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Interview with Laurent Albaret

Laurent Albaret has been General Secretary of the Aéro-Club de France since 2018 and General Secretary of its History, Arts & Letters Committee. He is also administrator of the Cercle Aérophilatélique Français and administrator of the Latécoère Foundation. He works in collaboration with the Latécoère Rally and the Foundation that supports the event, as the leading historian on Pierre-Georges Latécoère and the history of Lignes Aériennes Latécoère (1918-1928).

“The aim of the Latécoère Foundation is to preserve the spirit of “La Ligne” and the Aéropostale company, by encouraging activities that keep the remembrance and work of Pierre-Georges Latécoère alive.”

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Laurent Albaret

Laurent Albaret. © photo David Ken, DR.

In your view, as a historian, what was the significance of creating an airmail airline in the context of the early 20th century?

At the end of the First World War, creating an airmail airline in France was a logical thing to do. We must remember that France was the world leader in aviation in 1918. It had almost 10,000 aircraft and several thousand pilots. The progress of aviation during the First World War was such that it was quite normal, once the weapons had been decommissioned, that a peaceful and civil use should be sought for this formidable technological tool that the airplane had become. Once demilitarised, the airplane was available for freight and passenger transport. At the time, the freight in need of shorter delivery times was essentially mail, which was generally commercial and business-related. The economic significance was therefore immense. And so, Pierre-Georges Latécoère naturally turned towards the Postal service when he was thinking about creating a profitable airline. Before passenger transport, he thought of an airmail airline for postal services. Whilst we take this for granted today, it was groundbreaking at that time, a first in the history of commercial aviation, still then in its infancy.

 

Pierre-Georges Latécoère was ahead of his time. A great industrial entrepreneur, he was also a great visionary. What does aviation history owe to him?

Since the arrival of the American troops in France in 1917, it was expected that the end of the war would be imminent. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was aware of this, informed by the political circles he mixed with in Paris, or by his friends. He contemplated a civil use for aviation, to complement automobiles and trains on the French national territory, but to serve as a huge asset in links between nation states or even continents. In his opinion, the time had come to convert the airplane into a means of transport. And in that, we may say, he was one step ahead. What reassured him all the more in his thinking was that, from August 1917, the French Interministerial Commission for Civil Aviation had decided to look into creating a regular airmail service, mainly for the purpose of transporting the mail of American troops.

 

Latécoère

Workers in PGL workshops.
The personnel, both men and women, of the Maison G. Latécoère posing in front of the first Salmson aircraft to leave the workshops. There is a high female presence in the factory, the women prepare the wing canvas for the aircraft © Fondation Latécoère, DR.

Was airplane manufacture a vocation to him, or an opportunity to be seized?

In 1914, enlisted then discharged, Pierre-Georges Latécoère, a young company director, was more useful to the Union Sacrée (the coalition between the left-wing and the French government during WWI) as an armament manufacturer. The First World War thus developed the economic activity of the Latécoère establishments that manufactured field kitchens, ambulances, then carts for carrying boxes of ammunition, or even high-calibre bombs. In August 1917, Pierre-Georges Latécoère acquired new land in the nearby Toulouse suburb of Monaural, in order to develop a modern industrial site where he could fulfil the larger government contracts. The young industrialist had just signed an order for 11,000 passenger cars and goods wagons with CF du Midi, the French Southern Railway company, which he had to fulfil within ten years following the end of the war. Rail seemed essential to Pierre-Georges Latécoère. But, through acquaintances, he met Louis Loucheur, the new French Minister for Armaments, who was interested in a new weapon, aviation. The government wanted to relocate the production of warplanes from the Paris region, which was too close to the front, and the factories of the Parisian aircraft manufacturers could barely keep up with the orders that the Army was placing. The Government was therefore considering the option of licensed construction. It was an attractive option for a provincial entrepreneur. On 22 September 1917, Pierre-Georges Latécoère obtained from the Aviation Manufacturing Department, which reported to the French Ministry of Armaments and War Production, the firm order – endorsed by Public Contract no. 14 of 29 October 1917 and approved on 2 December 1917 – for a thousand Salmson 2A2 reconnaissance airplanes, with the obligation to deliver the first aircraft in May 1918. The terms and conditions of contract no. 14 were very specific and binding, but the French Government purchased each aircraft for 25,000 Francs, ultimately representing a 25 million Franc contract, a huge total sum!

