Transcript for Episode 443: Flight Path: Charting the History of Aviation in Toulouse

Categories: French History, Toulouse

[00:00:00] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 443 – quatre cent quarante-trois.

[00:00:23] Annie Sargent: Bonjour, I’m Annie Sargent and Join Us in France is the podcast where we talk about France. Everyday life in France, great places to visit in France, French culture, history, gastronomy and news related to travel to France.

Today on the podcast

[00:00:36] Annie Sargent: Today, I bring you a conversation with Elyse Rivin of Toulouse Guided Walks about the history of aviation in France and in Toulouse, in particular, since that’s where we both live, and much of the history of aviation in France has taken place in Toulouse.

[00:00:52] Annie Sargent: When you listen to this episode, I’ll barely be done with the France bootcamp, and one of the things participants wanted to do was to visit Airbus and Aeroscopia, the museum dedicated to the history of Airbus, so it’s all fresh in my mind.

No magazine section

[00:01:09] Annie Sargent: There will be no magazine part of the podcast today and no new patrons to thank.

Podcast supporters

[00:01:14] Annie Sargent: But I do want to mention that this podcast is supported by donors and listeners who buy my tours and services, including my Itinerary Consult Service and my GPS self-guided tours of Paris on the VoiceMap app. And you can browse all of that at my boutique

Next week on the podcast

[00:01:33] Annie Sargent: Back with you next Sunday with more, and also a great episode with Phil Roberson about visiting Normandy during a D-Day anniversary.

[00:01:43] Annie Sargent: That was fun to record and I think you’ll love listening to it as well. And remember, please send me voice feedback using the voice memo on your phone. Email that feedback to Annie@JoinUsinFrance.Com

[00:01:57] Annie Sargent: Merci.

[00:01:59] Annie Sargent:

Elyse and Annie about Aviation and Toulouse

[00:02:08] Annie Sargent: Bonjour Elyse.

[00:02:09] Elyse Rivin: Bonjour Annie.

[00:02:10] Annie Sargent: Oh, we have an exciting topic today. We’re going to talk about aviation in Toulouse.

[00:02:15] Elyse Rivin: Aviation and Toulouse.

[00:02:17] Annie Sargent: Today, we’re talking about Toulouse and the world of aviation, which, it’s huge here.

[00:02:21] Annie Sargent: It’s like, I swear to God, half of the people in my area work for Airbus or an Airbus contractor.

[00:02:28] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely. I really wanted to check and make sure that this was one of those things I was going to say that was correct. It is the largest employer of Toulouse and the region, which includes of course all its subsidiaries and subcontractors, but it employs almost 40,000 people.

[00:02:45] Annie Sargent: Right. It’s huge around here. All right. Well, you have prepared a lot of aviation things for us to consider, and I’ll jump in every now and then, but I’ll let you take it away, Elyse.

Toulouse home of Airbus

[00:02:55] Elyse Rivin: Well, I think most people know that Toulouse is the home of Airbus. That’s our big company that produces airplanes here in, not only France, but it’s actually a conglomerate. So there’s a joint effort with Spain and Germany and England. But it is our Boeing. How’s that? You know, it’s like it’s the big company. It’s the big company that produces all the commercial and some military planes.

[00:03:20] Annie Sargent: Right, and it’s headquartered in Toulouse.

[00:03:22] Elyse Rivin: It’s headquarter’s in Toulouse. This is where the largest assembly line and assembly hangars are. Some of the parts are actually manufactured elsewhere. But the fact is that Toulouse is where aviation in France was born and where it has continued for now about 130 years.

[00:03:42] Annie Sargent: Right, and when I was young, that’s when they had the Caravelle and the Concorde and all that.

[00:03:48] Annie Sargent: I grew up in Toulouse and of course you bathe in it, even if you weren’t, my dad didn’t work for Airbus, but he worked at some of the facilities because he was an electrician who specialized in installing big machines. And so he was at lots of Airbus facilities over the years.

[00:04:07] Elyse Rivin: It’s very interesting because doing the research on this for the history of it, I knew that it had started in the region of, in and around Toulouse and that it is really the home of aviation, but it had its ups and downs.

Places to visit in Toulouse – Airbus Industry

[00:04:20] Elyse Rivin: But right now, for instance, for visitors who come to Toulouse, there are several places that are fascinating to visit and they are really worth it because they give you an overview of the whole history of aviation. And of course, you can go and visit Airbus Industrie, which is a place where you do have to reserve ahead of time because they’re very strict about the identity control.

[00:04:42] Elyse Rivin: They’re always worried about industrial espionage and things like that. But you can visit the assembly hangars. You can actually see the people working on putting pieces of the plane together.

[00:04:53] Annie Sargent: Right, and I should say that even as a subcontractor of Airbus, which I’ve been at different times of my life, you do need a lot of clearance to enter the facility.

[00:05:03] Annie Sargent: Okay. Getting a badge is, even a visitor badge, takes some effort.

Aeroscopia Museum

[00:05:07] Elyse Rivin: It takes some effort. But it is fascinating if you want to actually see that. Next to it is this new museum that opened just a number of years ago, I don’t even remember how long ago, but not that long ago, called Aeroscopia.

