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The Mystery of L'Oiseau Blanc

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An Unsolved Mystery

Charles Nungesser, 35, and François Coli, 45, were French World War I flying aces who attempted to fly from Paris to New York non-stop in 1927. They didn't complete the journey and what happened to them is still a mystery.

A post card celebrating Nungesser and Coli.

A post card celebrating Nungesser and Coli.

The Orteig Prize

In 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 (worth almost $400,000 in today's money) to the first person or persons to fly between New York and Paris non-stop. Either direction qualified.

These were the early days of aviation and Orteig sought to spur technical advances with his money. In June 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. However, their flight had covered the shortest distance possible from Newfoundland to Ireland and did not meet the challenge of the Orteig prize.

With the incentive of a large amount of money, several flyers tried to capture the prize and it cost some of them their lives. In 1926, Frenchman René Fonck's attempt failed when his plane crashed and burst into flames while trying to get airborne.

There were many big problems to overcome, weight being the most difficult. The weight of fuel needed to complete the 3,600-mile (5,800-km) journey made takeoff problematic.

Stanton Wooster and Noel Davis were U.S. Navy flyers who were aiming to capture the Orteig prize. In late April 1927, they were test flying their Keystone Pathfinder biplane with a heavy fuel load. They got airborne but soon lost height and crashed, killing both men.

Two weeks later, Nungesser and Coli made their attempt.

Wooster and Davis Prepare for Their Fatal Test Flight (No Sound)

Preparations for the Trans-Atlantic Flight

The aircraft that Nungesser planned to use was a French-built Levasseur PL.4, a rather squat-looking, single-engine, biplane. It was greatly modified and painted white, hence its name, L'Oiseau Blanc, or the White Bird in English. It also carried Nungesser's rather ghoulish logo of candles and a skull on a black heart.

The bottom of the fuselage was shaped like a boat so that it could make a landing on water; a sensible modification for an ocean crossing. The wheeled under carriage was designed to be dropped after takeoff and the touch down would be on either the East or Hudson Rivers.

Nungesser was the pilot and Coli the navigator. Nungesser was to be at the controls for the entire anticipated 40-hour journey and Coli's navigation aids were primitive, relying mostly on the stars and sun for directions.

The decision to fly from Paris to New York may have been influenced by national pride, but it made the flight more tricky.

Weather systems move from west to east over the North Atlantic, so the French aviators could not use tail winds to aid their flight. They had no knowledge of what weather they might encounter on the way and they didn't have a radio in order to save weight.

A contemporary painting of  L'Oiseau Blanc.

A contemporary painting of L'Oiseau Blanc.

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The Flight of L'Oiseau Blanc

The Aero News Network describes the early morning (5:13 am) start of the flight: “It lifted once, tentatively, then settled, the weight of an unprecedented fuel load dragging it down. It weighed over 11,000 pounds, quite a lot for a single-engine plane. Finally it lifted, to the cheers of nervous onlookers, and flew off, climbing painfully slowly.”

L'Oiseau Blanc was seen crossing the coast of France at Étretat about 140 miles northwest of Paris. Then, a British naval officer spotted the aircraft over the southwestern tip of Ireland as it headed out across the Atlantic.

As they were flying the Great Circle route, to the north of shipping lanes, the aircraft was not seen as it crossed the Atlantic.

Large crowds gathered at Battery Park to watch the touch down near the Statue of Liberty. But, as time ticked by and the plane failed to appear apprehension grew. The intrepid pilots had enough fuel for about 40 hours of flight so, by 4 pm on May 9, concern grew to alarm.

Undaunted, French newspapers reported the safe arrival Nungesser and Coli in New York creating an explosion of patriotism. This was followed by a crash of anger when it became obvious the plane had gone down somewhere. But, where?

Map showing the early route of L'Oiseaux Blanc.

Map showing the early route of L'Oiseaux Blanc.

Search for the Missing White Bird

The accepted wisdom was that L'Oiseau Blanc had encountered foul weather and been forced down into the icy water of the North Atlantic. Search missions were launched but there was no sign of the pilots or their aircraft. Then, there were the witnesses in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine who claimed to have heard an airplane on the afternoon of May 9.

Ric Gillespie has spent 35 years tracking down these earwitness reports. He's Executive Director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and he thinks he's traced the graveyard of the White Bird to Cape Shore, Newfoundland.

He fixed on this location after spending eight fruitless years investigating Round Lake in southeastern Maine. The area became of interest because of an account from a hermit-like character named Anson Berry. He said he heard a sputtering plane fly over his camp followed by a crash. He said he looked for wreckage and never found any. Ric Gillespie had the same result after a prolonged search so he turned his attention to where other witness reports had come from.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that “At the time, residents of the Cape Shore on Newfoundland's southeast coast said they watched Nungesser and Coli's plane fly overhead. Later, some even reported seeing pieces of airplane wreckage in nearby Gull Pond near St. Mary's Bay.”

It's Gillespie's contention that Nungesser tried to splash down on Gull Pond but crashed instead. He intends to prove his theory using modern technology.

Ric Gillespie's Search for L'Oiseau Blanc

Bonus Factoids

  • Less than two weeks after the disappearance of L'Oiseau Blanc, Charles Lindbergh flew his Ryan Monoplane from New York to Paris to claim the Orteig prize.
  • Charles Nungesser was credited with 43 air-combat victories during World War I, but his success came at some personal cost. Aerodrome.com lists his many wartime injuries: “Skull fracture, brain concussion, internal injuries (multiple), five fractures of the upper jaw, two fractures of lower jaw, piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel embedded in right arm, dislocation of knees (left and right), re-dislocation of left knee, bullet wound in mouth, bullet wound in ear, atrophy of tendons in left leg, atrophy of muscles in calf, dislocated clavicle, dislocated wrist, dislocated right ankle, loss of teeth, contusions too numerous to mention.”
  • François Coli also had an eventful war. He started in the French infantry but was wounded so many times he was declared unfit for service. Courageously, he joined the French Air Service and rose to command a squadron. In March 1918, he crashed his plane and lost an eye in the accident.
  • The White Bird's wheels are on display at the French Air and Space Museum at Paris's Le Bourget airport, which is where the aircraft took off. The wheels were jettisoned soon after the aircraft became airborne because the expectation was that there would be a water touch down.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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