The Last Known Whereabouts of the White Bird
The disappearance of L’Oiseau Blanc in 1927 is one of the enduring mysteries of aviation history. The pilots eventually achieved their goal of changing aviation history, but certainly not in the way that they had hoped. It has only just come to my attention that I haven’t written about this mystery here, so I hope you don’t mind that I plagiarise myself with one of the chapters from Without a Trace.
It always strikes me as odd that this case is not well known in the English-speaking world, certainly not compared to the loss of Amelia Earhart fourteen years later, even though the search effort is claimed to have dwarfed hers in terms of money, manpower and area searched.
In fact, in France the interest has been high enough that The French Minister of Transport re-opened the case in 1984 and that report, translated and made available for reference as a part of a project to discover more (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: Project Ghost), gives us a great source of information about Nungesser and Coli’s flight, leaning heavily on the original investigation at the time.
However, even with modern technology, it is impossible to piece together exactly what happened. Although there have been many attempts to establish the route and find some trace of the aircraft wreckage, so far no one has been successful.
The story starts with the Orteig Prize which was offered by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig in 1919.
Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.
Yours very sincerely,
$25,000 would be the equivalent of a prize worth around $350,000 in 2018, enough to pay the debts of an aviator and maybe even enough left over to buy a brand new aircraft.
That year many record-breaking flights were made, including the first non-stop flight between Newfoundland and Ireland and the first crossing from East Fortune Scotland to Long Island, New York. However, the trip from New York to continental Europe was still beyond the capabilities of the aircraft of the time and the reward, which specified New York City to Paris, was not claimed during the five-year period of the prize.
In 1925, Orteig reissued his offer and this time, there was a real chance of an aviator collecting the prize.
The first serious attempt was by French flying ace René Fonck in 1926, who was flying a custom-built Sikorsky aircraft. The attempt literally never got off the ground: the Sikorsky crashed and burst into flames on take-off, killing two of the four on board.
The following year, a number of serious contenders in the US undertook to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris.
Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta had private funding for an attempt in a Bellanca WB-2 monoplane. In April, 1927 they set the world endurance record, circling New York City for over 51 hours and covering a distance of 4,100 miles. The planned flight from New York to Paris was 3,600 miles. But, before they were able to make their attempt, the pilots and the chief backer (who was also the owner of the aircraft) ended up in contract arguments and an injunction was placed on the aircraft. These arguments caused multiple delays and twice the transatlantic flights were cancelled. In the end, Chamberlin did cross the Atlantic but not until after the prize had been claimed.
Polar explorer Richard E. Byrd commissioned a tri-motor aircraft from Anthony Fokker. The Fokker crashed nose-over during a test flight; Byrd and his two crew members suffered multiple broken bones. The aircraft was repaired but, in May 1927, they were still testing and awaiting favourable weather. In the end, they did cross the Atlantic, but not until after the prize had been claimed. They also didn’t quite make it to the finish line; they failed to reach Le Bourget airfield in Paris and ended up ditching on the coast of Normandy.
Stanton Wooster and Noel Davis also planned a crossing in a Keystone Pathfinder named after their primary source of funding, the American Legion. Their aircraft crashed on a test flight, killing both aviators.
At this time, only one team was considering the more difficult east–west crossing from France to the United States. Charles Nungesser was a French ace pilot who had racked up 43 air combat victories during the First World War. Although he was one of the best fighter pilots the French had, he was also regularly put on house arrest for flying without permission. He met François Coli during the war.
François Coli lost an eye in a crash in 1918 but had already solidified his reputation as an excellent navigator. After the war he took part in a number of record-setting distance flights and had already planned a non-stop transatlantic prize as early as 1923. However he and his partner had an accident which destroyed their biplane. Coli still wished to attempt to win the Orteig prize and was on the lookout for another aircraft and partner. Charles Nungesser had planned to cross solo but the aircraft designer, Pierre Levasseur, insisted that he should consider taking Coli as his navigator in the new two-seater version of the Levasseur PL.4. Nungesser and Coli worked with the Levasseur chief engineer and the production manager to design the Levasseur PL.8 biplane, which they named L’Oiseau Blanc.
