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Was Charles Lindbergh the Second to Cross the Atlantic? The Mystery of The White Bird Aircraft

Updated on May 10, 2015

The 1927 Flight of the White Bird

If you like a good historical mystery, then the story of The White Bird aircraft just might be your cup of tea. Just two short weeks before Charles Lindbergh successfully made his historic nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, The White Bird departed Paris, France, in an attempt to reach New York. This is where the mystery begins....

Public domain photo courtesy Wikipedia

L'Oiseau Blanc
L'Oiseau Blanc

Charles Nungesser (left) and Francois Coli (right), are seen here with The White Bird in this 1927 French postcard.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikipedia

Background

The year is 1927, and hotel magnate Raymond Orteig has a standing $25,000 award for the first aircraft to make a nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. While most of the previous failed attempts to make this flight (including Charles Lindbergh's ultimately successful crossing) tried the New York-to-Paris route, The White Bird left Paris and planned on making a spectacular water landing in New York harbor in the shadows of the Statue of Liberty.

The two pilots of The White Bird were two French World War I aces, Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser. Their vehicle for the attempt was a specially designed aircraft in which the two pilots had significant input. The plane was effectively turned into a flying gas can, as three massive fuel tanks holding over 1000 gallons were added to the craft. Additionally, the wingspan of The White Bird was increased by almost fifty feet, and the plane's landing gear (deemed unnecessary due to the water landing plan) was jettisoned just after the craft became airborne.

The Doomed Flight

white bird charels lindbergh
white bird charels lindbergh

Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia

Early on May 8, 1927, The White Bird took off from Paris. The flight plan was to take a great circle path (above) to try and fly over as much land as possible, thereby reducing the pilots' risk of becoming lost or disoriented.

Massive crowds assembled in Manhattan to welcome the Bird and it's pilots, Nungesser and Coli. With rumors swirling the the plane had been sighted and was on schedule, it seemed as though the elusive Orteig Prize and it's $25,000 would soon be awarded to the two French aces.

On May 9th, as the hours ticked away with no sign of The White Bird, hope dimmed for the aircraft. It was common knowledge that the plane only had enough fuel for roughly 42 hours of flight time, so as that deadline passed it became clear the plane and it's pilots had been lost.

Exactly two weeks after Nungesser and Coli departed, Charles Lindbergh landed his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis on the same French airstrip in which The White Bird took flight. While Lindbergh received a hero's welcome, the French still mourned the loss of their two countrymen.

Just two weeks after The White Bird took off, Charles Lindbergh landed on the same Paris airstrip in which the Bird departed.

This 1987 commemorative poster depicts Nungesser and Coli's historic flight.

U. S. Government public domain photo courtesy usgs.gov

So Why the Mystery?

While many assume that The White Bird went down somewhere in the Atlantic, more than a dozen individuals stated that they heard an airplane flying overhead. These "witnesses" were located along the plane's planned flight plan, in Newfoundland and Maine. The weather across that region that day was poor, with fog and low viability hampering any visual sightings.

As you can imagine, rumors swirled about the fate of the Bird and it's pilots. Had they actually made it to North America? Numerous articles and books have been authored over the years, each speculating on the eventual fate of Nungesser, and Coli.

Several investigations have been performed in an attempt to find wreckage from the aircraft. Loggers claimed to have found an airplane engine in the Maine woods in 1930, and hunters reported a small plane wreck in the Newfoundland area in the late 1940s. Neither of these accounts could be successfully confirmed.

The French government launched their own official investigation, and, along with the television show Unsolved Mysteries, concluded that The White Bird probably did make it to Maine and the pilots had either perished on impact or fell victim to the harsh environment.

It is almost certain that we shall never know the ultimate fate of The White Bird or it's pilots, Charles Nungesser and François Coli. It is a safe bet, however, much like the Amelia Earhart disappearance, that conjecture about the mystery of the Bird will continue for years to come.

In Charles Lindbergh's book, The Spirit of St. Louis, he stated that Nungesser, Coli, and The White Bird had simply "vanished like midnight ghosts".

Quote from TIGHAR

So What's your Take?

Did The White Bird make it to North America?

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spirt of st louis
spirt of st louis

This Monument, erected in 1928, honors Charles Lindgergh, Charles Nungesser, and Francois Coli. It can be seen at the entrance to Le Bourget Airport in Paris.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikipedia

Thoughts on The White Bird or this Page? - Feel free to comment here. Thanks for visiting!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Wild story. Like everyone else I'd love to know what happened.