May 1927 was a big month in aviation history. That was, of course, the month in which American pilot Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic non-stop for the first time in his plane Spirit of St. Louis, winning a famous prize and becoming an overnight celebrity the likes of which the world had never seen. But something else happened that same month. Two French aviators, François Coli and Charles Nungesser, trying to win the same prize, vanished in their airplane known as L’Oiseau Blanc, the “White Bird.” It happened on May 8, 1927, 87 years ago today, and exactly what became of them remains unknown to this day.
They–and Lindbergh–were competing for the Orteig Prize, a bounty of $25,000 offered in 1919 by New York hotel magnate to the first person who could fly between New York and Paris (in whichever direction) nonstop. By the late 1920s aircraft design had progressed to the point where such a feat, almost unimaginable in 1919, was possible. Coli was a French flying ace who lost an eye in World War I but also set a number of aviation records in the years after the war. Nungesser was a war hero with 43 official kills over the Western Front. In the White Bird venture he was a last-minute replacement for Coli’s usual partner who dropped out after he was injured in a crash. Coli had supervised the modification of a Levasseur PL.8 biplane to carry extra fuel tanks for the long voyage which he estimated would take 42 hours. Coli and Nungesser had no time to lose. At exactly the same time Lindbergh and his backers were working on Spirit of St. Louis in San Diego, and whoever actually took the prize would have to hurry.
At 5:17 AM on May 8, 1927, Coli and Nungesser took off in the White Bird from Le Bourget Field in Paris, headed for New York. Lindbergh at that time was finishing the test flights of Spirit of St. Louis and was about to take off for St. Louis, the first leg on his trip to Long Island where he would begin his flight–if Coli and Nungesser didn’t beat him to it. After flying over the English Channel, the White Bird was spotted by the captain of a British submarine off the Isle of Wight. Without real-time air to ground radio, the pilots could not check in; the next time they would be seen, hopefully they’d be in New York.
Charles Nungesser was a French aviator in World War I who had the third-highest number of confirmed victories of any Allied flier in that conflict. Presumably he got the scar in the war too.
Indeed, thousands of people gathered at the airfield on Long Island at around the time it was believed the White Bird would arrive. Given the amount of fuel the plane could carry, it couldn’t be longer than 42 hours after departure. The crowd waited…and nothing happened. Coli, Nungesser and their airplane were nowhere to be seen. As the hours wore on without any sighting of the team, newspapers and radio began to report the grim likelihood that the aviators hadn’t made it. Something happened to them on the flight.
But what? There was a squall over the Atlantic that day; the original theories were that the White Bird was caught in it and went down at sea. Given how difficult it has been to find the Malaysian airliner that went down at sea this year, 2014, if this had happened to the White Bird there was no hope of ever finding anything. Yet mysterious rumors circulated, especially in Newfoundland, that in fact the White Bird had made it to North America and crashed in an inaccessible forest somewhere in Canada or Maine, possibly in a lake. Investigations in the 1920s couldn’t substantiate these rumors, but in the 1980s two separate inquiries–including one made by novelist Clive Cussler, author of nautical thrillers that often revolve around historical mysteries–concluded that it was possible it could have happened. Small pieces of what might have been the rickety canvas-and-wood aircraft were found in Maine. Some old timers told a story of loggers dragging a large engine out of the woods, presumably many years after the flight. But nothing conclusive was found, and surely not human remains of Coli or Nungesser, who remain missing.
If Coli and Nungesser had made it across the Atlantic in the White Bird, you would never have heard of Charles Lindbergh, and “Spirit of St. Louis” would sound like the name of a bad musical.
The tragedy of what happened to Coli and Nungesser proved to be Lindbergh’s opportunity. On May 20, a little less than two weeks after Coli and Nungesser’s attempt, he took off from the same Long Island field where spectators had gathered to cheer them, flying Spirit of St. Louis in the other direction. Lindberg’s flight into history made him an international superstar, but it is telling that the monument erected to his feat at Le Bourget Airfield, where he landed, also honors François Coli and Charles Nungesser, “those who tried and the one who succeeded.”