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Searching for Saint-Exupéry: A Portrait of Luc Vanrell

Anna Wu-Chauvineau
Le 25 August 2017

On that morning of July 31st, 1944, he flew for the very last time. The writer of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), poet and aviation pioneer went missing during a surveillance flight. For more than 60 years, the reasons and the exact place of his mysterious disappearance remained unknown.

Along with IWC, we met Luc Vanrell, the one who lifted the veil of mystery for all of us. We invite you to follow us on one of his many journeys into the deep blue before telling you his story…

Luc Vanrell: A Lifetime Underwater

Luc has been diving for the past 50 years in international waters around the world. He is 57 years old. Archeologist, photographer and wreck hunter, it was his father who initiated him on this adventure at the age of 5. An adventure made possible with extremely basic DIY equipment thrown together by friends, and that would reveal to him a silent world.

A small recycled medical oxygen tank, a scuba diving regulator in which water penetrates half the time, and a generous dose of courage. This was all it took for Luc to discover his first wreck at 6 years old. It was a Roman ship off the Southern coast of Sardegna that he discovered all by himself at 6 meters underwater. At an age when most other children were playing with toy cars. To each his own.

 He spent his childhood on the hills of Marseille where he would discover his first arrowheads and other stone tools dating back to the Paleolithic Period. A vocation destined for the man who is today Scientific Director of the Cosquer Cave and its drawings, among others…

In parallel to his archeological activities, he has never stopped exploring the deep seas in search of wrecks, and accompanies the most dangerous diving expeditions. One wreck in particular would make him famous among peers and the public. After decades of fervent investigations, false leads, and a bit of necessary luck, official identification was made on the plane in which Commander Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was shot down by a young 22-year-old German pilot.

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry

Antoine de St-Exupéry: Aviator, Humanist & Poet

Originally from Bastia, Corsica, the author of Night Flight (Vol de nuit), the source of numerous vocations for pilots all over the world, was carrying out on that particular morning a photographic mapping mission in collaboration with the US Air Force in preparation for the Provence landings. It would be his last flight.

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry

The speculation and most elaborate theories would surface during the following decades, not one with genuine evidence to support their claims. From declarations of old Luftwaffe pilots claiming to have shot down the legend to theories that “Saint Ex” voluntarily dove his plane into the Mediterranean due to exhaustion and fatigue, there was no shortage of potential leads. As always, we would be confronted with more imagination and cross-referencing than with actual proof.

A Long-Term Quest

It took more than 10 years of research post-identification of the wreck to reveal the name of the young pilot who shot down the now famous P-38 Lightning into the Bay of Marseille in the Summer of ’44.

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry

The former Luftwaffe pilot was named Horst Rippert. Brother of the famous 4-octave folk singer Ivan Rebroff, he then became a journalist and sports reporter on German television. It wasn’t until he received a phone call from Luc Vanrell’s associate, Lino von Gartzen, in March 2008 that he would finally admit a few years before his death to shooting down the plane of the author of the Little Prince.

He kept silent for all these years, and with reason. As with many others at the time, it was indeed after reading Saint-Exupéry’s books that he aspired to becoming a pilot. If only he knew that the one  flying that enemy airplane was none other than the one who provoked in him the sense of duty and the will to excel beyond expectations… Life decided otherwise.

IWC Aquatimer: “Mission Accomplished”

To find a similar plane wreck necessary for Luc Vanrell’s portrait, we collaborated with IWC that has been working with the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Foundation for several years and supports their projects around the world.

IWC Aquatimer Ocean 2000 Limited Edition

The choice of Luc Vanrell for this dive at 40m, an Aquatimer Automatic 2000. A limited edition at 350 pieces, in titanium, of the famous dive watch from the House of Schaffhausen. Extremely clear, lightweight, and robust, this dive watch won unanimous support from the diver and his peers. The best test there is if I can say so myself!

It’s true that the watch feels nice on the wrist at barely 42mm and very short lugs, offering an optimal level of comfort.  A very powerful super-luminova, large hands, and a clear rotating internal bezel make this piece a true dive watch, not to mention water-resistance up to 2000m naturally. Yes, to go down to -40 m one must take the necessary precautions…

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry

A film that represents the humanist values advocated by the author of the Little Prince in his writings. A truly beautiful encounter with those who spend their lives underwater, and who have chosen to live off of their passion for the seas and the oceans they so love.

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry

The commander wrote about it in his novel Wind, Sand and Stars (Terres des hommes) in 1939. Words that have never sounded so right and pertinent, even 70 years after his disappearance:

“…what constitutes the dignity of a craft is that it creates a fellowship, that it binds men together… For there is but one veritable problem – the problem of human relations. We forget that there is no hope of joy except in human relations.”

Our many thanks to Luc Vanrell, Philippe le Méliner and the entire team at CIP Marseille, as well as Renée Heuzey for the underwater footage, their knowledge, passion, and positivity.

We hope to see you all again soon!

Luc Vanrell - Searching for St-Exupéry