Saturday, March 5, 2011

Did Nungesser and Coli beat Lindbergh across the Atlantic?

I've written about many aviators who tried to cross the Atlantic during the 1920's, and failed - some at the cost of their lives. Among them were French airmen Charles Nungesser (right, below) and François Coli (left, below), who took off from France on May 8th, 1927, in a Levasseur PL-8 biplane named L'Oiseau Blanc ('the white bird').

Nungesser, Coli and L'Oiseau Blanc (image courtesy of Wikipedia - click it for a larger view)

They were never seen again. The only relic of their flight is the detachable undercarriage of L'Oiseau Blanc, which was dropped after take-off to reduce drag on the long trans-Atlantic flight. It's preserved today in a French museum.

I recently came across an article published in the Independent newspaper in Britain, claiming that a new analysis of contemporary evidence reveals that Nungesser and Coli might actually have made it across the Atlantic. Here's an extract.

The greatest single mystery of the early days of aviation has been solved, according to French researchers.

. . .

The evidence suggests that Charles Nungesser and François Coli landed their sea-plane, L'Oiseau Blanc, or The White Bird, just off the coast of the French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, near Newfoundland on 11 May. Their plane probably broke up on - or soon after - touching down and both men were killed.

. . .

Bernard Decré, 70, the creator of the "round France" yacht race and an aviation enthusiast, believes he has solved the mystery at last.

One of the last pieces in the jigsaw was an internal US Coast Guard telegram found by his team of researchers in the national archives in Washington DC last month. It tells of the remains of a white aircraft seen floating in the ocean 200 miles off New York on 18 August 1927, which "may be the wreck of the Coli-Nungesser airplane".

This evidence, and other documents unearthed in recent months in Newfoundland and St Pierre et Miquelon, leads Mr Decré to believe he has finally pieced together the story of Nungesser and Coli's 5,200-kilometre flight. Although they failed to meet the "challenge" of flying between New York and Paris, they were, he believes, the first to complete a full, or "long", crossing of the Atlantic and the first to cross the Atlantic by plane from east to west.

"My intention is not to disparage the magnificent achievement of Lindbergh," Mr Decré told The Independent yesterday. "Enormous credit is also due to the British pilots (John) Alcock and (Arthur) Brown, who were the first to complete a 'short' crossing of the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919."

. . .

There is documentary evidence, in Newfoundland archives, of an aircraft being seen and heard on 11 May. There are also well-documented witness reports, uncovered by Mr Decré's team, of the sound of an aircraft just off the coast of Saint Pierre et Miquelon between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Pieces of wing were picked up in the sea nearby.

There's more at the link.

M. Decré makes an interesting case, but I don't find it convincing. The stories of aircraft being 'heard' can't be substantiated, and can't be linked to any one aircraft or flight. They may have been invented after the fact by attention-seekers. Furthermore, the sighting of 'the remains of a white aircraft' aren't proof that the remains belonged to L'Oiseau Blanc. Other aircraft were also lost at sea during that period. The primitive wood-and-fabric construction of contemporary planes would 'bleach out' after prolonged exposure to sun and salt water, so that even a dark-colored aircraft would soon appear light-colored - perhaps even white.

I fear M. Decré's research, interesting and valuable though it is for historical reasons, can't prove that Nungesser and Coli made it across the Atlantic. At this stage, eighty-four years after their disappearance, I doubt we'll ever find out how far they got, or precisely what happened to them.



Arthur B. Burnett said...

Greetings from Texas,
This story has a life of it's own, in various forms. I have found numerious refferences to the deep woods of Maine.

Some of the stories talk about a plane that was heard on a very overcast day. The plane was never seen, but as it over flew an old timer near his cabin he heard the engine struggle and die. Minutes later there was a crash. The old man never found any sign of a crash, but there were lots of lakes in the area. The old man believed it might have been the day the "White Bird" was supposed to arrive in New York.

Another article from the same part of Maine talks about some hunters who found a crashed plane in the woods. The only part of the plane worth messing with was the engine, which the guys dragged (with the assistance of a mule) to a pre war scrap metal drive. Beyond being an airplane engine no other details were ever reported. There were no photos, and nothing physical exist today.

Are the two stories related? No idea. For that matter, they may just be rummors.

The thing is, no other theory about the "White Bird" have any more going for it.

Old NFO said...

Interesting and 'inventive', but without some proof, just another theory...

Shell said...

Mr. Burnett writes of what I think may be the true tale. He is, however, wrong in saying that the airplane heard over rural Maine that day long ago was not seen.

For the story of the men and women who have been searching for the remains of the White Bird and the research they have done in trying to prove their theory go to the website of TIGHAR - The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery - at

These are also the people who have long searched for and may have found evidence of the fate of Amelia Earhart.

I know you'll find it very interesting reading, Peter.

Arthur B. Burnett said...

Greetings from Texas,
I had not come across any mention for folks seeing the White Bird, but look foward to checking you link. Thank you for that.

Normandy Thenandnow said...

Very interesting post, thank you. We recently visited the memorial at Etretat and have some photos here, plus a postcard of the old memorial blown up by the Germans in WW2.
Have a look here