On the 8th of May in 1927, Nungesser and Coli departed Le Bourget Field at 05:17 local time, half an hour after dawn. The aircraft, heavy with fuel, barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway. Four military aircraft accompanied the flight on the first leg. Photographs and films of the time show the aircraft’s attitude as normal. The landing gear was released as they flew over the Seine in order to reduce the weight of the aircraft. If they were to make an emergency landing, they would ditch the plane on water, so there was no point in carrying the wheels for the rest of the journey.
At 06:48, the aircraft was sighted over Étretat on the coast. At this stage, they’d travelled 108 nautical miles in over an hour and a half, an estimated ground speed of 133km/h. This was considerably slower than they had estimated and it is not clear why. The wind was light and they had planned the weight of the aircraft carefully.
The sighting at Étretat was important because this was the decision point. Nungesser and Coli had agreed that they would turn back here if they felt the attempt was unlikely. They continued flying northwest at low altitude, committing to crossing the English Channel.
This is the last point where we can be sure of their decisions.
It’s not clear what the weather was like over the Channel. Descriptions of the last sighting of the biplane range varied from “lost to view, far away between the water and the sky” to “arrived at the Channel in the thick fog”. Whether they disappeared into the fog or into the distance, that moment is our last piece of reliable information, the last position update clearly confirmed by multiple witnesses.
The military aircraft turned back and L’Oiseau Blanc flew on. Now it begins to get odd.
A Frenchman out walking on the cliffs near Étretat that day, M. Joseph Meny, remembers that it was around 6 a.m. when he saw a plane overhead. He said it was low-flying and jolting about as it flew and at the time he thought, “Well, that won’t go far.” He thought it was almost certainly L’Oiseau Blanc but, at the time, he decided it would be better not to tell anyone. There was a wave of proud patriotism in France in the wake of the attempt to be the first to make the crossing and the man believed that such a negative description of the French aircraft would be dismissed. In fact, he did not report what he had seen until 1980.
Aircraft were not a common sight but his timing is wrong or, at least, misremembered. We know that the L’Oiseau Blanc didn’t reach Étretat until 06:48. If he actually saw the aircraft around seven, then the “jolting” is worrying.
There should have been position updates as the aircraft crossed the Channel but, embarrassingly, it seems that the French Navy were watching in the wrong area. By the following day, they didn’t bother with lookouts, presuming that L’Oiseau Blanc had already crossed. It wasn’t until the 10th, two days after the aces’ glorious departure from Paris, that a flurry of telegrams were sent to the ships to search for any sign of the aircraft. By now, the weather had turned bad; the Navy weren’t able to carry out aerial patrols and gave up the search on the evening of the 12th of May.
One man thought he saw the wreckage of the aircraft. In 1937, ten years after the famous flight, a fisherman told his wife and his sons that he’d seen L’Oiseau Blanc a day or two after the famous departure. He was fishing, piloting a 14-metre cutter from Fécamp, when he briefly saw the wreckage of a white plane off of the coast of Étretat, which the waves then pulled under. He reported it immediately to the Naval Authority, who ordered him not to tell anyone else what he had seen. The man’s son reported this conversation when the French aviation authority reopened the investigation.
He said that his father, who was accompanied by three or four of his fellow boatmen, did not say what the weather or the sea was on the day, but that since he was fishing, the weather must have been all right. His father did not see the airplane land and did not hear the sound of the airplane’s motor. He was about 150 meters away from the wreckage when it went under. He recovered no debris from the area. The wreckage was apparently empty, but if the members of the crew were prostrated unconscious in the cockpit, he probably could not have seen them. In any case he heard no call for help.
There are no records of this at the Naval District of Fécamp, which is where the fisherman would have likely made his report. Was the fisherman wrong or was his report covered up? It is impossible to tell.
However, there’s no way both of these reports could be true. If the jolting aircraft crossed the coastline on the 8th and then crashed, the wreckage would not still be floating for the fisherman to see it pulled under the waves a day or two later. Neither report, made so long after the fact, is compelling evidence that Nungesser and Coli crashed before they flew out of sight of the French coastline.
Then there’s a British Naval Submarine who reported seeing an aircraft on the far side of the Channel, twenty miles south-west of the Needles on the Isle of Wight. This sighting, at least, is right on course for their planned flight.
