10 Great Pilots
Machines alone could not have pushed the airplane forward.
- By Patricia Trenner
- Air & Space magazine, March 2003
(Page 6 of 7)
In early 1930, Aéropostale looked to bridge the Atlantic. Mermoz, in a new Latécoère 28 float-equipped monoplane, took off on May 12 from St. Louis, Senegal, with a navigator, a radio operator, and a load of mail. As night fell, they flew into a series of waterspouts that rose into stormy clouds. In Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1940, fellow Aéropostale pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid….”
Mermoz flew 1,900 miles in 19.5 hours, and landed in the Natal harbor the next morning. “Pioneering thus, Mermoz had cleared the desert, the mountains, the night, and the sea,” Saint-Exupéry wrote. “He had been forced down more than once…. And each time that he got safely home, it was but to start out again.”
The U.S. press called Mermoz “France’s Lindbergh.” On December 7, 1936, Mermoz departed Africa in a fourengine seaplane, bound for Brazil, on the weekly mail run. It was his 28th Atlantic crossing. Neither he nor his crew were seen again.
10. Jacqueline Auriol
The daughter-in-law of Vincent Auriol, president of France from 1947 to 1954, Jacqueline Auriol learned to fly so she could escape the stuffy protocol of the Palais Elysée. Her mentor, instructor Raymond Guillaume, imbued her with a passion for aerobatics. After the crash of a Scan 30 amphibian in which she was a passenger, she faced 22 surgeries to put her face back together; yet, her first words in the ambulance rushing her to the hospital were “Will it be long before I can fly again?”
When Auriol recovered, she earned a helicopter rating, and in 1950, she became the first woman pilot admitted to France’s military Flight Test Centre. In 1951, Auriol and U.S. pilot Jacqueline Cochran began swapping speed records: Auriol broke Cochran’s record, set in a P-51 Mustang, by flying a Vampire jet at 508 mph. She set a new record in 1952 in a Sud-Est Mistral, again in 1953 in a Dassault Mystére IV, and in 1955 she reclaimed the record from Cochran in a Mystére IV N. For the last three of these flights, she was awarded the Harmon Trophy for the greatest aeronautical feat of the year—in 1952, at Cochran’s request. In 1962, Auriol reclaimed the record from Cochran in a Dassault Mirage IIIC; Cochran promptly took it back with a Lockheed TF-104G. The following year, Auriol topped her in a Mirage IIIR at 1,266 mph.