History In The Headlines

The Hunt for L’Oiseau Blanc

By Sarah Pruitt
On the morning of May 8, 1927, Charles Nungesser and François Coli took off from Le Bourget Field in Paris in their Levasseur PL.8 airplane, hoping to complete the first successful non-stop transatlantic flight between Paris and New York. Their two-seat, open-cockpit biplane -- painted white for easier recovery in a crash -- was 31 feet in length, constructed mostly of canvas and wood and loaded with 3,800 liters of fuel, enough to keep it in the air for approximately 42 hours. Despite premature reports in French newspapers trumpeting their historic achievement, Nungesser and Coli never made it to New York, and their plane, dubbed L’Oiseau Blanc (or the White Bird) was never recovered. Eighty-six years later, the search goes on in the waters around St.-Pierre, a tiny French-owned island with a colorful history located 10 miles off the Newfoundland coast.
Charles Nungesser and L'Oiseau Blanc, 1927

Charles Nungesser and L'Oiseau Blanc, 1927 (Credit: Getty Images)

Nungesser, the pilot of L’Oiseau Blanc, was an aristocrat and French flying ace; Coli, his navigator, was a mariner and former infantryman who had lost one of his eyes in an earlier injury. The two men were competing for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward offered by a New York City hotel owner for making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Their planned route would take them across the English Channel and over parts of England and Ireland before heading across the Atlantic. After passing Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Boston, they planned a historic landing in the waters near the Statue of Liberty, the world’s most prominent symbol of Franco-American friendship. To cut weight on the 3,600-mile flight, the two aviators reportedly carried little more than canned fish, bananas and rum with them; no radio was on board.

When L’Oiseau Blanc failed to appear in New York, various theories suggested the plane had gone down in the Channel, over the Atlantic or somewhere between Newfoundland and Maine. But joint search efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S., French and Canadian navies turned up nothing. Charles Lindbergh, another competitor for the Orteig Prize, later famously wrote that the two Frenchmen vanished “like midnight ghosts.” For his part, Lindbergh took off in his own famous craft, the Spirit of St. Louis, on May 20, 1927, from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. On the night of May 21, he made a victorious landing at Le Bourget, where he was mobbed by a huge crowd celebrating his coronation as an international hero.

Bernard Dacre on the island of St.-Pierre (Credit: Getty Images)

Bernard Dacre on the island of St.-Pierre (Credit: Getty Images)

For the last four years, members of an organization called La Recherche de L’Oiseau Blanc (The Search for the White Bird) have been searching for remnants of the ill-fated plane in a specific location: the waters around the remote, tiny island of St.-Pierre, located about 10 miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland. According to the organization’s founder, Frenchman Bernard Decré, storms forced Nungesser and Coli to veer off course over Newfoundland and attempt a sea-landing off St.-Pierre in heavy fog. Decré cites archival records showing that 13 witnesses heard or saw the plane heading south along Newfoundland’s eastern coast on the morning of May 9, along with later reports of debris in the area. To further bolster his case, Decré found a Coast Guard telegram in the National Archives, dated August 1927 and describing what appeared to be wreckage of a biplane floating off the coast of Virginia; he says this would have been consistent with a St.-Pierre crash in May.

Despite its location, St.-Pierre actually belongs to France. At the time of L’Oiseau Blanc’s historic flight, the island was a hub for bootlegging operations during Prohibition in the United States (1920-33). Montreal merchants would ship liquor to the island legally, after which speedboats would shuttle it off for distribution in the northeastern United States. In fact, one past theory of the disappearance goes that the U.S. Coast Guard may have shot down Nungesser and Coli’s plane by mistake, thinking they were rum-runners.

Decré and his colleagues brought some high-tech artillery to their latest search last month, including a powerful magnetometer and a multidirectional sonar unit. Yet despite combing through 180 feet of water for three weeks, they found nothing. During their visit, Decré organized a wreath-laying ceremony for the two fliers, attended by Lindbergh’s grandson. Despite the skepticism of some St.-Pierre locals, and the uncertain future backing by his sponsors (including the French government and Safran, a French aerospace and defense company), Decré has no plans to abandon his search for L’Oiseau Blanc, keeping hope alive that this mysterious chapter in aviation history may yet find its resolution.

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Categories: Aviation, Disappearances