[00:05:18] Elyse Rivin: And it is wonderful, because even for somebody like me who has flown a lot but now gets very nervous in an airplane, it’s really fun. You see an example of every kind of plane just about from the beginning right up to the last 380, which now no longer flies.

[00:05:39] Annie Sargent: No, it flies. It is not being produced, but it flies.

[00:05:42] Elyse Rivin: Okay. That’s right. It still flies in Asia, I believe.

[00:05:45] Annie Sargent: It flies anywhere. They have bought it.It’s just that they don’t produce it anymore, but they still service it. It’s in operation.

[00:05:51] Elyse Rivin: It’s a beauty. Anyway, it’s just a beauty. And my pride and joy is a photo of me in front of the controls of a Concorde.

[00:06:00] Elyse Rivin: That’s the closest I’ll ever get to flying in a supersonic plane, let me tell you.

[00:06:04] Elyse Rivin: You know, it’s really neat. It’s a very, very interesting and well documented museum. And it’s great for young people, it’s great for adults, and you can go in and out of almost all of these planes, which is kind of fun to do.

Aeronautic museum of Montaudran

[00:06:18] Elyse Rivin: There’s also a small aeronautic museum that just opened up at Montaudran.

[00:06:22] Elyse Rivin: Yes. I don’t know why that always sticks in my mouth. And that’s because that was the very first airfield here in Toulouse at the very beginning of the 20th century.

[00:06:32] Annie Sargent: And my dad worked like a stone’s throwaway from the airfield.

[00:06:35] Elyse Rivin: And that was where he worked as an electrician?

[00:06:38] Annie Sargent: Yeah. When he put together, so when you’re industrial electrician, you put together all the inputs and outputs in a big old box, and he worked on these and then he went and took that box and installed it at the factory.

[00:06:50] Annie Sargent: And so he did all the prep work at Montaudran. Yeah.

The Cité de L’Espace

[00:06:53] Elyse Rivin: That’s really cool, that really is. And now we also have a museum that has a lot of interactive stuff, which is really good if you’re doing a visit with your family or if you’re interested in space.

[00:07:04] Elyse Rivin: And that’s called The Cité de L’Espace, because on top of the history of aviation, thanks to the History of Aviation being in Toulouse, from there, it grew to be also the center of all of the aerospace research and industry.

[00:07:19] Elyse Rivin: So there are several different places that are really good to visit and they give you a real overview of all of the things happening in France since the beginning of the 20th century basically.

[00:07:30] Elyse Rivin: Yes.

[00:07:31] Annie Sargent: The Cité de L’Espace is very cool. I haven’t been in many years, but there’s a lot of stuff you can see. So when they decommission stuff, they put it at The Cité de L’Espace and you can walk through it. They have a lot of exciting stuff there, and I need to go back.

[00:07:46] Elyse Rivin: You can actually sit inside a satellite, in a space capsule.

[00:07:50] Elyse Rivin: Andlet me tell you, all I needed was two minutes inside it to know that would not have been from me.

[00:07:55] Annie Sargent: I probably wouldn’t even fit in there, would I?

[00:07:57] Elyse Rivin: Oh yeah. You would just have to pull your knees up a little bit, I think. But it’s fascinating, it really is. So there is a lot in and around Toulouse that is inspired by or based on the history of course, of aviation.

The Hotel des Grands Balcons

[00:08:11] Elyse Rivin: We even have a hotel right in the center of the city, The Hotel des Grands Balcons, which was the pension which is kind of like a rooming house for the first experimental pilots at the beginning of the 20th century. So there are little tidbits everywhere that give us an idea that this is the home of aviation.

[00:08:32] Elyse Rivin:

Beginning of aviation

[00:08:32] Elyse Rivin: So of course, we all know that since the beginning of time, humans have been fascinated by flying, by birds. It turns out even before people like Leonardo da Vinci, I found out by reading one of these texts online. In the 800s under the Andalusia, when that was the, I don’t know if you’d call it a kingdom or whatever you want to call it, that was in most of Spain, there was a man who obviously at the time was the scientific mind of the era who put on wings made of feathers and jumped off the hill. And he apparently lived to tell about it, you know.

[00:09:09] Elyse Rivin: Okay, so you’re more of the scientific one than I am, but the reality is, and it is interesting to have really done this reading, is that until really the middle of the 19th century, when there was a fascination with the idea of flying, but mostly it was done with the concept of hot air and balloons and things like that.

[00:09:29] Elyse Rivin: The thinking was not in terms of a mechanicalway of moving an object that was heavier than air into air, into the space.

[00:09:38] Annie Sargent: Right, right. So I mean, if you observe birds, they fly. And it seems like a miracle that they fly, right? But if you try to put wings on a human and flap our wings, it does not work.

[00:09:52] Elyse Rivin: Well. I think you get tired very quickly, it needs flapping a lot, you know?

[00:09:57] Annie Sargent: Well, we’re way too heavy. I mean, birds have hollowed bones and…

[00:10:01] Annie Sargent: It’s just funny to see the, to think of all the people over the centuries that must have tried this. It’s just insane.

Hot air balloons

[00:10:09] Annie Sargent: But in France, we had a lot of pioneers of aviation in a way, but they were doing lighter than air flight, which means hot air balloons.

[00:10:19] Annie Sargent: We were fresh out of the gate with the hot air balloons, had a bunch of them.