Pierre-Georges Latécoère expanded his land at Montaudran for a runway and he organised the building of gigantic assembly halls close to the Toulouse-Sète railway line – three buildings that covered more than one hectare in the end! – and the addition of portable Bessonneau-type aircraft hangars. He organised the recruitment of qualified personnel, such as Émile Dewoitine, seconded from the Service technique de l’aéronautique (the government agency responsible for coordinating technical aspects of aviation in France), or Marcel Moine, a young graduate of the “Arts et Métiers” engineering school in Paris. In six months, the Montaudran factory complex saw the light of day, on a surface area of almost 45 hectares and with close to one thousand employees. At the end of April, the first aircraft left the Latécoère factory. On 5 May 1918, the pilot Pierre Bastide inaugurated the runway and took off in a Salmson, serial no. 1565. In September, 110 aircraft, equipped and tested for acceptance, were supplied to the French Army. On Armistice day, 11 November 1918, 800 aircraft were delivered to the allied squadrons.

 

In May 1918, Latécoère set up an airline between France and its African and South American colonies. An utterly crazy project for that time, into which he didn’t hesitate to put his heart and soul into making it a success. What were the main difficulties he encountered?

The project may have seemed a bit crazy. But above all it was a pioneering project, innovative at that time. During an interview on 15 May 1918 with his friend Beppo de Massimi, Pierre-Georges pronounced this phrase, which has subsequently become famous: “I have done the calculations over and over, and they confirm the opinion of the experts: it’s unworkable. Which leaves us with only one option: to make it work”. In 1918, the project matured in the industrialist’s mind. His correspondence, but especially his notes, stored in the family archives today managed by the Latécoère Foundation, bear testament to this. There were multiple difficulties… politicians, technical and financial experts: official approval was required from the nation states that the aircraft would fly over, as well as approval from the local authorities to land, take off, or create a semblance of an airport or aéroplace (the popular French term at that time); to recruit qualified pilots, negotiate yet uncertain air equipment with the French government, which had a limited range; and ultimately obtain the support of the postal authorities, to have them entrust enough commercial freight to the venture from which a profit could be drawn, whilst awaiting permission to transport potential passengers and convince them to come aboard. 

 

Pierre-Georges Latécoère

The young industrialist Pierre-Georges Latécoère (1883-1943). Photo not dated © Fondation Latécoère, DR.

You have recently published a very interesting book, a result of your meticulous research and study of Latécoère’s archives and correspondence. To what extent do the letters reflect his personal experiences while developing this project?

The myth of what is commonly called “La Ligne” (the Line) is not only based on spectacular exploits. “La Ligne” is above all the story of a man, a true captain of industry of that era, Pierre-Georges Latécoère. Digging up his correspondence, making all the sources available, allows us to obtain a clearer idea of this man, who was too often deemed to be complex and intransigent. By consulting the family archives and the large amount of correspondence, I’ve been able to pick out what is most interesting about the approach and rigour of Pierre-Georges Latécoère, his drive to build what nobody had ever built before. The aim of my book was to tell the story of the man and his pioneering work in French aeronautics and airmail services, based on the selected correspondence. Pierre-George expounds, thinks out loud, scribbles, lectures his followers, rejoices and, above all, counts the expenses and the expected profits. And all of this for ten years.

 

The aim of the airmail airline was to link Toulouse to the African colonies, but its implementation allowed for the first transport airline to be created in Spain. What technical, economic or political difficulties were linked to crossing the Iberian Peninsula?

On Monday 11 November 1918, as the Armistice suspended the war and a huge wave of jubilation rippled through France, Pierre-Georges Latécoère was in the Toulouse Commercial Court. He was there to file the bylaws of the CEMA, the “Compagnie Espagne-Maroc-Algérie”, which “has the purpose of organising and assuring air travel, in both directions, between the South of France and Morocco on the one hand, and Morocco and West Algeria on the other hand”, a project that he proposed to implement within six months. The message was clear, the legal framework had been laid. But the slowness of the French authorities exasperated Pierre-Georges Latécoère: they were slow in letting him have the airplanes and engines, they grudgingly approved his draft airline agreement and they offered him no assistance in his discussions with the Spanish authorities.

