in the Rhone Valley, but the 44-year-old author’s plane vanished in the night.

Repeated searches of the coast failed to turn up the aircraft, leaving the author’s disappearance shrouded in mystery.

Working under the auspices of the French culture ministry, a team of researchers has identified several pieces, notably part of the engine and an aileron, which a French scuba team pulled from the wreckage of a Lockheed Lightning P38 discovered near the southern city of Marseilles in 2000 by Luc Vanrell, a professional diver.

Specialists have determined it was the plane flown by Saint-Exupry, Captain Frdric Solano, of the French air force, said yesterday. "It’s a big discovery," he added.

The pieces, which were recovered in the autumn by the underwater engineering firm Comex, were taken apart and cleaned. On a casing panel of the turbocharger, researchers found the plane’s serial number - 2734 - which had been engraved by hand, followed by the letter L for left. "These correspond to the manufacturing number of the factory which aircraft constructor Lockheed affixed to its planes when building started," said a spokesman for the culture ministry.

Checks with the United States air force showed that this number corresponded with the military license number, 42-68223, belonging to Saint-Exupry’s plane.

"Tears came into my eyes when I saw the number," said Pierre Becker, the head of Geocean, an underwater engineering firm that helped locate the plane.

For all his love of aviation, Saint-Exupry was far from being a flying ace. Dreamy and absent-minded, he had suffered several crashes in which negligence had played an important role.

He was overweight and - the rules stipulated - 13 years too old when he insisted on getting into the cockpit of the challenging Lightning. The writer was also in poor health and was known to be depressed when he undertook the flight, leading some to speculate he might even have committed suicide.

Strangely, Saint-Exupry prophesied his own death, saying: "I shall end up a cross in the Mediterranean."

A respected author and aviation pioneer, Saint-Exupry came to international prominence after the publication of The Little Prince in 1943, which he also illustrated. Written in English, the fantastical tale of a small boy’s experiences as he travels through the universe was only translated into French in 1946. It has since been translated into more than 100 languages and remains one of the world’s most popular children’s books for adults.

The mysterious disappearance of the great humanist writer and philosopher fuelled the legend surrounding a man whom many in France consider a national hero. Speculation about his fate heightened in 1998 when a silver identity bracelet, entwined with seaweed and a fragment of a flying suit, and engraved with the names of Saint-Exupry, his Argentine wife, Consuelo, and his New York publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, was trawled from the sea by a Marseilles fisherman.

The discovery of the bracelet triggered a feud over its authenticity and relaunched the old debate as to whether the writer was shot down, committed suicide or simply crashed the plane.

Its discovery also spurred several professional divers to continue the search for Saint-Exupry’s plane near Marseilles, in an area of the seabed which is littered with wartime aviation wreckage. Among them was Mr Vanrell, then 41, one of the most knowledgeable divers in the area.

Some 80 metres below the surface of the Mediterranean, just off the Ile de Riou and a stone’s throw from the coast, he found the wreck of what he believed to be Saint-Exupry’s Lightning. The wreckage was tangled with that of a German Messerschmitt, making the vast puzzle facing researchers even more tantalisingly challenging.

However, the mystery persists as to why Saint-Exupry’s plane came down on a clear day after he took off from his base on the island of Corsica. Damage to the metal of the plane’s turbocharger shows that the plane was almost vertical and travelling at great speed when it entered the water. No bullet holes were found, nor was there evidence of a bent propeller, researchers said.