Press release from the British Admiralty:
London, May 12. — The British Admiralty have published the telegram below received from the base commander of Portland (England): The submarine H.50 conveys an account of seeing an aircraft at 50°29′ north by 1°30′ west at 0745 British summer time on May 8, altitude 300 meters. Course about 300°. Light coloured biplane. The only markings visible were red, white and blue on the tail. The biplane looked like one with a large fuselage. The visibility was not more than two or three miles. Weather too foggy to see other marks.
Aircraft were not commonly crossing the channel and clearly it wasn’t a British plane, which they would have recognised. Who else could it possibly be? But this report isn’t as reliable as it looks at first glance. There’s no mention of the aircraft in the submarine logs, which is very odd. It’s possible that the sailors were simply watching for the French flight out of interest and felt no need to log it as an official note of observation, but now we are starting to make excuses. Also, the timing is wrong: L’Oiseau Blanc would have had to travel 380 km/h to cross the channel by 07:45 British summer time and we know that the aircraft was barely travelling at half that speed.
Somehow, the press release was never officially communicated to the French Navy even though it was quoted in the Times of London and various French newspapers. It didn’t matter anyway. No one followed up on this because, by then, more people had claimed to have seen or heard the French aces flying overhead.
Many of these reports contradicted each other and it’s very possible that every single one is wrong. But a combination of sightings could be cherry-picked for a feasible recreation of L’Oiseau Blanc’s journey.
One report of an aircraft flying at a height of 1,000–2,000 feet near Exeter at 08:15 fits the timeline, as does a 10:00 sighting over County Clare in Ireland at 1,000 metres, which claims that the French colours were confirmed by telescope. These sightings form a straight line from Le Bourget and heading straight across the Atlantic. If we accept these sightings as true, then the French pilots would have flown over the west coast of Ireland at 11:00 local time (10:00 GMT).
Certainly, the French Embassy in Ireland collected all the reports they could find and confirmed “without possible doubt that Nungesser crossed Ireland from Lismore to Carrigaholt, and was seen for the last time here at around 1100 hours.”
One eyewitness was just eight years old at the time but when the case was reopened, he said that he clearly remembered seeing the aircraft with his father.
I was only 8 years old when I saw the ’plane, and would have been with my father. My recollection is that the ’plane was flying fairly high over the River Shannon and went west over Knocknagaroon Hill towards the Atlantic. Knocknagaroon Hill is on the Atlantic coast, 5 or 6 miles south west of Kilkee. The association between that ’plane and Knocknagaroon Hill is very clear in my memory.
I still have a distinct recollection of seeing the aeroplane fly out west over Knocknagaroon Hill. My father was greatly interested in this effort by Capt. Nungesser to fly across the Atlantic, from this side, and the fact that both he and I had seen the ’plane made it a topic of family conversation and interest which lasted for long after the reported loss of the two brave pilots and their aeroplane.
The combined testimony from Ireland led to hope that the aircraft made it across England and Ireland, heading over the Atlantic about six hours after it departed from Paris.
Here would be another decision point for the pilots. Once they started the long and dangerous flight over the Atlantic, they would have very little chance if they had to ditch. If they were not sure that they could make it across the Atlantic, now was the time to call it off. If they decided not to continue, then they could either land locally (in Ireland or England) or cross the Channel again and return to Paris.
Although the first aviation radio was installed in 1910 along with the first in-flight radio transmission (“Roy, come and get this goddamned cat!”), that was in an airship, not a plane. In 1927, the weight of a radio system was still well beyond what a little biplane like L’Oiseau Blanc could carry, so there was no way for the French aces to interact with the rest of the world unless they landed, which in itself was fraught with danger and could only be done once; remember, they dropped the landing wheels to save weight when they took off.
Their engineer told Le Journal about the discussion he’d had with the pilots before they departed.
The eminent engineer wished to tell us that all of his interpretations had as their base the passage of the white plane over Ireland. Nungesser and Coli were supposed to cross the area in about five hours after departure, at a minimum altitude of 1000 meters; and if, at the moment pinpointed on their progress tables for direction and altitude, they could see that everything was going according to the mathematical checkpoints established before their departure, they could embark over the Atlantic; but only under these conditions. In case of doubt, the aircraft would immediately have reversed course, in order to land on one of the numerous British rivers.