[00:10:24] Annie Sargent: The French are built with hot air, don’t

[00:10:27] Annie Sargent: No, no, I think there’s some to that, but yeah so lots of hot air balloons, in Paris. Even in the Tuileries gardens, did you know that they set up hot air balloons and you could pay some money and go up in the balloon?

[00:10:43] Elyse Rivin: Was this in the 1800s?

[00:10:45] Annie Sargent: Yes, yes.

[00:10:46] Elyse Rivin: Well, would you go up in a hot air balloon?

[00:10:48] Annie Sargent: No.

[00:10:48] Elyse Rivin: That was very clear, definite answer.

[00:10:51] Annie Sargent: Hell no, no, no, no, no.

[00:10:53] Elyse Rivin: Would you have gone in a blimp?

[00:10:55] Annie Sargent: Probably not.

[00:10:56] Annie Sargent: No, I know my limits, and definitely that’s my limit. I’m not,”je se pas temeraire”, how would you say that?

[00:11:05] Elyse Rivin: I’m not courageous?

[00:11:06] Annie Sargent: I’m not brave for that kind of thing. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:11:09] Elyse Rivin: So you wouldn’t do a Delta plane?

[00:11:11] Annie Sargent: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no.

[00:11:14] Elyse Rivin: Well, I’m asking you, but I would never do any of those things either, so there you are.

[00:11:18] Annie Sargent: I wouldn’t do a zipline, no, no, no, no.

[00:11:21] Elyse Rivin: I think it’s actually an amazing miracle of human ingenuity that planes exist and they actually fly and they get these heavy things off the ground and they go across the oceans. I really do think that, you know.

[00:11:33] Annie Sargent: So that’s the funny bit is I am not at all afraid in planes at all. Not a bit. But they have to be big enough planes. For me, size matters when it comes to planes and boats and things. I do not like being on a tiny boat. But I don’t mind at all a huge cruise ship. Same with airplanes. The bigger the plane, the easier it is for me to get on there.

[00:11:56] Elyse Rivin: Well, well, you know, it is a fact. I mean, I have two or three times in my life flown in a two-seater,twice here in France and once in the United States.

[00:12:03] Elyse Rivin: I have to say, I have to tell, this is the truth. Once I took a half of a tranquilizer before I went up in the air, but I had such a great time because I wasn’t scared because I had taken half a tranquilizer, and it was really pretty to look down and see the fields and everything.

[00:12:19] Elyse Rivin: But it is a fact that the larger the plane, the less you feel it. Which is the irony of it. You know, when you’re inside it, you don’t feel it as much in the big, I’ve flown the 747s a lot, I have flown the 380 several times and they are wonderful because you feel it much less than in a smaller plane, you know?

[00:12:37] Elyse Rivin: But still, if I think about how heavy it is, what will happen if it has to go plop, then it gets me a little bit nervous.

[00:12:44] Annie Sargent: We’re making everybody nervous now.

[00:12:46] Annie Sargent: They’re never flying to France again.

[00:12:48] Elyse Rivin: No, but I have to say, this is just, I don’t know if people know this out there, one day a week, for a number of years, I’ve been teaching a group of students in the Aeronautic University here in Toulouse. It’s just a basic English class, but I tell them about my fears of all this stuff and they just give me such reassurance, they give me all those reasons, the aerodynamic reasons why I shouldn’t be worried about any of this at all, you know, so there you are. Yes.

[00:13:14] Annie Sargent: Planes work very, very, very well.

[00:13:16] Elyse Rivin: They do work very well. So let’s come back to Toulouse and aeronautics.

[00:13:20] Elyse Rivin: Of course, in Germany and in England and in the United States by the 19th century, there really were lots of people who were experimenting and really obsessed with the idea of making humans fly, of the idea of how can we use the air to get from one place to another, really, the idea of transportation.

[00:13:39] Elyse Rivin: And of course, most of it was done with the idea of hot air and balloons and the equivalent, which was a blimp a little bit later, and there were still people who were obstinate and really trying to make these enormous wings and fly. And most of them made little bleeping leaps, like a jump on the ground, you know, these leaps, they would measure, some of them, they would measure how many feet between when they tried to flap their wings and when they actually landed on the ground.

Clement Ader

[00:14:07] Elyse Rivin: But, believe it or not, it was actually, there was a man named Clement Ader who came from Muret, which is a town just south of the center of Toulouse.

[00:14:16] Elyse Rivin: And he trained as an engineer. He was born in 1841 and he was fascinated by the idea of invention. He was really an inventor. He was one of the first people to makewhat would I guess be called, like ball bearings and things like that. So he really had the mechanical engineer spirit in every sense of the word.

[00:14:36] Elyse Rivin: And along with his work, it became his obsession to figure out how to make a flying machine. And he was one of the first, as you get towards the end of the 19th century, who really I guess, maybe by experimentation, I really don’t know, I came to understand that what was needed was to create basically a mechanical machine that would lift something that was not just hot air.

[00:14:59] Elyse Rivin: Then you know, so we were talking really about machines with propellers and some kind of engineering thing.

[00:15:04] Annie Sargent: Now we’re talking heavier than air.

[00:15:05] Elyse Rivin: Heavier than air, right. So he created these things, there are a couple of pictures you can see online, couple looked like enormous bats.

