In this gripping novel, Saint-Exupéry tells about the brave men who piloted night mail planes from Patagonia, Chile, and Paraguay to Argentina in the early days of commercial aviation. Preface by André Gide. Translated by Stuart Gilbert.
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, the "Winged Poet," was born in Lyon, France, in 1900. A pilot at twenty-six, he was a pioneer of commercial aviation and flew in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. His writings include The Little Prince, Wind, Sand and Stars, Night Flight, Southern Mail, and Airman's Odyssey. In 1944, while flying a reconnaissance mission for his French air squadron, he disappeared over the Mediterranean.
It's hard to understand how anyone can run into a lone mountain rising a mile above the otherwise flat Colorado Plateau. Surely one could go around, or over, or do anything but hit it. Yet, "flying blind" was a deadly hazard of early aviation.
This book is really about the decisions of men who send others to face danger. It doesn't have a happy ending. One pilot, his radio operator, and plane simply vanish. Others are on schedule, and the system operates without pause. It's a reflection on the nature of imposed duty, a contrast to today's voluntary acceptance of risk.
Saint Exupery wrote a few years after Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Aviation progress then rested very much on the courage of pilots, which is why Lindbergh was such a hero. He typified the American spirit, "the lone eagle" accepting great personal risk to be first. 'Night Flight' is the opposite side of the coin, it deals with the willingness of men to order others to endure great risk for a new venture.
Weather's bad? In Saint Exupery's words, "if you only punish men enough, the weather will improve." Pilot's afraid? For the supervisor, "a man was a mere lump of wax to be kneaded into shape." Everyone is trapped within an impersonal system that leaves the supervisor without one confidant, and pilots facing instant death in the pitch black tumbling winds of a storm.
In the 1930's, aviation was the cutting edge of high tech. Today, it's electronics. Sure, in our dot com society, people risk their health, sanity, careers and families to the relentless demands of the system. However, risk takers are now volunteers. If they win, they share mightily in the profits. If they lose, with their career scattered like little bits of broken aircraft metal across a harsh landscape, they're invited to try again "because of what you've learned from your last failure."
Progress always involves risk. Saint Exupery examines the need to risk others for the benefit of society. He treats it with sympathy, understanding, compassion and a view that is touching and yet as impersonal and relentless as a storm. It's "fate," as people have said for thousands of years.
Over New Mexico, the King Aire automatic pilot clicked off the tenths of a mile, accurate to within a few feet because of Global Positioning Satellites. Radar scanned the sky for any hazard; on the proper setting, it even shows rain in nearby clouds. Finally I asked, "Where's Mount Taylor?"
"Down there," the pilot answered. It was 10,000 feet, about two miles below. It's hard to comprehend an airliner of the 1930's flying blindly into a mountain, when positions are now known to within a few feet. Saint Exupery paints a brilliant portrait of that earlier era, framed in a discussion of the duties of bosses who order employees to do extraordinary work.
It's not a management book, nor a call for workers' rights; it's a fundamental discussion of the oldest problem in human relations -- How do I order someone to take risk? Today, much risk is voluntary. Societies with people ready, willing, capable and the guts to accept risk become economic leaders. It's why Amazon dot com exists; launched by a man with the guts to risk the money -- no longer the lives -- of others to create an entirely new way of doing business.
'Night Flight' is based on a simple premise, "No guts, no glory." The nature of risk has changed, but it's as applicable now as in 1932 when this book was first published. Anyone who thinks about the duty of management will find this book interesting.