|1927 postcard showing L'Oiseau Blanc, with pictures of Nungesser (left) and Coli (right)|
|First flight||April 1927|
|Fate||Disappeared during transatlantic flight attempt|
L'Oiseau Blanc (commonly known in the English-speaking world as The White Bird [N 1]) was a French Levasseur PL.8 biplane that disappeared in 1927, during an attempt to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight between Paris and New York to compete for the Orteig Prize. The aircraft was flown by French World War I aviation heroes, Charles Nungesser and François Coli. The aircraft disappeared after its 8 May 1927 takeoff from Paris. Two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh successfully made the New York–Paris journey and claimed the prize, flying the Spirit of St. Louis.
The disappearance of L'Oiseau Blanc is considered one of the great mysteries in the history of aviation. Many rumors circulated about the fate of the aircraft and crew, with mainstream opinion at the time being that the aircraft was probably lost in a squall over the Atlantic. Investigations starting in the 1980s suggest that the aircraft probably reached Newfoundland, and may have crashed in Maine.
The disappearance of Nungesser and Coli has an extensive legacy, and is referred to in many films and museums. A street in Paris is named after the aviators, and a commemorative postage stamp was issued in 1967. A statue at the Paris Le Bourget Airport honors the attempted flight, and there is a memorial on the cliffs of Étretat, from where their aircraft was last seen in France.
In 1919, New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a USD $25,000 prize, the Orteig Prize, to the first aviators to make a non-stop transatlantic flight between New York and Paris during the next five years. With no takers, he renewed the offer in 1924, when aviation technology had advanced enough at that point that many people tried for the prize. Most were attempting to fly from New York to Paris, but a number of French aviators planned an attempt to fly in the opposite direction, from Paris to New York.
François Coli, age 45, a World War I veteran and recipient of the French Legion of Honor, had been making record-breaking flights across and around the Mediterranean, and had been planning a transatlantic flight since 1923. His original plans were to fly with his wartime comrade Paul Tarascon, a flying ace with 12 victories from the war. They became interested in the Orteig Prize in 1925, but in late 1926 an accident destroyed their Potez 25 biplane. Tarascon was badly burned, and relinquished his place as pilot to 35-year-old Charles Nungesser, a highly experienced flying ace with over 40 victories, third highest among the French.
Nungesser had been planning an independent attempt at a solo crossing to win the Orteig Prize, but initial discussions with designer Pierre Levasseur had led to the company owner insisting that Coli be considered as his navigator in a new two-place variant of the production Levasseur PL.4.
Design and development
At the Pierre Levasseur Company in Paris, Nungesser and Coli, working closely with Chief Engineer Émile Farret and production manager Albert Longelot, assisted in the design of the new Levasseur PL.8 biplane. Based on the Levasseur PL.4 developed for the Aéronavale to operate from the French aircraft carrier Béarn, the PL.8 was a conventional, single-bay, wood and fabric-covered biplane that carried a crew of two in a side-by-side, open cockpit.
Major modifications included the reinforcement of the plywood fuselage, and removing two of the forward cockpits so the main cockpit could be widened to allow Nungesser and Coli to sit side-by-side. The wingspan was also increased to approximately 15 m (49 ft). Two additional fuel tanks were mounted aft of the firewall, meaning the PL.8's three fuel tanks held a total of 4,025 l (1,063 US gal) of gasoline.
The PL.8 also incorporated several safety features in case of ditching at sea. Apart from small floats attached directly to the undersides of the lower wing, the main units of the fixed, tailskid undercarriage could be jettisoned on takeoff, in order to reduce the aircraft's weight. The underside of the fuselage was given a boat-like shape and made watertight for a water landing. Nungesser and Coli's plan was to make a water landing in New York, in front of the Statue of Liberty
A single W-12 Lorraine-Dietrich 340 kilowatts (460 hp) engine was used, with the cylinders set in three banks spaced 60° apart from one another, similar to the arrangement used in Napier engines. The engine was tested to ensure it would last the entire flight, and was run for over 40 hours while still in the Parisian factory.