[00:15:13] Elyse Rivin: The wings were made out of cloth, which they were still at the beginning of World War I. But these enormous wings that really look like a huge bat, but he’s the one that invented the word in French avion. Which is what we call an airplane. Yeah. And it comes from the Latin word for bird.

[00:15:30] Elyse Rivin: And his first prototype he called E-O-L-E which he named after the Greek God of wind, which is very poetic, I think.

[00:15:39] Annie Sargent: Right. And in French eoliene is a windmill, we still use that Greek god image.

[00:15:45] Elyse Rivin: Right? And so apparently, many, many attempts and building and then failing, it was in 1890 that he actually was able to get something off the ground, and now how long it lasted?

[00:16:00] Annie Sargent: But just the machine, not himself.

[00:16:02] Elyse Rivin: Not himself, the machine, probably it was a minute, it may have been two minutes.

[00:16:06] Annie Sargent: We’re talking seconds here. We’re talking seconds here.

[00:16:08] Annie Sargent: Yes,

[00:16:09] Elyse Rivin: You don’t get very far that way.

[00:16:10] Elyse Rivin: No, no, you don’t. But it really confirmed and convinced him that this was the future. That if there was ever going to be a way of using air to get from one place to another, it was with something mechanical, basically. Mechanical fixed wing. And interestingly enough, he had made a fortune because he was such a good inventor.

[00:16:30] Elyse Rivin: He invented all kinds of little devices. He was actually fascinated also by sound, and he was the first person to invent the Delta Plane on top of everything else. So he was really obsessed with all of these things about some kind of traveling in the air.

[00:16:46] Elyse Rivin: And he became known as the predecessor, I guess, of what came to be the very, very first airplane construction in France. Because we, of course also by the end of the 19th century have a few people in England and the famous Wright brothers in the United States.

[00:17:04] Elyse Rivin: So it’s very interesting because he is really given credit with being the first person to understand the mechanics that would be required to move something heavier than air into space.

[00:17:14] Annie Sargent: And it’s a huge advance because if all you keep trying is flapping wings, you’re never going to get there, unless you’re a bird. Unless you’re a bird. Yes.

[00:17:24] Annie Sargent: Even today, we don’t have, I mean, like even a helicopter, it’s a fixed wing. It’s a fixed propeller, it’s fixed around an axle. If all the parts move, it’s too complicated to get lift.

[00:17:37] Elyse Rivin: Although I have to say, I understand the lift more in a plane than I do in a helicopter, but that’s for a class in physics, which I’ve never taken in my life. So there you are.

[00:17:46] Annie Sargent: Yeah, well, just to give those very basic, what makes an airplane go is the air foil shape. You need a curved shape. It looks like a teardrop, but just very elongated teardrop.

[00:18:01] Annie Sargent: And when you push that shape forward with propellers or jet engines or anything, you create lift because the air pressure is different on top of the wing then on the bottom of the wing, and that’s what creates lift.

[00:18:22] Annie Sargent: Now in modern airplanes, you can modify how much lift you get by moving the parts of the wing, so wings are not completely fixed.

[00:18:36] Elyse Rivin: Right. There are slight flaps you can see them.

[00:18:38] Annie Sargent: There are flaps and there are slats, and there’s ailerons and there’s all sorts of things that move and they make slight differences in the lift that you get.

[00:18:49] Annie Sargent: Okay, but even the Wright brothers, the reason why their airplane took off, so Wright brothers is two parallel wings that weren’t quite flat, and that’s why it worked.

[00:19:04] Annie Sargent: And then the brothers would lie flat on top of the upper wing, and they had propellers. Well, their wings were tiny, both of them were tiny, had a little bit of a bend to it. And that’s what created the lift. If you don’t have any bend, you don’t get lift. Okay. That’s how it works, but I’m not a physicist. I just know that that’s how it works.

Pierre-George Latécoère: The man who made flying an industry 1883-1943

[00:19:27] Elyse Rivin: Okay. So the next man who is someone extremely important, who really is the person responsible for making the industry of aviation so important, particularly in and around Toulouse, is a man named Pierre-George Latécoère. And the Latécoère Industrie actually still exists to this day.

[00:19:48] Annie Sargent: Definitely. They just built a brand new building like at lare, it’s very nice. It’s very, it used to be really ugly and they’ve built a nice, shiny, new buildings. Very nice.

[00:19:58] Elyse Rivin: Very, very nice. Yeah. So Latécoère was actually born in Bagneres de Bigorre which is actually in the foothills of the Pyrénées.

[00:20:05] Elyse Rivin: And he was apparently a brilliant student. Ironically, he actually studied law at first, but his family owned a company. He was born in 1883, so he’s really the generation that comes way after Ader.

[00:20:18] Annie Sargent: By the time he was grown, the Wright brothers had happened. Because that was

[00:20:23] Annie Sargent: 1903 for 12 seconds and 120 feet.

[00:20:29] Annie Sargent: Right, right. Which is amazing, at the time it was amazing. But anyway, but so by the time Latécoère was born, he could read in books and in new papers about all you know about all of this, this feat of, you know, I mean, this is amazing. People could finally fly, that’s incredible!

