Little Prince author's death plane found in Med

7th April 2004, Comments 0 comments

MARSEILLE, France, April 7 (AFP) - A French underwater salvage team has discovered the remains of the plane piloted by the author of "The Little Prince", Antoine de Saint-Exupery, six decades after his mysterious disappearance, state researchers said Wednesday.

MARSEILLE, France, April 7 (AFP) - A French underwater salvage team has discovered the remains of the plane piloted by the author of "The Little Prince", Antoine de Saint-Exupery, six decades after his mysterious disappearance, state researchers said Wednesday.

The pieces of the famous writer and aviator's Lockheed Lightning P38 aircraft, which vanished July 31, 1944 during a wartime reconnaissance mission, were found off the coast of the Mediterranean city of Marseille, the Culture Ministry's Department of Sub-aquatic and Submarine Archeological Research said.

The discovery is a galvanising moment for France, which had long speculated as to the fate of Saint-Exupery, an aristocratic adventurer whose life and books turned him into one of the country's biggest heroes.

"The Little Prince", his edifying tale about an interstellar-travelling little boy who recounts his experiences to an aviator he meets in the Sahara Desert, brought him posthumous international fame.

The book, first published in New York in English in 1943 and since translated into more than 100 languages, is one of the best-selling titles on the planet, after the Bible and Das Kapital by Karl Marx.

Saint-Exupery, a veteran pilot who helped establish Latin America's Aeropostale air delivery service in the late 1920s, went missing shortly after flying out of his base on the French island of Corsica in good weather to photograph parts of southern France in preparation for the Allied landings there.

The pilot, then aged 44, never returned, and, until recently, it was not known whether his plane went down in the mountainous back country on the mainland, or somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea in between.

In May 2000, a professional French diver found the remains of a P38 plane in 70 metres (230 feet) of water off Marseille -- in the same area that a fisherman two years earlier had brought to the surface a bracelet inscribed "Saint-Ex".

"The zone containing the pieces was very large, one kilometre long and 400 metres wide," the diver, Luc Vanrell, said.

Another diver who is also an amateur aviation expert, Philippe Castellano, said the combination of the bracelet and his information on the 42 P38 planes that had gone down in southern France convinced him "it could only have been Saint-Ex's plane".

But a state ban on further dives in the area delayed further searches until October 2003, when a contracted salvage team recovered the pieces from the aircraft for the culture ministry's researchers.

One of them bore a manufacturer's number, 2734, that researchers finally confirmed corresponded to the military number given to Saint-Exupery's plane -- 42-68223.

"I had tears in my eyes when I saw the number," Pierre Becker, the head of Geocean, one of the engineering companies involved, said.

Castellano said the discovery was a dream for historians, even if it did not explain why the plane came down.

"There was no bent propellor, no bullet holes.... Looking at the pieces, we are thinking of a hypothesis of a near-vertical dive at high speed. But that's just a guess," he said.

The head of the culture ministry department that announced the news of the find, Patrick Granjean, said it was now formally established that the author's plane had gone down off Marseille.

But, he added: "We don't know why -- we probably never will."


© AFP

                                                 Subject:  French news

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