At this point, we have evidence for three possible scenarios:
- L’Oiseau Blanc crashed in the Channel after passing over Étretat (the last solid sighting), flying low, slow and “jolting”, and every other sighting is a mistake or a case of wishful thinking.
- L’Oiseau Blanc made it across the Channel, overflying England and Ireland before turning back to return to France, crashing near the coast of France, which would mean that the wreckage seen by the fisherman was in fact the French aircraft.
- L’Oiseau Blanc successfully followed its expected route and the French aces began their Atlantic crossing at around 10:00 GMT that day.
No further sightings were reported that day or that night, not even impossible ones. Would someone have noticed the aircraft returning over Ireland and England in the dark? It’s quite likely that they wouldn’t, bearing in mind no one was watching for it by now. Certainly no one could have seen it flying over the Atlantic in the dark.
For the moment, let’s assume that the mood was bullish in the cockpit and they continued their record-breaking flight. In the original plans, Coli had originally hoped they could follow the Great Circle route from southern Ireland to Belle Isle, passing between Newfoundland and the rest of Atlantic Canada. After seeing the weather forecasts on the morning of their departure, he revised this course. His plans for the new route estimated that they would fly over Belle Isle at around 06:00 GMT.
Many believe that the aircraft and the pilots were lost during those dark hours, flying over the Atlantic. But there are a number of witnesses in Newfoundland and Maine who claim that they heard the aircraft fly overhead above the clouds. And it’s true that if they continued on their course and if they did not divert north, then it is quite possible that they next overflew Harbour Grace in Newfoundland.
This is important because La Presse published seven reports from residents of Harbour Grace who stated that they had heard an aircraft flying overhead around 9:30 or 10:00. Four of the witnesses recall the aircraft sounds overflying the bay from the north but the other three are just as emphatic that the aircraft was flying towards the north-west. The following day, La Presse retracted the article and said all of the reports were erroneous. That same day, the Evening Telegram quoted two more reports, including this charming account from a woman who had no idea what she’d seen.
Annie Kelly, a married woman residing in Harbour Grace, South Shore, swore that between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning of Monday, May 9th, she was working near her house when she heard a buzzing sound that seemed to be overhead. The noise passed over her house, it seemed, and searching to find out what caused it, she saw over her and going south what she took at first to be two big gulls with their wings touching. They were two large white wings on a line with each other, but she knew the object could not be a bird from the strange sound it made. She did not report the matter earlier, because she did not know anything about the missing aeroplane until she saw it in the Harbour Grace Standard on Friday night, and then she thought she should report the matter.
But there was serious question as to whether these reports were trustworthy. On the 17th, over a week after it was clear that the French flight had been lost, The Times published an article stating that the witnesses to the overflying aircraft were incorrect and that they could not confirm that the aircraft had ever been there.
Investigators at Harbour Grace are now inclined to believe that the persons who said they saw or heard an aeroplane there on May 9 were self-deluded.
If L’Oiseau Blanc did fly over Harbour Grace that morning, then the French pilots had a serious problem: fuel. Based on the times that the witnesses heard or saw an aircraft, Nungesser and Coli had been flying for over 41 hours, exceeding their initial planned flight time.
They could hope for another seven hours, at best, before running out of fuel. They could not possibly make it to New York City. They obviously couldn’t make it back to Europe. They needed to divert.
They had discussed this possibility during planning and had a list of possible diversions: Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Maine. Even if one assumes that the biplane made it this far and then diverted and landed, this is an impossibly large search area.
A sighting that might have helped to find the biplane came from a fisherman who inexplicably did not see any reason to report what he had seen until 1930.
On the morning of May 9, 1927, in a thick fog and white calm, I was finding the fish in an area about a mile and a half south of the black cape, when I heard a noise like the motor of an airplane . . . The noise increasing, I was quite sure it was an airplane . . . Suddenly toward the open sea, I heard a great crash like something very heavy fell into the sea . . . then there was total silence. At the same moment, my Newfoundland dog who was sleeping on the motor’s casing stood on his hind legs and started to howl; I had a lot of trouble making him be quiet . . . I went back to the port in the afternoon. It was one or two days later that I heard about the disappearance of the aviators Nungesser and Coli.