The aircraft, christened L'Oiseau Blanc, was painted white,[N 2] and had the French tricolor markings, with Nungesser's personal World War I flying ace logo: a skull and crossbones, candles and a coffin, on a black heart, painted on the fuselage. The biplane carried no radio[N 3] and relied only on celestial navigation, a specialty of Coli from his previous flights around the Mediterranean.
In April 1927, the PL.8-01 was shipped from the factory for Nungesser to begin a series of proving tests to determine aircraft performance. Most of the flights were conducted around Villacoublay and Chartres. Although full fuel loads were never carried, during one flight, he reached a speed of 207 kilometres per hour (129 mph) and flight elevation of 4,900 m (16,100 ft).
The evaluations proceeded successfully through the flight envelope without major changes required to the basic design. The only incident of note was a fire that broke out in the hangar where the PL.8-01 had been stored. Scorched fabric on the top wing was the result with effective repairs carried out shortly after. On 7 May 1927, after the tests were complete, the aircraft was prepared for its record flight, flying from Villacoublay to Le Bourget Field.
Nungesser and Coli took off at 5:17 a.m., 8 May 1927 from Le Bourget Field in Paris, heading for New York. Their PL.8-01 weighed 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) on takeoff, extremely heavy for a single-engined aircraft, barely clearing a line of trees at the end of the field. Gathering an escort of French fighter aircraft, Nungesser and Coli turned back as planned, and at low altitude, immediately jettisoned the main undercarriage.
The intended flight path was a great circle route, which would have taken them across the English Channel, over the southwestern part of England and Ireland, across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, then south over Nova Scotia, to Boston, and finally to a water landing in New York.
Once in the air, the biplane was escorted to the French coast by four military aircraft led by French Air Force Captain Venson, and sighted from the coastal town of Étretat. A sighting was made by the commanding officer of the British submarine HMS H50, who recorded the note in his log, that he observed a biplane at 300 m altitude, 20 nautical miles southwest of the tip of Needles on the Isle of Wight. In Ireland, an aircraft overhead was reported by a resident of the town of Dungarvan and a Catholic priest reported a sighting over the village of Carrigaholt, then no further verified reports were made.
Crowds of people gathered in New York to witness the historic arrival, with tens of thousands of people crowding Battery Park in Manhattan to have a good view of the Statue of Liberty, where the aircraft was scheduled to touch down. Rumors circulated that L'Oiseau Blanc had been sighted along its route, in Newfoundland, or over Long Island. In France, some newspapers even reported that Nungesser and Coli had arrived safely in New York, evoking a wave of French patriotism. L'Oiseau Blanc had been carrying a sizable load of fuel, 4,000 litres (1,056.7 US gal), which would have given them approximately 42 hours of flight time. After this time had passed, with no word as to the aircraft's fate, it was realized that the aircraft had been lost. In France, the public was scandalized by the newspapers such as La Presse which had printed false reports about the aircraft's arrival, and outrage was generated against the companies involved, with demonstrations in the streets.
In the immediate aftermath of their disappearance, an international search was launched to find Nungesser and Coli. Aviation Digest sponsored a well-known pilot, Floyd Bennett to search the area between New York and Newfoundland for nine days. The Canadian government search and rescue organizations also sent out two search aircraft (one of which crashed). Searchers including the French Navy, the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy that scoured the route, including Labrador, the northeast coast of the U.S. and the area around the St. Lawrence River. Subsequently, with no sign of the aircraft, further search efforts were abandoned.
Twelve days after Nungesser and Coli's departure, Charles Lindbergh, flying solo in the Spirit of Saint Louis, took off from New York on his own famous journey. After a flight of 33 hours, 30 minutes, he received a hero's welcome when he arrived in Paris, even as the French mourned the loss of Nungesser and Coli.
