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Kings of the Air: The White Bird

As I mentioned last time, following the end of the Great War, the former ace Charles Nungesser tried to earn a living in the USA, putting on displays and starring as an action hero in feature films. Whatever he took from this activity was apparently not enough - he abandoned film work and went back to flying. A venture into selling planes to the Cuban military ended badly. He decided to take on the Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic.

Let me say at this juncture that this was not a prize for simply crossing the Atlantic - Nungesser, and Lindbergh after him, were not trying to be the first to cross the ocean, as some sloppy journalists assert. The crossing had already been achieved in 1919 by two Britons, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. The Orteig Prize was for $25,000, put up by a New York hotelier, Raymond Orteig, for the first non-stop crossing between the two cities.

Once he had crashed his aircraft, René Fonck had decided the whole project was too risky, so leaving the field to Nungesser. As a copilot / navigator, Nungesser asked Paul Tarascon, another former ace, but Tarascon was badly burnt when their Potez 25 crashed. The choice fell on François Coli. Coli had been the CO of SPA62 in 1918, when he crashed into one of the squadron's hangars when returning from a mission. Although badly injured (he would lose an eye), he refused all medical assistance until he had dictated the following order: 'With the exception of CO, squadron members are forbidden to bring their plane into the hangars by any entrance other than the doors designed for the purpose.' Despite his injury, Coli continued to fly, and in the years after the war had successfully completed several long-distance flights across the Mediterranean.

The pair worked closely with the Levasseur Company to produce a new aircraft capable of the voyage, the PL.8, a development of a French carrier-based PL.4 type. The result was a large, heavy biplane, with pilot and navigator seated side by side. The undercarriage was jettisonable, and the underside of the fuselage streamlined, with the intention that the successful flight would be completed by landing in the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty. It was painted in white (hence the nickname of L'Oiseau Blanc - White Bird), with Nungesser's wartime skull-and-crossbones insignia on the side.

The aircraft took off from Le Bourget at 0517 on 8 May 1927. Following a great circle route, the pair flew north-west, crossing the Dorset coast and the Bristol Channel before crossing Ireland. Several witnesses reported having seen or heard them pass overhead. 

They were never seen again.

Crowds gathered in New York in expectation of seeing them land; the Paris daily La Presse even reported that they had arrived (not French journalism's finest hour!). To this day, the fate of the aircraft is unknown. Several people living in the back country of Newfoundland or in Maine later reported hearing an aircraft engine at about the correct time; others reported hearing a crash, but extensive searches in forest and ponds have failed to find any major wreckage. Other theories on their fate suggest they were shot down by rum-runners, thinking they were the US Coastguard; or by the US Coastguard, thinking they were rum-runners.

Two statues were erected in their honour. The first was placed at Etretat, where the pair crossed the Channel coast. Unfortunately, it was blown up by the German Army in 1942 (they had a more robust attitude to art criticism in those days), leaving only the base, shaped like an aircraft, in the grass on the cliff top. There was a small museum on the site, run by the municipality, but it is reported closed until further notice - there is nothing on the town's website. The second statue, at the airfield at Le Bourget, was a statue not just to Nungesser and Coli, but also to Charles Lindbergh, who succeeded where Nungesser and Coli had failed a few months later.

The mystery has attracted many searches over the years. The most persistent is 'Project Midnight Ghost' of TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, whose members have been searching since 1984, concentrating on Maine and Newfoundland. A French group have been looking at the offshore island group of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon; their blog stops in 2012, so it may be they have given up, at least for the moment.

A French TV documentary Le Mystère de l'Oiseau Blanc is on You Tube here, but in a version dubbed into German Tod beim Atlantikflug. I have been unable to find either the original French version, or the English version on the same site. Even if you can't understand the commentary, the pictures look good. There are two clips from an Arte TV programme here, the first on Nungesser's youth and as a fighter pilot; the second shows Fonck's aircraft coming to a sticky end, and Nungesser's Levasseur being built and tested. The narration is French.

A made-for-TV film, Restless Spirits, was made in 1999, in which the ghosts of Nungesser and Coli appear. A clip appears on You Tube here. The actors playing the parts are rather too young and good-looking for the original men; "Nungesser" no longer has blonde hair, while "Coli" wears an eyepatch, rather than a dark monocle, over the wrong eye. Hmmm. Still, the film wasn't really about them, but the young woman that meets their ghosts.

Pictures: Nungesser and his fiancée (later his wife), the memorably named Consuelo Hatmaker, pose in front of a Morane MS35 (it's good to see that the well-dressed pilot still wears his spats!); Coli (left) and Nungesser before the flight; a painting of the White Bird in flight (San Diego Aerospace Museum); the pair in their flying gear; crowds gather for news outside the offices of Le Matin, which was rather more accurate than La Presse, stating the pair's fate was unknown (Gallica); the inauguration of the monument at Etretat (also Gallica)


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