Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his classic The Little Prince, he authored other books that merit attention. One of these, Night Flight, also a classic, is set in the early years of airmail delivery connecting far-flung cities in South America with daily flights from Buenos Aires to France. Written in an era when airmail across the Andes was dangerous and not yet fully established, Saint-Exupéry tells the story of the fight to maintain reliable and safe airmail service linking the widespread populations of South America with Europe.
Drawing on his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry’s work is filled with the stories of pilots flying in dangerous and unpredictable weather over difficult terrain to keep the mails on a regular schedule. Beautifully written in language worthy of emulation, Night Flight is an interesting short read about the early struggles to improve communications across widely separated places and the lives of the pilots and crews who made it a reality.
But beneath the surface lies a deeper story, and a moral. The central character, Rivière, is not a pilot but the flight supervisor to whom pilots and ground crews report. It is he who is charged with seeing that the mails are not only delivered on time, but that the very concept of airmail delivery is cemented into established practice.
Throughout the narrative, Rivière governs the pilots, ground crews, and clerical staff with what appears as an intolerant iron fist. He is a stickler for adherence to established procedures and is swift to discipline both deviations and failures.
Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness
But beneath his hard face lies a struggle between the necessity for excellence, on the one hand, and his love for his men, on the other. In the end, he concludes that he can best show that love by holding them to the highest standards of performance. Though victory—over the elements, over the timetable—remains of paramount importance for Rivière, it is his tough love that both saved lives in this dangerous undertaking and allowed the experiment of airborne communications to ultimately succeed.
Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness. So it was with Rivière.