The mainstream view was that L'Oiseau Blanc crashed over the Atlantic due to a squall. Nonetheless, 12 witnesses in Newfoundland and Maine claimed to have heard the aircraft as it passed overhead. Residents at Harbor Grace, Newfoundland reported sighting a white aircraft circling in haze or fog, late on 9 May 1927. With no aircraft on the island and no overflights taking place, the local newspapers highlighted a "mystery" aircraft. If these stories were true, they would have meant that the flight was far behind schedule, as they would have been in the 40th hour of flight. This delay may have been explained, however, by the fact that the aircraft was flying against the prevailing weather pattern. Fishermen off the coast of Newfoundland reported that the weather had turned cold and foul, which might have caused the delay. In May 1927 the US Coast Guard found an airplane wing in Napeague Bay at Fort Pond Bay Long Island Sound; reportedly aircraft wreckage was seen in August 1927, 200 miles off the New York Coast
Many rumors swirled around the aircraft's disappearance, including a theory that was proposed that the aviators had been shot down by rum-runners with tommy guns, as well as the belief that Nungesser and Coli were still alive and living with Indians in Canada. In 1930, claims circulated that the L'Oiseau Blanc's engine had been located in Maine, but nothing was confirmed. Later stories emerged in 1948, from reports that caribou hunters and fur trappers had found aircraft wreckage in Great Gull Pond.
A fresh round of interest in L'Oiseau Blanc began in the 1980s, after freelance writer Gunnar Hansen of Northeast Harbor, Maine, researched and published an article in the June 1980 issue of Yankee Magazine, titled "The Unfinished Flight of the White Bird". Hansen revealed how Anson Berry (d. 1936), a hermit living near Machias, Maine, claimed late in the afternoon of May 9, 1927 to have heard a sputtering aircraft fly over his isolated camp at Round Lake, Maine. Berry had not been able to see the aircraft because of fog and low clouds, but had heard what sounded like a crash or forced landing in the distance. Hansen and others did a great deal of research during the 1980s, and located multiple other witnesses who reported memories of the aircraft in a line from Nova Scotia down to eastern Maine on that date.
In 1984, the French government made an official investigation, concluding that it was possible that the aircraft had reached Newfoundland. In 1989, the NBC television series Unsolved Mysteries advanced the theory that the two aviators made it across the ocean, but crashed and perished in the woods of Maine. One of Nungesser's relatives, William Nungesser, made several trips to Maine to search, focusing his energies around the north slope of Round Lake Hills in Washington County, Maine, as well as the area around Lake Winnipesaukee.
Famed author Clive Cussler and his NUMA organization also attempted to solve the mystery, searching for the aircraft in Maine and in Newfoundland. They made multiple visits in the 1980s, and interviewed dozens of elderly witnesses: hunters, fishermen and others who said they had seen or heard the aircraft pass by in 1927. The NUMA expedition was named "Midnight Ghost", after Lindbergh's quote in his book The Spirit of St. Louis, where he said that Nungesser and Coli had "vanished like midnight ghosts". In 1992, divers traveled to Newfoundland and attempted to locate and search Great Gull Pond for a wreck, but found nothing, and were not even sure that they had located the right lake. Other lakes were also searched, from Machias, Maine, to Chesterfield, Maine.
Certain pieces were found which, though not conclusive, did suggest that L'Oiseau Blanc had made it to the continent. Little of the aircraft would have remained, since it was created primarily from plywood and canvas. The parts most likely to endure would have been the engine and the aluminum fuel tanks. In Maine, bits and pieces of struts were found, and wood similar to the kind used to build the biplane. Engine metal was also found near the town of Machias, that was not typical to the United States or Canada. Two local residents described a large metal object, a "really big motor" which had been dragged out of the woods for salvage, along a path allegedly made by a logging operation.
In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that an unofficial French team was focusing on theories that the aircraft crashed off the coast of Canada after flying over Newfoundland.
