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Capitaine Vengeur

80 years ago this week: Alive !

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This looooong post (sorry!) is intended to commemorate the week, June 13 to 19, 1930, when my grand-uncle accidentally became a legend in the history of aviation. Henri Guillaumet, his name was, was a pioneer of the French Aéropostale (Air Mail service). Flying old Bréguet 14, he had opened many commercial routes during the late 1920s over hostile Saharian Africa. Later in 1929, flying Latécoère 25 or Potez 25, he was entrusted one of the most hazardous route of the whole South American continent: Buenos Aires – Santiago de Chile, across the Andes (a route just opened by his colleague and friend, the fearless Jean Mermoz). But he soon learnt through own experience the best tricks to safely cross the Cordillera about twice each week (using updrafts that he called "Taking the lift", then cruising at 7000 m. alt. without radio, heating, or oxygen).


On Friday 13 (sic!), June 1930, entering Southern winter, Guillaumet was flying his 92nd mission across the Andes for the Company (Santiago de Chile –> Mendoza, Argentina). Trapped for hours by violent winds and running out of fuel, he had to emergency-land his Potez 25 next to a frozen mountain lake (Laguna Diamante, 3288 m. alt.). For two days, he waited in his overturned plane for the blizzard to die down, sheltered under mailbags. Then, having seen aircraft passing over without seeing him, he let a farewell message in the wreckage, and began his journey East across the snowy and windy mountains, without any food and without any other protection than his leather coat against a temperature under -30 °C (-22 °F).


He walked for four days and four nights long, crossing three passes, without sleeping, or even pausing for more than some minutes to avoid freezing on the spot. On day 4, he heard a rooster singing far away. On the morning of day 5, June 19, he finally could escape "the White Hell" and reach the nearest inhabited valley, falling exhausted some dozens meters away to the first hut. The frightened local Argentinian Indian shepherds he met first couldn't believe that the mountain in winter could give back a man still alive: "Es imposible!". After all, his face was so burnt by ice-reflection, his shaking bare hands so black with frostbite, that he barely looked human. There he learnt that he had already been considered as lost.


During his whole martyrdom walk, Henri Guillaumet behaved not as a poor wreck declined to the Age of Ice and struggling only for his own survival, but as a Man carrying the legacies and duties of Evolution on his sole shoulders, through the icy wilderness and against all odds – and himself carried by this exclusively human gift whose name is Hope. While recovering, he said with the pride of Man to his colleague and friend, the writer Antoine de St-Exupéry: "What I have done, I swear to you, no animal would have ever done it." St-Exupéry also reported these quotes: "My friends, if they believe I'm still alive, believe that I'm walking. My wife believes that I'm walking. I'm a bastard if I don't walk." and "What saves you is to take a step, and another one. It is always the same step with which you restart."


In spite of having lost his gloves, this incredibly mighty force didn't even lose a phalanx or toe to frost in this adventure. This feat has been portrayed in Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Wings of Courage" (1995, the first 3D-Imax fiction movie ever), with my grand-uncle interpreted by Craig Sheffer as the main character (and Val Kilmer as Jean Mermoz).


The plane and mailbags were eventually recovered in summer (December 1930). Many envelopes still exist at some collectors, displaying the delay stamp. The five French Potez 25 allocated to the Andes crossings were later given to the Aeroposta Argentina, who used one of them at least until 1967! One of the Argentinian passes Henri Guillaumet had crossed, and her associated needle, were named after him: Paso Guillaumet and Aguja Guillaumet.


After this accident, Guillaumet, now nicknamed "The Angel of the Cordillera", flew 301 more missions across the Andes. In July 1939, now working for Air France, he also broke a record of distance over North Atlantic on a six-engined flying boat Latécoère 521 (New York –> Biscarosse, 5875 kms without stops, including 2300 kms with one motor less).


On November 27, 1940, Henri Guillaumet conveyed from Marseilles the new Vichy French prefect for Syria. His four-engined Farman never reached Beirut, his radioman's last message reporting that they were under attack and taking damage. My grand-uncle was very unlucky about the route and date, for on the same day, a minor aeronaval battle occured off Sardinia between the British and Italian Navies (Battle of Cape Teulada). Although his death was first and is still commonly credited to the Italians, it is now sometimes believed that a British FAA pilot could have shot him down after seeing his Vichy French roundels, fearing that this evil Axis puppet hidden under neutral markings could report the position of the British fleet.


Aged 38, he would have deserved a different and later end. He was a great airman, and a great man. :salute:


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That's a fascinating story! What a tragic end for a legend, still you can be very proud of him and one day if you haven't already done so, perhaps you could visit the pass and mountain named in his honour.

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His home village was named Bouy (birthplace of my family), which happens to be an available airfield in OFF (East of Rheims). Several world records in flight duration or range were broken in 1908-1910 from that field, located next to a military camp, mainly by Farman planes. It is said that it's at the age of 6 that my grand-uncle felt in love with aviation, seeing these incredible flying birdcages. Accidentally, his own fate was to die flying a Farman plane. Next time you will fly a mission from or over Bouy airfield, have a thought for him.


"The mail must pass" (motto of the Aéropostale)

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Thanks a lot for sharing! Not exactly your uncle but I'm pretty convinced that Guillaumet inspired this...


Loose translation: "Some say you have to be especially brave to do this job. Above all, I believe you have to be especially crazy. When the sky is blue, when our look touches the horizon, we are giants liberated from the chains of gravity. But when the snow falls, when the wind blows, when our crying eyes can't catch but vague shadows from the landscape, the ground roughly remembers itself to us. Hard. Cold. So close."


If you compare the art with the pictures of the recovered plane in my post, you can see that it is the same Potez 25 "F-AJDZ". Probably also the same pilot, but it could also depict the first crossing of the Andes on the route Buenos Aires - Santiago de Chile by Jean Mermoz. The pictures of my grand-uncle don't really display this long face with thin nose, the pretty boy in the Aéropostale was rather Jean "Archangel" Mermoz.


During the last two or three years, we have had in France an impressive release of comics about aviation, from many editors and with many eras and areas explored: Normandie-Niemen, Free French Air Forces, USMC F-4s in Vietnam, German night fighters and Soviet women pilots on the Russian Front, German and Italian WW2 pilots over Malta and Libya, Malvinas 1982 on Argie side, fictional operations from the carrier Charles de Gaulle, pre-WW2 flying circus acrobat airmen going to war, first flights of aviation and competition for the Channel crossing, beginnings of the Royal Flying Corps... I probably forget many of them, it's understandable I have missed this one, but I have seen this graphic style already in some others of the last released books. Some are very good products. I don't understand why this frenzy in aerial publications, for before, we barely had one or two series every five years.

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