[00:20:46] Elyse Rivin: It’s interesting because it doesn’t look like at first he was more astute and visionary, but I don’t know, he wasn’t like Ader. He wasn’t someone who was obsessed with figuring out the actual technical aspects of flying.

[00:20:58] Elyse Rivin: So this is what makes it so interesting. The family factory was both a lumber factory and a mechanics factory, but he had no background as a scientist. He had no background as an engineer. But what happened was eventually he took over the factory, he took over the company from his parents, and he moved part of it to Toulouse. And when he did, they started making wheels and mobile parts for tramways and train companies. And so how old was he when World War I broke out? He was in his late 30s.

[00:21:28] Elyse Rivin: And when World War I broke out his factory started supplying artillery and various pieces for the different kinds of weapons to the French army for the war.

[00:21:40] Elyse Rivin: And so his connection to all of this is actually through the military and it’s through the experience of war. And as the work became more and more sophisticated, and they started using airplanes actually in World War I, about 1916. Before that they hadn’t even tried. Then the first planes, if you see anything, it looks exactly like what the Wright brothers flew.

[00:22:01] Elyse Rivin: I mean, it wasn’t much more sophisticated than that. It was two double cloth wings and things like that.

[00:22:06] Annie Sargent: Oh, there’s one it looks like cardboards stuck together, like big old cardboard boxes. I don’t know how it flew, but it did.

[00:22:15] Elyse Rivin: What’s amazing is that this is what they actually used.

Used in war

[00:22:17] Elyse Rivin: And the fact is that at the time, by 1916, it was the Germans who were much more advanced in the idea of using aviation as a weapon during the war. And they had developed, granted these very simple, primitive, what we would now call primitive planes. But they were starting to use it.

[00:22:35] Elyse Rivin: And so Latécoère decided to use his company to build simple planes that would be used in combat against the Germans. And that is really how Latécoère became associated with the aviation, and his factories here in Toulouse were supplying these new aircraft for the war effort.

[00:22:57] Annie Sargent: It’s really interesting to me how war always advances science and engineering.

[00:23:03] Annie Sargent: And that’s mostly because, I mean, even in the times of Leonardo da Vinci, a lot of the people who were his patrons, gave him money because he helped them think about weapons of war and think defensive things and whatever. And that’s why they were willing to fund him. And to this day, it’s still the same, if you go to a government and you say, okay, I think I can build you a thing that’s going to help the army do this and such, it’s easier to sell than if there’s no defensive idea behind it, there’s a lot of great ideas in the world that never get funded.

[00:23:40] Elyse Rivin: And not only that, but very often when it’s connected unfortunately to war, there’s an urgency. So they put a lot more effort into it because it’s needed right away. So it’s, you know, look at antibiotics and, I mean, Velcro, my goodness, was discovered because they needed something like that for World War II.

[00:23:56] Elyse Rivin: So you’re absolutely right. What makes this interesting is that Latécoère factory then started building these very simple craft. And Toulouse, because it was so far from the front, was considered to be a very safe place. And at the time, you know, you’ve seen the changes in the last what, since you were born here, I mean in Toulouse, but imagine 120 something years ago, Toulouse was much smaller and there was huge numbers of open fields. And so they could do all this testing of the planes. And for those two reasons, they had no interest in moving any of the aviation industry to any place else.

[00:24:32] Annie Sargent: And a lot of this was taking place in the area, in the port of Toulouse that we now call Jolimont, because it was a hilly area and it was completely like, it was just dirt, dirt fields, you know, and they set up a lot of these companies and that’s where I grew up.

[00:24:47] Elyse Rivin: That’s where she grew up. She grew up actually inside an airplane. She never wants to tell anybody that, but she actually was born inside an airplane there.

The move to commercial flights

[00:24:54] Elyse Rivin: And then, so this is what makes it interesting. There are still members of the Latécoère family. I mean, there are descendants of the original owner and conceiver of all this. But he was really a visionary because as soon as World War I ended, he decided and realized actually that there would soon be a need for commercial aviation. And so he devoted the rest of his industry, his company and his career, to launching what became the first company that was called LAL, which was Latécoère Aviation and in 1919 began the very first flights that actually flew from Toulouse to Barcelona.

[00:25:31] Elyse Rivin: We’re already going from one country to another, and over the Pyrénées.

[00:25:35] Elyse Rivin: So he knew, as you say, invention started by war, but continuing in civil society.

Emile Dewoitine: The creator of fighter planes

[00:25:41] Elyse Rivin: And so there was an engineer that actually had started working for him, named Dewoitine who left him and created his own company in 1920. And he decided that since Latécoère was doing basically civil aviation, he was going to start specializing in aviation for military purposes. And he is the very first one, and his company was the first one to design basically fighter planes.

[00:26:10] Elyse Rivin: Oh, wow.

[00:26:11] Elyse Rivin: Yeah. Interesting, interesting. Right? I’ve never heard of him.

[00:26:13] Elyse Rivin: Yeah. Well, he sold his company in the 1930s. In about 1937, he sold his company and part of what was left of his company wound up being given over to what became the aeronautic conglomerate later on. I mean, basically during the Great Depression, something happened, and of course it was a time when there wasn’t, again, unfortunately yet, the World War II. And for some reason the industry, maybe because there was no immediate need for military work, he was doing experiments on making planes faster and usable for attack.