The disappearance of L'Oiseau Blanc has been called "the Everest of aviation mysteries". TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, has called the aircraft, "History's Most Important Missing Airplane". Although it has been claimed that "if the aircraft had successfully completed its journey, Lindbergh would not qualify for the Orteig Prize, the sole reason for his attempt. When Lindbergh did succeed with his own flight across the Atlantic, the international attention on his achievement was probably enhanced because of the disappearance of 'L'Oiseau Blanc just days earlier. It is also suggested that it was Lindbergh's historic success which gave a major boost to the American aviation industry, without which the course of America's military and industrial accomplishments might have been quite different.
A monument was erected in Étretat in 1927, to mark the last place from which the biplane was seen in France, but it was destroyed in 1942 by the occupying German army. A new 24 m (79 ft) high monument, the "Monument Nungesser et Coli", was erected in 1963 atop one of the cliffs. There is also a nearby museum.
Another monument in France was inaugurated on 8 May 1928, at Le Bourget airport. Honoring Lindbergh, Nungesser, and Coli, it is inscribed, "A ceux qui tentèrent et celui qui accomplit" (trans: "To those who tried and to the one who succeeded"). The French issued a commemorative postage stamp in 1967, 40 years after the flight, to honor Nungesser and Coli's attempt. A street, "Rue Nungesser et Coli" is named after the aviators, along the Stade Jean Bouin in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
In 1928, the Ontario Surveyor General named a number of lakes in the northwest of the province to honour aviators who had perished during 1927, mainly in attempting oceanic flights. Amongst these are Coli Lake ( ) and Nungesser Lake ( ).
The fate of L'Oiseau Blanc is occasionally mentioned in films. The 1999 made-for-TV Canadian film Restless Spirits, a children's film with the alternate title Dead Aviators, uses the mystery of Nungesser and Coli's disappearance as the key plot device. A young girl, who struggles with her pilot father's death in an aircraft crash years before, visits her grandmother in Newfoundland. While there, she encounters the ghosts of Nungesser and Coli, whose restless spirits constantly relive their own unheralded 1927 crash in a nearby pond. The girl decides to help the pair move on to the afterlife by assisting them in rebuilding their aircraft and completing their flight so they may be released and, by doing so, works through her own emotional distress over her father's test flight death. And in the opening montage of the 2005 film Sahara, based on Cussler's novel, a French newspaper article is displayed reporting a fictional story of NUMA finding the aircraft.
As of 2008, the landing gear is the only confirmed part of the biplane remaining, and is on display at the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace (French Air and Space Museum), in Le Bourget airport in Paris, the location from which L'Oiseau Blanc took off.
- Crew: Two
- Length: 9.75 m (31 ft 11 in)
- Wingspan: 15 m (49 ft in)
- Height: 3.89 m (12 ft 9 in)
- Wing area: 61.0 m2 (656 ft2)
- Empty weight: 1,905 kg (4,200 lb)
- Gross weight: 5,000 kg (11,000 lb)
- Powerplant: 1 × Lorraine-Dietrich W-12ED, 340 kW (460 hp) each
- Maximum speed: 193 km/h (120 mph)
- Cruising speed: 165 km/h (102 mph)
- Range: 7,000 km (4,350 miles)
- Endurance: 40 hours
- Service ceiling: 7,000 m (22,965 ft)
- Montague 1971, pp. 102, 132.
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- "La vie aerienne: Deux grand departs, ont eu lieu ce matin pour le record d’endurance." (in French) Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 9 May 1928.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to L'Oiseau Blanc.|
- L'Oiseau Blanc ("The White Bird"), check-six.com
- Picture of landing gear of L'Oiseau Blanc at the French Air and Space Museum
- French flying aces 'beat Charles Lindbergh's record' by Henry Samuel, telegraph.co.uk
- "Charles Lindbergh Won the Prize, but Did His Rival Get There First?" by Sebastian Moffett, Wall Street Journal
- French launch bid to rewrite history books with claim that Lindbergh was NOT first to fly across the Atlantic" at the Daily Mail