Guillaumet's Accident in the Andes

What I have done, I swear, no other beast could have done. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des hommes)

The Andes route was Guillaumet's line. When he delivered mail to Santiago it was not his first flight over these mountains, and his experience had made him a first-rate pilot.

This particular flight took place in June 1930. The Buenos Aires-Santiago route, which had opened several months before, was the most difficult of all, and the famous pilot Mermoz had chosen Guillaumet to fly it. The Andes' peaks rose to an altitude of 7,000 metres; planes at this time could not reach such heights and so had to weave their way through the mountains.

When he left Santiago in his Potez 25, Guillaumet had made this flight a hundred t imes before. At an altitude of 6,500 metres, he ran into a huge storm. He set down near Laguna Diamente, a lake that he knew. When he tried to take off again, a layer of snow, 80 centimetres deep, overturned his machine. Hidden under his plane, he could hear other Aeropostale planes that had been sent to rescue him, but he wasn't able to see them. He decided to walk, dressed in his leather pilot suit and an overcoat. On his feet, he wore shoes, plus a fur lining that he wore over them as protection against the cold while flying, but without leather soles, these were totally inappropriate for walking. Gloves and a headband, a compass and flashlight, some matches and a small burner for cooking completed his equipment. Provisions consisted of two cans of sardines, some canned beef, two cans of condensed milk, some cookies and half a bottle of rum.

Scene of Guillaumet's accident in his Potez 25 in the Andes, 1930
Scene of Guillaumet's accident in his Potez 25 in the Andes, 1930
Guillaumet was an experienced pilot; he had made numerous flights over the Andes before his accident on June 13, 1930.
Courtesy of Musée de la Poste, Paris
Guillaumet knew the coast of Argentina was not far away. He wrapped the bags of mail in the folds of his parachute, and, using a stone, wrote a message on the cabin of the plane:

"Was not spotted by plane. Heading east. Farewell to all. My last thoughts are of my wife."

With his wife in mind, Guillaumet did not want to disappear without trace. In such cases, at that time, a pilot's life insurance would not be paid until after five years after the disappearance. He had to die, then, in a place where his body could be easily found. He walked for three days and three nights, until, exhausted, he collapsed at the feet of a shepherd who had come to search for him.

The plane and the mail were discovered when the snow melted. All the envelopes carried on this memorable journey were forwarded to their addressees with a stamp stating: "Service Delay."

Guillaumet's adventure - an amazing accomplishment - was part of everyday life for pilots in the heroic days of Aéropostale.

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