Pieces of an airplane that were found recently have been definiteively identified as being from the plane Antoine Saint-Exupery was flying when he was last seen.
The mystery of the death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who celebrated the mysteries of life so charmingly in "The Little Prince," remains intact.
Or nearly. French researchers are due to announce Friday that 60 years after the philosopher-pilot crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, they have found, and identified beyond a doubt, the remains of Saint-Exupéry's Lockheed P-38.
But why he crashed, and how, whether he was shot down, lost control of his plane, or, as some historians have suggested, committed suicide, will, perhaps fittingly, never be known. As the Fox tells the Little Prince: "One can see clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye."
As Allied troops prepared to invade the south of France, Saint-Exupéry took off from an airfield in Sardinia on the morning of July 31, 1944, to photograph German troop positions in the French Alps. He never returned to base.
For more than half a century, that was all that was known. And then one day in 1998 a fisherman trawling near the port of Marseille found in his net a silver bracelet engraved with the name Consuelo - Saint-Exupéry's wife's name.
The news reminded Marseille dive-shop owner Luc Vanrell that he had seen pieces of an old airplane at the bottom of the sea near where the bracelet had come up. Two years later, after much searching, he found a piece of metal stamped with a manufacturer's serial number, 2734 L.
The piece of metal, it turned out, was part of a turbocharger from a Lockheed Lightning P-38, the sort of plane that Saint-Ex had been flying on his last sortie. Last fall, Mr. Vanrell won government permission to salvage more of the plane, and brought up nearly two dozen bits and pieces - enough to identify the aircraft as a second-generation P-38, modified for reconnaissance, exactly the model Saint-Exupéry had been flying.
A few weeks ago, a team of enthusiasts under the guidance of Patrick Grandjean, a French Ministry of Culture marine archaeologist, found definitive proof in US Air Force and Lockheed archives: a technical drawing of Saint-Exupéry's plane, with the serial number of its turbocharger: 2734 L. "There is no arguing with that," says Mr. Grandjean. "We can be perfectly certain."
Certain of the twisted piece of metal's provenance, perhaps, but of little else. No bullet holes have been found in the wreckage to suggest that Saint-Exupéry was shot down, but then only a few fragments of the plane have surfaced.
Did the engine malfunction? "The plane hit the sea very violently, to judge by the way the metal is twisted," says Vanrell. "It doesn't look like a failed emergency landing on water. One might guess that it fell vertically from a great height."
But Vanrell and his fellow researchers can only guess. "He dropped out of the glorious sky," says Grandjean. "We can say nothing more."