[00:26:48] Annie Sargent: So did that turn into Brigue D’assaut?

[00:26:50] Elyse Rivin: Yes.

[00:26:51] Annie Sargent: Okay.

[00:26:52] Elyse Rivin: And so apparently he himself just gave up the company, but it stayed in Toulouse, which is amazing.

Aeropostale – Air Mail

[00:26:58] Elyse Rivin: So apparently then what happened, was we have the wonderful, wonderful period of the 1930s when Latécoère had finally figured out first, the going Toulouse to Barcelona and over the Pyrénées, and he created this wonderful mythical thing called Aeropostale.

[00:27:14] Annie Sargent: Yeah.

[00:27:16] Elyse Rivin: Aeropostale is part of this mythical period of time, when we have very famous, very crazy, young men who are willing to risk their lives.

[00:27:27] Elyse Rivin: And certainly a lot of them did lose their lives, to see if you could fly faster and farther. And of course, among thesepilots were St Exupery.

[00:27:37] Annie Sargent: Right. The author of Le Petit Prince, The little Prince.

[00:27:41] Elyse Rivin: The author of The Little Prince. So Aeropostale,because Latécoère said, okay, commercial aviation, maybe people aren’t yet ready to get into a thing that flies, but we can send mail. We can send mail and we can cut down, how do you get mail from Europe for instance to South America? It takes weeks on a boat.

[00:28:01] Elyse Rivin: So the very first trips that they took on these planes, they took mail. And that’s why it became known as Aeropostale. And they went from France down to the West coast of Africa.

[00:28:12] Annie Sargent: Right, because Aeropostale literally means Air Mail.

[00:28:16] Elyse Rivin: And Senegal, I guess is where they stopped first in Western Africa, and from there because it’s closer, they flew across to South America and then eventually across the Andes from Brazil to Chile.

[00:28:29] Annie Sargent: Which was not easy. Across the Andes in those tiny little planes.

[00:28:33] Elyse Rivin: No, they didn’t have anything, they didn’t have the instruments. They didn’t have radar. No GPS.

[00:28:38] Annie Sargent: No radar, no nothing.

[00:28:39] Elyse Rivin: They didn’t have pressurized cabins. How did they survive?

[00:28:42] Annie Sargent: Well, you had to have strong body. Yeah, body.

[00:28:47] Elyse Rivin: You have to have something else, too. Yeah. Really. And among the people, the two of the most famous are St Exupery and a man named Jean Mermoz who unfortunately both died in World War II, at different times during World War II.

[00:29:02] Annie Sargent: Right, and St Exupery anyway, was a kind of a mysterious death, so we’ve been talking about him ever since. But that’s not the topic of today’s conversation. Yeah.

[00:29:10] Annie Sargent:

[00:29:10] Elyse Rivin: He disappeared in the ocean, Mermoz disappeared somewhere over the Andes in 1940. Whether it was connected specifically to what was going on in the war or not, we will never know. But they created the myths that has stayed with us for so long about these brave, crazy, crazy pilots who dare do the stuff that, it’s the equivalent of the first astronauts going to the moon.

[00:29:32] Annie Sargent: Right? it’s, yeah. yeah. And you know, we still haven’t had that for underwater. We’ve had a lot of pioneers that do really daring things, but we haven’t had the craze for underwater exploration the way we’ve had it for space and for airplanes.

[00:29:52] Annie Sargent: But it’ll come, eventually.

[00:29:54] Elyse Rivin: But I guess for some reason, humans, maybe because it’s easier to watch birds than to sit and try and figure out how the fish work under the water. I mean, really, you know, it’s like we look at the birds all the time, you can watch them spread their wings and stay in the air. There’s a certain fascination with all of that,

[00:30:12] Annie Sargent: Definitely. Yeah. Birds are amazing.

[00:30:14] Elyse Rivin: So anyway, Aeropostale was the great mythical period between the two Great Wars. And for anybody who’s interested, if you really want to see a very, almost kitschy but really fun old, old American movie, it was made in 1939. There’s an American movie made by the director Howard Hawks, and the movie is called Only Angels Have Wings. And it’s really, somewhat romantic take on Aeropostale and it is really great to watch.

[00:30:45] Annie Sargent: Wait, Wait, wait. So,you mean there’s a love story in this?

[00:30:48] Elyse Rivin: There’s a love story, but it’s really about these crazy guys, you know? And they’re daring do about risking their lives to go fly across the mountains in South America, which are 7000-8000 meters high.

[00:31:01] Elyse Rivin: It gives you an idea, in spite of the romance in the story and all of that, of really how pioneers they were.

Women in aviation

[00:31:08] Annie Sargent: Yeah. Oh, and there were some women also who did crazy stuff like that, are you going to get to them?

[00:31:14] Elyse Rivin: Yes, in fact, what I discovered was that there were three or four women, before even Amelia Earhart who disappeared, I guess also in the 1940s or maybe 1939, I don’t remember what year she disappeared.

[00:31:28] Elyse Rivin: I don’t know that.

[00:31:29] Elyse Rivin: But there were three women in France who were among the very firstpilots to fly during World War I, believe it or not. And the very first woman to have a pilot license was in 1909, which really means she was flying one of these cloth and balsawood kind of things up in the air.