Early in the morning on Wednesday 25 December 1918, against all odds, and with the acquiescence of some administrative personnel, Pierre-Georges took off from Montaudran for Barcelona, for a test flight in a Salmson 2A2, piloted by René Cornemont. After a flight time of two hours and twenty minutes, having passed Perthus Pass in the Pyrenees, it landed on the Can Tunis hippodrome, close to the military fortress of Montjuïc. It wasn’t much past 11 a.m. The impact of this flight at the time was minimal. There are some known photographs, the local authorities were informed, but there were few witnesses.

 

Pierre-Georges Latécoère was satisfied. By the next day, he had returned to his offices in Toulouse and assigned Beppo de Massimi to search for possible stopovers in Spain and emergency airfields between Toulouse and Tangier. A connection via Barcelona was the obvious choice, but there was no way of obtaining the corresponding authorisation from the Spanish authorities. Beppo de Massimi’s role developed from 1918 onwards: he was the diplomat and negotiator of Pierre-Georges Latécoère. The Italian aristocrat made available his list of contacts in France and Europe, called upon his friends, such as the journalist Georges Prade, a close acquaintance of the Spanish ambassador in Paris, and even his former Squadron Leader, André Wateau, a remarkable jurist before the war, who was entrusted with air transport matters in 1918, and who would support the airline concession requests submitted by Pierre-Georges Latécoère. The authorisations would be obtained, but not without some difficulty. At the same time, the shortest route over the countries was validated by Pierre-Georges in a long-detailed note: the stopovers would be Perpignan, Barcelona, Alicante, Malaga, then Gibraltar, Tangier and Rabat. He wanted to avoid passing over the mountain ranges that cross the Iberian Peninsula from West to East, and he resolutely chose to stop at the cities that offered important resources in terms of airfield and refuelling installations, or facilities that would allow the mail to be reconsigned in the event of an accident. A route through either the centre or West of Spain was abandoned, as this would be too long. All that was then left was to put the stopovers and airfields into practice. 1919 would be crucial year for the industrial project in Toulouse, as a convincing argument would have to be presented for the long-term installation of this pioneering airmail airline in which nobody truly believed.

 

Malaga airport is also celebrating its 100-year anniversary. It was actually founded by Latécoère and the pilot Lemaître after their first landing in Malaga. Do you think they were aware of the importance that these stopovers would assume in the history of Spanish aviation?

In early 1919, Pierre-Georges Latécoère played for high stakes. On 28 February, the attempt at an air link between Toulouse and Rabat with two aircraft failed: the airplanes suffered mechanical problems and the flight abruptly came to a halt in Alicante. On 8 March, the new test flight took place. With a single aircraft, the Salmson 2A2 no. 457, piloted by Henri Lemaître, Pierre-Georges Latécoère flew between Toulouse and Rabat in two days and with three stopovers: Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga. As the story goes, at the last moment, Latécoère extended the flight to Casablanca, where he met with General Lyautey, the governor of Morocco, to hand him a 7 March edition of the Le Temps newspaper and offer him a bouquet of fresh violets recently picked in Toulouse. It was an effective public relations operation: the governor was impressed and an airmail transport agreement was signed with the Sharifian postal services in the following days, accompanied by an annual subsidy of one million francs!

The journey to Malaga was brief on this first flight: the two men had arrived at 9.30 a.m. and took off at around 1 p.m. to reach Rabat. Pierre-Georges was nevertheless aware of the significance of these first stopovers for “La Ligne” and this is evident when reading his correspondence and his notes. In 1919, he personally participated in the organisation of the airfields in Spain, checking the authorisations from the Spanish government, managing the estimated stopover times, fuel stores, and organising the teams and even the grounded aircraft. The industrialist, as close as possible to the field, gained a practical insight that he would apply to the airfields (aéroplaces) in North Africa and as far as Senegal.

