(CNN) – What do two major national airlines, an American fashion retail brand, a large publicly traded industrial company, a Hollywood film and several award-winning literary works have in common?
They are all tied to the extraordinary legacy of an airline that no longer existed 90 years ago this year.
Despite its relatively short-lived existence from 1918 to 1931, The “Compagnie générale aéropostale”, commonly known simply as Aéropostale, has left an indelible mark on both the civil aviation world and the public imagination.
Right at the end of the First World War, the French aviation pioneer Pierre-Georges Latécoère realized his vision of establishing regular flight connections between Europe and Latin America.
The Aéropostale company was founded at the end of 1918 under the official name “Société des lignes Latécoère”.
Over the next decade, this company would make a tremendous contribution not only to consolidating aviation as an essential service in different parts of the world, but also to becoming synonymous with adventure and fearlessness. The story of Aerópostale is perhaps the last great epic story of the era of exploration.
The long Aéropostale route began in Toulouse in the south of France. From there it crossed the Pyrenees to Barcelona, followed the Spanish Mediterranean coast to Alicante and then on to North Africa, which was under Spanish and French rule at the time.
The line continued south along the Moroccan Atlantic coast with several waypoints: Casablanca, Agadir, Cape Juby / Tarfaya and today’s cities of Dakhla, Nouadhibou and Saint-Louis, until it reached its African terminus in Dakar in Senegal.
Given the restrictions on airplanes at the time, mail was loaded onto ships that spanned the South Atlantic at its narrowest point between West Africa and northeast Brazil.
From there, the Latin American branch of Aéropostale took over. His planes flew the mail to Buenos Aires and beyond. The Argentine capital acted as a hub from which several regional routes arose, carrying airmail across the Andes to Santiago de Chile, north to Paraguay and south to Patagonia.
A magnet for adventurers
This venture was not for the faint of heart. In addition to the dangers of flying in the 1920s, which was a rather dangerous and uncomfortable task, Aéropostale pilots had to traverse vast regions in extreme climatic conditions and without any support infrastructure.
But this could also have been part of the attraction.
The 20,000-foot peaks of the Andes represented a formidable obstacle for the fragile aircraft of the time. In one of the passages of the book, Saint-Exupéry tells the story of his close Aéropostale companion, Henri Guillaumet, who, after his plane crashed on an Andean glacier, told several Spent days on an epic hike through snow and ice. He managed to reach a remote Argentine settlement when he was about to succumb to cold and fatigue.
This type of epic is followed by “Terre des Hommes” (translated into English as “wind, sand and stars”) about Saint-Exupéry’s own flight experience in the Sahara. Pilots had to rely on primitive navigation and often ran the risk of running out of fuel or encountering technical difficulties. Pilots making emergency landings in the desert risked being captured by local nomadic tribes who would then attempt to release them.
This book also contains Saint-Exupéry’s own near-death experience, which he had already made in his time after the Aéropostale after a crash landing in the Egyptian desert. Saint-Exupéry and his co-pilot experienced a grueling desert journey during which they died shortly before thirst before being rescued by a Bedouin tribe.
The French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pictured around 1935. His most famous book is “Le Petit Prince”.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
This pioneering spirit wasn’t just reserved for pilots.
The story of Raymond Galtié is a case in point. Born in the south of France in 1901, he joined the submarine arm of the French Navy as a teenager. After serving during World War I, Galtié left the Navy in 1922 to join Aéropostale, where he worked as a mechanic.
“At that time, mechanics often flew with famous pilots like Mermoz or Saint-Exupéry. They developed close friendships because they spent many hours together in these small, fragile aircraft,” says Sònia Galtié, the recently arrived granddaughter of Raymond Galtié over a treasure trove of old family photos.
This led her to continue researching the life of her grandfather and the Aéropostale. She came across several websites and forums celebrating the memory of the airline and this close community of people dedicated to the advancement of aviation.
Raymond Galtié’s commitment to Aéropostale had a happy ending. He traveled the world, worked in several of the company’s outposts in Latin America and Europe, and later made a successful career with Air France.
However, this was not the fate of the company’s most famous pilots.
Mermoz, Saint-Exupéry and Guillaumet would tragically end their days at the helm of their aircraft in the years following Aéropostale’s death.
The latter two disappeared in the Mediterranean during World War II in 1944 and 1940, presumably due to enemy action (a plane wreck found near Marseille in 2003 has since been clearly identified as a Saint Exupéry plane).
Mermoz, meanwhile, lost while crossing the South Atlantic in December 1936 in an incident some attributed to sabotage, although engine reliability issues could have been a more likely cause.
In May 1930, the French aviator Jean Mermoz (center) flew as the first pilot from Rio de Janeiro over the Andes to Santiago.
STF / AFP via Getty Images
A long-lasting legacy
Although he was inextricably linked to the aviation industry all his life and built one of the largest aerospace companies in France, the Groupe Latécoère, which still exists today, sold the airmail business to Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont in 1927 to Pierre-Georges Latécoère. a French financier and politician who gave it a new name: “Compagnie Générale Aéropostale”.
By 1930, Aéropostale had developed into a massive logistics company, transporting 32 million letters per year over 17,000 kilometers by air and sea (Aéropostale also operated a fleet of eight ships) that spanned three continents.
In the same year, Jean Mermoz, one of the company’s legendary pilots, would close the Atlantic gap at the tip of a Latécoère 28 seaplane loaded with 122 kilos of mail. It took Mermoz 19 hours and 35 minutes to fly between Senegal and Brazil. Although regular crossings by ship continued, Mermoz had shown that a letter from France could reach Santiago de Chile in just four days.
But shortly after Aéropostale had reached its peak, it suddenly folded up.
The financial crisis of 1929 had a serious impact on the fixed and political instability in Brazil and Argentina. In 1931 the French government rejected an appeal for financial aid and Aéropostale was soon liquidated. The assets were taken over by the group of companies that would later become Air France.
However, the Aéropostale brand was retained by Air France, who used it for some of their postal and freight operations, which until 2000 operated jointly with the French postal service (La Poste).
La Poste then took full ownership of the business, which was renamed Europe Airpost before being sold again, this time to an Irish company called ASL Aviation Group, which continues to operate passenger and cargo flights under the ASL Airlines brand to this day.
Aéropostale’s legacy lives on in the southern hemisphere.
The company’s Argentine network, known as Aeroposta Argentina, continued to operate after its European parent company’s death, as it provided the country’s only civilian regular air service. It would eventually be nationalized and merged with other airlines to form Aerolineas Argentinas in 1946.
In addition, Aéropostale’s popularity – perhaps due to the colorful personalities of the people involved in its operation and the extraordinary literary work they have left behind – has pushed the boundaries of the aviation world to inspire the naming of a U.S. fashion chain (but that doesn’t matter to do with the original Aéropostale).
Nothing beats reality.