[00:31:51] Elyse Rivin: Her name was Emily Peltier. And she also disappeared in a crash.

[00:31:56] Elyse Rivin: These were all, what the French like to call casse-cou.

[00:31:59] Annie Sargent: Is it casse-cou?

[00:32:01] Elyse Rivin: Really, daredevil.


[00:32:02] Annie Sargent: Yeah. She didn’t talk about Louis Blériot.

[00:32:05] Elyse Rivin: No. I didn’t, no, you want to talk about him?

[00:32:08] Annie Sargent: Well, I know this song about him. I don’t know that song. Vivre Louis Blériot, il a traverse la France, it’s a terrible song. It’s a horrible kitschy song. But it sounds you were, yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:32:24] Annie Sargent: You were talking about about a kitschy movie. So the French kids, we learned our songs about the aviators. I don’t know if I learned it in school or if it was a thing that kids said, I don’t know, but I just know the song about Louis Blériot.

[00:32:39] Elyse Rivin: Okay.. okay.

[00:32:39] Annie Sargent: And he went across, I think, the Channel first and then across France.

[00:32:44] Elyse Rivin: That’s true. He was the first one to cross the Channel. And the English were probably saying, hmm, we should’ve been doing this before you, or something like that, you know?

[00:32:52] Annie Sargent: Maybe they did and we just don’t know.

[00:32:54] Elyse Rivin: Oh, nobody wants to admit it anyway, the French-English thing goes way back, you know? It really does.

Why is all of the aviation industry still in Toulouse

[00:32:59] Elyse Rivin: So basically, why is all of the aviation industry still here in Toulouse? Well, it could have disappeared, to be honest. In the 1930s with a great crash, it affected the world basically. France went into an economic depression.

[00:33:13] Elyse Rivin: There were lots of political issues, social issues. And the burgeoning, new industry of aviation really pretty much came to a halt by the end of the 1930s because of economic problems, because of economic difficulties.

[00:33:29] Elyse Rivin: Also world wars.

[00:33:29] Elyse Rivin: We have 1939 and 1940, and what happens is, of course, with the invasion by the Germans, what does happen is that the Germans, besides having already advanced their aviation industry back home, they take over pretty much all of the factories and they use all of the natural primary resources in France for their own purposes to make planes for them, for their military to fight. And they forced due to a lot of forced labor, so it was a very black period in not only the history of France, but it certainly was in the history of French aviation and its industry.

[00:34:07] Elyse Rivin: And it doesn’t really come back until after, right after World War II. Starting in 1947, 1948, there’s a huge, enormous investment, and I don’t know if it was just France or as actually NATO.

[00:34:20] Elyse Rivin: My guess is that there was also a certain involvement of the allies in this, to rebuild the French aviation industry. And it was still in Toulouse, they had no interest in moving it anywhere else.

[00:34:33] Annie Sargent: Well, they had the know-how, they had the people who had tested, you know, a lot of this is trial and error, at the beginning anyway. To have the good ideas, you have to first have the bad ideas a lot of the time. And so you just have to try things. If you don’t ever try anything, you don’t advance.

[00:34:49] Elyse Rivin: And interestingly enough, they probably, you know the hangars were still in the Toulouse area, of course the airport in Blagnac, which is just on the western edge of Toulouse itself. A lot of the exterior structures were still there. And of course, they could get back their materials. The investment was such that they also encouraged a lot of students to become engineers because they had stopped basically during World War II.

The Caravelle

[00:35:12] Elyse Rivin: And so with all of that, by 1955, that is when the Caravelle was invented.

[00:35:18] Elyse Rivin:

[00:35:18] Elyse Rivin: The wonderful, beautiful Caravelle, which is really an important plane.

[00:35:22] Annie Sargent: And it was designed to be made in great numbers. So this, now we’re talking about scale, the scale of the operations is now getting much bigger. And that’s really what propelled the aviation industry in Toulouse as we know it today.

[00:35:39] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely. And of course, I guess, all things considered, it’s by the end of the 50s that people are really starting to use planes to travel, you know, much, much more than before.

[00:35:50] Elyse Rivin: So by 1969, which seems like yesterday, but of course is now what, it’s 50 something years ago, really, there’s a huge factory that’s called Sud Aviation, and it was the largest in Europe, and it employed over 24,000 people. And they created the Caravelle and then they created the Concorde.


[00:36:11] Elyse Rivin: And then by 1970, all of that was turned into what we now know as Airbus, which is the conglomerate. And the reason why they decided to create that was to be in competition with Boeing and Douglas, which of course, were both and still are American companies. So the conglomerate was formed in 1970, and with all of that, everything in terms of the finishing of the planes, the conception of the planes and the delivery of the planes stays here in Toulouse.

[00:36:40] Elyse Rivin: And we have Airbus, which not only became the major producer of airplanes for commercial purposes, but also for military purposes.

[00:36:50] Annie Sargent: Right. Now it’s getting to be a bigger deal since the events with Russia invading Ukraine.

[00:36:56] Annie Sargent: And you know, it’s interesting because since they deliver so many planes in Toulouse. It’s a big deal when they deliver a plane to a customer and they do this almost daily. And what happens is they take the customers on a inaugural flight on this new plane and all of these inaugural flights fly between Toulouse and Albi, which means they fly over my house. And so I see, when I’m out with the dog, whatever, and I see a plane, it’s not like I live over the airport, I don’t see planes all the time, but when I see a plane, I know it’s a delivery or it’s a test.

