An article in today’s Times details the continuing search for answers to one of aviation’s most persistent mysteries: What happened to “L’Oiseau Blanc”? The “White Bird,” piloted by the dashing French flying ace Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed partner François Coli, disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic–or maybe in Maine, or maybe off an island near Newfoundland–around May 8 or 9, 1927.
The aviators–both were already national heroes in France for their death-defying heroics during World War I–took off May 8 from Paris en route to New York City, in a daring bid to win the Orteig Prize. The prize– $25,000– was to be awarded to the first team or individual to pilot a plane nonstop from New York to Paris, or in the other direction.
After takeoff the pilots jettisoned the landing gear and wheels to save weight on their single-engine biplane. They intended to bring the the somewhat bulbous plane down–gently–in the waters next to New York’s Statue of Liberty.
For a brief moment, the names “Nungesser and Coli” (I wonder how people pronounced them) were on every American’s lips. (The guys were older and a good deal more glamorous than the wholesome All-American Boy, Charles Lindbergh. Check out the postcard of the pair with their dangling cigarettes and Coli’s rakish eye-patch.) The Frenchmen had stolen the lead for the Prize from the other announced contestants, including polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd, as well as Lindbergh, the young “Flying Fool,” who was cooling his heels in New York, waiting for the right moment to make his “hop” from New York to Paris. When Lindbergh finally found his moment, on May 20, 1927, the French aviators had been missing for nearly two weeks. Everyone, including Lindbergh, kept up a brave face about the fliers, saying things like they were praying for their safe return. Having made it to Paris on May 21, Lindbergh even made a condolence visit to Nungesser’s aged mother.
But soon all hope was abandoned.
Many theories have been advanced over the years about their fate, and the latest focus is on a tiny island (still part of France, oddly enough) off the coast of Newfoundland, where some evidence points to a Nungesser-Coli catastrophe nearby.