(My review on goodreads)
Night Flight is a splendid novella about the hazards of flight in its early days, and about a certain philosophy of command. The principal character is Rivière, the managing director of the air mail service in South America. He presents himself as harsh and unfair - denying punctuality bonuses to pilots who are unable to fly on time owing to weather, for example - but tells himself, honestly perhaps, that his harshness is meant only to make his men better versions of themselves.
He has initiated a program of night flights to speed the mail from across South America to Buenos Aires, and thence to Europe. The story takes place on a single night, and follows the progress of Fabien, a pilot delivering the mail from Patagonia to Buenos Aires. His flight starts like any other, but he soon finds himself surrounded by storms, with no way back and apparently no way forward. As Fabien and his wireless operator are engulfed in the storms, Rivière monitors their progress, and reflects on the choices he has made, and their consequences.
Rivière believes that in the pursuit of progress and of high aims, the lives of individuals must take second place. At a certain point he is led to question that belief, but in the end we are left with the impression that he has reaffirmed his belief and is unlikely to change his position. Whether the owners of those individual lives would agree is a question, of course.
The novel was made into an excellent film in 1933 starring John Barrymore as Rivière and Clark Gable as Fabien. The movie was out of circulation from 1942 until 2011 owing to Saint-Exupéry withdrawing the author rights he had granted to MGM for 10 years. And it is certainly true that the movie was different from the novel in fundamental ways; necessarily so, I think, since a very large part of the novel takes place inside Rivière’s head.