[00:37:31] Annie Sargent: And very often you can tell the test because they just, the engines make terrible noises. You’re like, is this thing going to fall down? No. But no, they just try things.

[00:37:41] Elyse Rivin: I actually was out the day they did the inaugural flight of the 380.

[00:37:46] Elyse Rivin: I actually saw it. It really, I have to say, I mean there’s something amazing to me and absolutely impressive about these things, and of course, the 380, it was, I mean, yes, it still flies, but since they’re not making it anymore, they had such hopes for it. It’s a huge, enormous, enormous four engine, massive plane.

[00:38:04] Elyse Rivin: The wings spread is enormous, you know, and when you see it in the sky, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that looks like that, you know?

Plans for the future

[00:38:12] Annie Sargent: So they’re trying to turn the 380 into a hydrogen plane. That’s the idea. They are far, far, far.

[00:38:21] Elyse Rivin: They are very far. They’re very far.

[00:38:23] Annie Sargent: But that’s the idea, and it would be very cool if it worked.

[00:38:28] Elyse Rivin: It certainly would.

[00:38:28] Annie Sargent: We got to try it with a big plane. They got something big, if it’s hydrogen, it’s got to be huge.

[00:38:34] Elyse Rivin: It’s got to be huge to hold all of that.

Space research in Toulouse

[00:38:35] Elyse Rivin: So of course, now what we have is that thanks to the beginning, the birth of aviation in Toulouse from the 1960s on, not only is the aviation industry in Toulouse, but you have all of the research for space. So you have the research and the places where they make the satellites, where they do all of the research for space travel. Toulouse is the center for everything,with space, with aviation, with going up in the sky and going further than that.

[00:39:07] Annie Sargent: Right, they train a lot of pilots in Toulouse. They train a lot of engineers. We have a lot of that sort of business around here and schools. And so people who are in that trade of course know of it. It’s a major industry in the world.

[00:39:23] Annie Sargent: Absolutely. But it’s an industry that’s needing to change. And I think in France Airbus has totally got the message, we need to make our planes less polluting.

[00:39:35] Annie Sargent: Yes, yes. And this is something that they really want to do. Now it’ll take some time to get there. You know, when it comes to polluting less, there’s a lot of easy things you can do. If you electrify stuff, then all of a sudden, well, electricity can be made cleanly. Even if it’s not made cleanly right now, you can turn towards clean electricity. But an electric plane is not for a big one.

[00:40:05] Annie Sargent: Not for big one, not enough energy. They are really working this problem and trying to, and that’s one of the reasons why the A380 became not as desirable, is because they had reached the point where they just couldn’t make it more efficient.

[00:40:21] Elyse Rivin: They couldn’t make it more efficient and by virtue of its size, they had to fill it up with so many people.

[00:40:26] Elyse Rivin: It was very hard to do, I must say, it was really comfortable. I mean, now they have just officially retired the 747. They still fly, but just a few weeks ago, there was a huge article about how that’s it, it’s gone, it’s in retirement, in terms of production. There’s, that’s it.

[00:40:41] Annie Sargent: This is something that’s important, but when there are problems with airplanes, no matter what, if it’s an Airbus or a Boeing plane, people here are palpably sad about it.

[00:40:54] Annie Sargent: Nobody here gets giddy because Boeing is running into some production problem. That’s not how it works. You know, these are people who want the airplanes to fly and do great. We don’t want incidents. We don’t want problems. The mentality here is very much like, let’s make this industry better rather than, you know, let’s like, whoa, your airplane is dumb. We don’t, no, that’s childish, there’s none of that.

[00:41:20] Elyse Rivin: No. Talking to my students, which is very interesting because it’s always interesting, I kind of like play all of this off of them, bounce off these ideas. And you know, you are absolutely right, Airbus is very much oriented towards new things in experimentation.

[00:41:35] Elyse Rivin: And it’s really fascinating, the number of engineers, the number of people who go to the schools here are enormous.It’s a very big widespread kind of thing. The whole campus is really fascinating to visit. And all I can think of is, wouldn’t it be fun to bring back St Exupery, Mermoz and some of these older pilots from the beginning of the 20th century and have them fly one of these kinds of things, you know.

[00:41:59] Annie Sargent: I don’t think they’d know what to do with it.

[00:42:00] Elyse Rivin: Do you realize we’re talking about an industry that actually was born only about 120 years ago, and look at how big it’s gotten, and where we’ve gone so far.

[00:42:08] Annie Sargent: It’s changed the world really. It was a major, anyway, the world is always changing.

[00:42:12] Elyse Rivin: All right. Put your wings on Annie, here we go.

[00:42:15] Annie Sargent: I’m not an engineer, but I do know that wings don’t work for me.

[00:42:21] Annie Sargent: Merci Elyse.

[00:42:22] Elyse Rivin: You’re welcome, Annie.

[00:42:23] Annie Sargent: Au revoir.

[00:42:23] Elyse Rivin: Au revoir.


[00:42:31] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France Travel Podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2023 by Addicted to France. It is released under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license.

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Categories: French History, Toulouse