Lifestyle & Culture

Flight of fancy: Alice Verberne takes to French skies in the spirit of Saint-Exupéry

Pilot Bernard Herbillot and Alice Verberne

With a childlike curiosity I watch as carpenter bees perform impressive tactical flight maneuvers 20-feet above head. They’re removing the mortar between the stone to install their airport. The “L” in my luck has been replaced with an “F.” 

I wish travel therapy was covered in health insurance. I put down my work tools and consider the fact that a person’s livelihood can unwittingly suck us into a vortex – then 20 years later ….

Time is flying

But, these bees have got me to thinking about time and how we use it. Time is something we value, but squander. Crestfallen, I twist the words of the famous French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry * to serve my mood: “It’s the time you expended on your house that makes your house so important to you.” (Replace the word “house” with “rose” and you have Saint-Exupéry’s original quote.)

Time is flying indeed: Saint-Exupéry was a writer and a pilot. He had family out here in the Haute Marne, where I have a house.

 What an inspiration: He also wrote the famous children’s book, “The Little Prince.” I would like to think that he and I share a common childlike approach to life. He had a point when he said “Only the children know what they are looking for.”

Well, my inner child is screaming: “Get out and live a little!” 

I’m determined to to take back my flying time by flying with my time. After all, if St. Exupéry could write AND fly, so can I. As long as I don’t end up like the famous Saint-Ex (as his friends called him).

Flying a soapbox made of bubblegum and baling wire

I set up a baptism flight in a 20-foot, 40-year old ultralight with pilot Bernard Herbillot through the local glider club. The plane looks like a flying soapbox constructed of canvas, plaster and wood. Bernard goes over the aircraft pointing out the gearing and exposed cables. I mean, one snap and poof! For a flash second, I think of how St. Ex’s plane went down.

Bernard hands me a parachute. “Is this really necessary?” I ask as I eye the aircraft. It reminds me of those toy balsa-wood planes we played with as kids. Bernard responds, “Only if the wing breaks off.” He smiles and adds that I have no choice since the parachute is REQUIRED by French law. 

VERY reassuring. 

He adds in rapid French, that if the wing does actually snap off to:

1). unlatch the glass canopy
2). unbuckle
3). jump out of the plane
4). count 1-2-3 (VERY SLOWLY)
5). deploy the parachute

As we lift off, so does my spirit. Then the plane dips. A surge of adrenaline hits me. Not from fear because the aircraft is made of bubble gum and baling wire. I’m stoked: Silly worries and routine drudgeries have dissipated. 

That’s the point. Abandon petty frustrations and put life back in perspective. As St. Ex said, “the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”

I’m sitting in the “gunner” seat directly behind the pilot. We can’t see each other. Communication is via radio headphones. Bernard cuts the engine. Wooosh! Bernard comes in squeaky over the headset, in French, “Tu veux prendre les commandes?” (You want to take over the controls?) With no engine? Would he pass the yoke to my dog? (In the animated film about St. Exupéry, a fox flies the plane.)

Wasn’t he supposed to brief me on which cables control the elevator and flaps in the planning phase on the ground? AND IN FRENCH!? I didn’t want to end up like St. Ex. in 1923 when he crashed in the Sahara Desert with a days rations and almost died of thirst (although his hallucinations did come in handy as material for his books).

My aeronautical decision-making skills kick in with a resolute, “Umm, nope!”

Disappointed, Bernard resorts to pointing out landmarks: castles (are we losing altitude?), windmills (I mean, like descending?), rivers (dropping with no engine?). Don’t we have to sort of figure out our glide ratio to make sure we approach the runway before losing too much altitude due to surface drag from trees or something? 

I mean, we are flying with NO MOTOR.

The author back on the ground

Time can’t be saved up … it must be spent

Bernard “Nonchalant” Herbillot, seems to have all the time in the world. After all, the way to happiness is to cease worrying about things that are beyond our control. I pause the panic button in time to realize that St. Ex’s family owned a castle not far from where we’re flying, in Orquevaux. I strain to see it from the air.

It’s impressive to see how skilled Bernard is at flying our go-cart with wings. Our plane is way less sophisticated than St. Ex’s Caudron C.630 Simoun monoplane, with its 1920s Renault Bengali 6Pri engine. We’re equipped with a state of the art “lawnmower motor,” which Bernard revs just in time.

He lands with a bit of forward thrust bumping along the grass runway. No crash landing in the Sahara or the Mediterranean for us!

Now, I wish the flight had lasted longer.

But, time can not be saved up, it must be spent. And what better way to spend it than doing something a bit out of one’s comfort zone? Even if it was, at times, heart palpitating. 

After all, once we’ve lost time, we can never get it back. I suppose St. Ex had a point when he famously said: “What matters most are the simple pleasures so abundant that we can all enjoy them … happiness doesn’t lie in the objects we gather around us. To find it, all we need to do is open our eyes.”

* (Author’s note:) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist and pioneering aviator born in 1900. He became a laureate of several of France’s highest literary awards and also won the United States National Book Award. In 1935, he crashed in the Libyan desert, during an attempt to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race and win a prize of 150,000 francs. He miraculously survived the crash, only to face dehydration in the desert for four days. This experience is woven into many of his literary works. In 1944 on what was to be his last mission, Saint-Ex took off from Corsica, never to be seen again. In 1998, a French fisherman found his silver ID bracelet off the coast of Marseille. Two years later, divers found his P-38 Lockheed Lightning aircraft sunken off the coast. Soon after his disappearance, remains of an unidentified body in uniform were found near the Frioul archipelago, but the famous writer/pilot’s disappearance is still an enigma. 

(Source: Wikipedia.)

Controversy persists to this day, although the 2015 film by Mark Osborne offers a romantic ending (and a great way to practice your French).


Want to fly? Google flying clubs near me or if you are in my area, check out the Ultralight flying club Joinville-Mussey in the Champagne-Ardenne.

See more of Alice’s adventures in France here.

 | Website

Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.


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