 

Pierre-Georges latécoère

25 December 1918. Pierre-Georges Latécoère – in a hot flight suit, ordered especially for the occasion, on the left – and René Cornemont in front of the Salmson 2A2 © Fondation Latécoère, DR.

Lots of famous names in aviation history were involved in this project: Daurat, Roig, Mermoz, Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet, etc. What most attracted these pioneers? Their thirst for adventure or Latécoère’s entrepreneurial spirit?

When we read the testimonies left by the pilots of “La Ligne”, we get an idea of the state of mind of these men who joined Lignes Aériennes Latécoère between 1919 and 1921. They were mainly pilots who had received medals for serving in the war, who’d won victories and performed brave feats, but were then demobbed and often penniless. The Latécoère adventure held a certain interest for these men who had faced enemy fire and brushed shoulders with death. Didier Daurat – Captain, awarded the French Legion of Honour and eight commendations, who had suffered several injuries – was hired as a pilot before being promoted to Operations Manager in 1920. Joseph Roig – Squadron Leader, Officer of the Legion of Honour, awarded the French War Cross and ten commendations – became one of the trailblazing pilots of “La Ligne”. Paul Vachet – bomber pilot, commander of the French Legion of Honour, awarded the French War Cross and military medal – joined Latécoère in 1921, where he would spend his whole career. Jean Mermoz, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Henri Guillaumet, all three born at the turn of the century, also shared a taste for adventure and this pride to be a pilot on what would become “La Ligne”, all were fully committed to completing successful flights, ensuring that the Company’s official motto “the mail must arrive at all costs” (“le courrier doit passer à tout prix”) was respected. The words of Didier Daurat clearly summarise the company policy, in the true sense of the word, of Lignes Aériennes Latécoère: you will be leaving [on a flight]. Do not forget that fantasy and heroism have no place here. You are a worker. No feats or exploits are possible. The public must never know your name, other than in a line in the newspaper on the day when you are so clumsy as to get yourself killed.”  

 

In your opinion, what is the legacy that Latécoère has left to us?

Pierre-Georges Latécoère had a very clear impact on the early adventurous days of French commercial civil aviation. He was one of the first people to think of and build an airline with organised stopovers and airfields and, above all, frequent flights and respected timetables. His friend Beppo de Massimi summed up the adventure in one phrase: “leave and arrive on time: the whole secret of our company was contained in this formula”. The legacy is also that of a name: Latécoère. A name that influenced aviation between the two World Wars, not only through “La Ligne”, but also through the Latécoère flying boats, from the Latécoère 28 to the Latécoère 631. A name that is still present in French aviation history today, through the Latécoère Group. Latécoère is also a legacy that is present and integrated in Toulouse: for a century, the Toulouse Metropolitan Area has been intimately linked to aviation and Pierre-Georges Latécoère is no stranger to this story…

 

Today, 100 years after this incredible flight, the Foundation perpetuates his story. Which activities have you planned to celebrate this anniversary?

Since 2004, the history of “La Ligne” and its founder, Pierre-Georges Latécoère, is officially transmitted by the Foundation and its president, Marie-Vincente Latécoère, daughter-in-law of Pierre-Georges Latécoère and the principal heir of the family history. The aim of the Latécoère Foundation is to preserve the spirit of “La Ligne” and the Aéropostale company, by encouraging activities that keep the remembrance and work of Pierre-Georges Latécoère alive. For the centenary in 2018, the Foundation again subsidised the Latécoère Rally (Raid) between France and Africa. It was a special rally because more planes than usual participated and it was organised under the auspices of the Presidency of the French Republic. The Foundation also initiated a travelling exhibition in 2018, entitled “La Ligne. Audacity in Heritage”, of which I was the curator, to present the history of the airmail airline – from Lignes Aériennes Latécoère to the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale – on the European, African and South American continents. The Foundation’s activities also include Latécoère Explorer, which has the mission of perpetuating the visionary inspiration and audacity that drove the pioneers of “La Ligne” through explorers’ projects. Without organising specific and effusive events, the Foundation today remains the legitimate guardian of the memory of Pierre-Georges Latécoère and “La Ligne”.

 

 

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01/09/2019

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