Charles Lindbergh is a household name. Children learn at a young age that he was first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis.
But 2 weeks before his famous flight, a brave pair of Frenchmen took off from Paris planning to fly nonstop to New York, and have their names enter the history books instead of their American rival.
|Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser|
Instead, they vanished.
Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser (ages 45 and 35) were both excellent pilots. Coli was a highly decorated veteran of WWI, who'd been making record-breaking distance flights across the Mediterranean Sea for several years. Nungesser was also a talented flier, and France's 3rd most successful ace in WWI. Like their American contemporary, Charles Lindbergh, they were chasing the $25,000 (in 1924 money) Orteig Prize, which would be awarded for the first nonstop New York-Paris flight across the Atlantic.
They spent 2 years modifying a Levasseur PL.8 biplane, adding extra fuel tanks and reinforcing the structure for the long flight to come. The engine was run in the factory for over 40 consecutive hours to test its reliability. The bottom of the plane was rebuilt so it could land on water, and their plan was to arrive in front of France's gift to America, the statue of Liberty, to complete the record breaking journey. A wheeled carriage would be used for take-off from land, then dropped. The plane was painted white and named L'Oiseau Blanc - "The White Bird."
Their route was an arc over the northern Atlantic, taking them from Paris, across the English Channel, England, and Ireland. On the other side of the Atlantic they'd gradually turn south and fly over Nova Scotia, Maine, Boston, and finally come down in New York harbor. They had enough fuel for 42 hours of continuous flight, and were going at a time of year known for better weather. Coli was one of the best navigators of the era - in an age where flights over water relied entirely on celestial navigation. Like most planes, they had no radio.
The guts to do this sort of thing must have been remarkable. For the most part we take long-distance flying for granted today. But at that time they were using technology as unproven to them as the earliest space flights were to another generation. The planes were wood, metal, and cloth. Engine reliability was iffy at best. Navigation was largely educated guesswork. The White Bird's cockpit was open to the elements, and behind the wings. They had nothing over their heads, so were exposed to wind, rain, and cold.
At 5:27 a.m. an May 8, 1927, they took off from Paris's Le Bourget Field, dropping the wheeled sled that was used for the take-off. Within minutes the electric signal had been received in New York that the White Bird was on its way. Crowds in Paris watched as they disappeared into the distance. They continued over England and Ireland on their way into the history books. The last man to see them was a priest in Carrigaholt, Ireland.
On May 10, large crowds gathered in New York to watch the historic arrival. No one had ever flown from Paris non-stop, and it was a big day in the development of the amazing airplane.
But it was not to be. The White Bird never appeared. After several hours of waiting, the crowds dispersed, not knowing what had happened to the 2 brave Frenchman.
And 89 years later, we still don't know.
For 2 weeks, the armed forces of France, England, Canada, and America scoured as much of the Atlantic and northeastern North America as possible. But no trace of them was ever found. Writing of their attempt afterwards, Lindbergh noted they'd "vanished like midnight ghosts."
For several years it was assumed they were victims of a storm, or navigational error, or mechanical problem. The North Atlantic is cold, gray, foggy, and unforgiving. If they were forced to come down far from land, they'd have no real chance of survival. A navigation error could put them far off course, heading for desolate areas as their fuel ran out.
But the odds are that they didn't fail entirely.
As years went by, disparate stories drifted in. Fishermen in remote Newfoundland communities seeing a white plane pass overhead on May 9 (in that era an airplane sighting was a rarity). Reports from small towns through Nova Scotia and into Maine, where residents noted either a white plane going by, northeast to southwest, or the sound of an airplane engine above the clouds. One local newspaper even reported a "mystery plane" passed overhead on that day. These were from areas likely unaware of the White Bird's attempt.
The stories, initially disconnected, meant little. But as researchers dug there were 2 common threads: they all took place on May 9-10, 1927, and all were in a line that sequentially followed the final leg of White Bird's planned course to New York City. In that era there were no other planes that would account for them.
And the reports stopped somewhere in Maine.
Anson Berry (died 1936), a hermit outside of Machias, Maine, knew nothing of the White Bird and didn't read newspapers. But on trips to buy supplies, he told many townspeople about a day in May, 1927, when he'd heard a low-flying plane engine sputtering somewhere above the clouds... Followed by a loud crash in the distance.
Rumors have cropped up over time. A plane wreck seen in a lake. A ruined engine, possibly from a plane, found in the forest and sold for scrap. A few odd pieces of metal and wood have been collected in the area, but nothing that can clearly proven to have been from the plane.
Two weeks after the White Bird vanished, Charles Lindbergh made the first successful non-stop New York - Paris air crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis. Although evidence suggests the Frenchmen beat him by 2 weeks, their exact landing place and fate remain a mystery. Perhaps someday it will be solved.
On the cliffs of Étretat, in France, is a monument to mark the last place Nungesser and Coli flew over their homeland as they headed west.
Near their take-off spot at Le Bourget field is a monument to both they and Lindbergh, inscribed "A ceux qui tentèrent et celui qui accomplit" ("To those who tried and to the one who succeeded").
At the nearby French Air & Space Museum, is the only proven relic of their brave journey: the wheeled sled that the White Bird used for take-off, and then jettisoned.