This is again not a particularly reliable account. It’s hard to explain why the fisherman, who seemed quite clear that he had heard a crash, stayed where he was and continued fishing rather than sounding alarm, and continued to say nothing during the massive searches around St Pierre, waiting until three years later to tell his tale.
The mystery now spans thousands upon thousands of kilometres, with eyewitnesses to vouch for each of the following:
- L’Oiseau Blanc crashed in the Channel after passing over Étretat.
- L’Oiseau Blanc made it across the Channel, overflying England and Ireland before turning back to return to France, crashing near the coast of France.
- L’Oiseau Blanc continued across the Atlantic but was lost at sea somewhere between Ireland and Newfoundland.
- L’Oiseau Blanc reached Newfoundland, overflying Harbour Grace, with a range of around seven hours flight time left to them, and then crashed.
Knowing that clearly not all of the sightings (especially of the wreckage) can possibly be true, and with evidence that many of the witnesses were flat out wrong, it becomes impossible to know who to believe.
There’s just one more reported sighting; this one was in the north-east of Maine.
The crash of this plane was heard by a woodsman, Anson Berry, deceased in 1936. While he was fishing that afternoon on Round Lake, he heard a plane engine that, after some misfiring, ceased to function. The noise of a forced landing followed. The witness did not see the plane because of the fog and low clouds. He did not attempt to go to the area of the crash.
Now, based on the timing, this could have been the same aircraft which overflew Harbour Grace. This sighting has even led to a theory that Maine bootleggers shot down the biplane, fearing police surveillance.
But even if that were likely, which it isn’t, then it means that L’Oiseau Blanc was still flying towards New York City, despite the fact that both of the pilots must have known that they could not possibly make it there. This makes no sense: Nungesser and Coli were highly competent pilots and by that time had already exceeded their planned flight of 40 hours. No magic wand could possibly have got them to New York to win the prize. They could not magic up fuel. It seems fantastical that they would simply carry on, knowing for a fact that they did not have enough fuel to make it to their destination.
The search for the remains of L’Oiseau Blanc has never stopped; although obviously the aircraft would have disintegrated by now, there is one part which is likely to have survived over the years: the 400-kilogramme metal engine.
So far, no sign of L’Oiseau Blanc has been discovered. In 1982, TIGHAR’s Project Midnight Ghost began searching the area around Round Lake, based on the woodsman’s sighting, hoping to find the engine. After ten years, they concluded that further searching was pointless and that L’Oiseau Blanc had not made it to Maine. In 1992, they refocused their efforts to explore the options in Newfoundland. However, there are hundreds of lakes where the biplane might have attempted to ditch and after twenty-five years of searching, Project Midnight Ghost is struggling for further funding to continue the search.
Since 2009, French businessman Bernard Decré has been searching the area around the French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon for the remains of the biplane. In 2013, he took a team to scour the south-east coast of the Ille de St Pierre using sonar and a magnetometer to try to locate the engine. Decré believes that US authorities covered up the disappearance and the crash in order to pave the way for an American victory.
It was just ten days later, on the 20th of May, when Charles Lindbergh departed Roosevelt Field in New York to make the first cross-Atlantic flight from New York City to Paris. He arrived thirty-three hours later, winning the Orteig prize as well as making the first ever solo transatlantic flight.
Over 150,000 people were at Le Bourget to watch him land and he became a great sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Elinor Smith Sullivan, who was a pilot at the time, described how this success immediately changed American aviation.
People seemed to think we [aviators] were from outer space or something. But after Charles Lindbergh’s flight, we could do no wrong. It’s hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn’t come close. The twenties was such an innocent time, and people were still so religious—I think they felt like this man was sent by God to do this. And it changed aviation forever because all of a sudden the Wall Streeters were banging on doors looking for airplanes to invest in. We’d been standing on our heads trying to get them to notice us but after Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren’t enough planes to carry them.
And so ends the “Everest of aviation mysteries” as it has become known. Although it is tempting to believe that someone might one day find the engine, it’s just not possible to narrow the search area for any one of the three possible locations (the English Channel, the Atlantic past the Irish shore or in the wilderness of the eastern coast of North America). The reported sightings cannot possibly all be true and so we are left with a ninety-year-old mystery of the French flying aces who “vanished like midnight ghosts”.