Since 1927 – to be precise since Monday, May 9 of that year – the French have been hoping that two French aviators would be acknowledged as heroes. The two – Charles Nungesser and François Coli – might have flown non-stop across the Atlantic before Charles Lindbergh. It is the word might which is […]
Since 1927 – to be precise since Monday, May 9 of that year – the French have been hoping that two French aviators would be acknowledged as heroes.
The two – Charles Nungesser and François Coli – might have flown non-stop across the Atlantic before Charles Lindbergh. It is the word might which is though emphasised because we do not know whether the two aviators did make it across the Atlantic, but until it is proven that they did, officially they did not.
Charles Eugène Jules Marie Nungesser, 35, a First World War fighter pilot, and the portly, one-eyed François Coli, 40, an ace pilot and commander of a wartime flying squadron, set off in a Levasseur PL.8 bi-plane – the Oiseau Blanc or White Bird – from Paris’s Le Bourget airport on Sunday, May 8, 1927 to do what no one had yet done – fly non-stop across the Atlantic – but they never touched down anywhere. Did not touch down anywhere on land: they had gone down somewhere in the ocean.
The question is where exactly did they go down? If in the territorial waters of North America, they had indeed made it across the Atlantic non-stop. Lindberg therefore was not the first person to fly across the Atlantic non-stop when on Saturday, May 21 of 1927, he landed his Spirit of Saint Louis at Paris’s Le Bourget Airport having flown non-stop from the United States.
Nungesser and Coli’s Oiseau Blanc was sighted in the air off the coast of France at Etretat in Upper Normandy by fishermen and then never again. Some sailors on ships did though in the weeks after the disappearance of the plane speak of having seen two white wings of a small aircraft drifting in the Atlantic off the French self-governing territory of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.
If those two white wings were those of the Oiseau Blanc then Nungesser and Coli did make it across the Atlantic. And they had done so before Lindbergh.
Since 1927 many searches have been launched to look for the Oiseau Blanc’s wreckage, and with the hope that the remains of the two aviators would be inside the wreckage.
A search, at a cost of €220,000 ($297,000 / £189,000) was carried out again this year in June (2012) but again the Atlantic kept its secret of the fate of the Oiseau Blanc. The bill was met by millionaire Sir Michael Kadoorie of Hong Kong and the search was carried out by the French air defence and aerospace company, SAFRAN. Immediately, Bernard Decré, head of l’association pour la Recherche de l’Oiseau Blanc – Association For the Search for the White Bird – announced that a new search would begin in June 2013.
There is however now a development: the wreckage of the plane – or a section of wreckage – may be right here in Paris.
We go back to 1961. It is the beginning of the year and a fisherman finds some pieces of debris caught in one of his lobster baskets. This was off the coast of Maine, near to Cliff Island, and the lobster baskets were lying at a depth of 100 feet (30 metres).
The debris was a very large piece of an aeroplane’s fuselage.
The fisherman, a former pilot with the FFL (Free French Forces of WW2) immediately thought of the Oiseau Blanc. The plane had disappeared very far north, but in the 34 years which had gone by currents could have swept the debris to the U.S. coast. However, a scrap iron dealer, seeing the metal lying about, helped himself to some of it which included the plane’s instrument panel, and sold it to a junk dealer. What the scrap iron dealer did not help himself too were sections of the front fuselage. These sections the former FFL pilot packaged up and dispatched to the French Embassy in Washington which in turn sent it in the diplomatic bag to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris.
There exists a photo of 8 men in suits standing at a table looking at the debris. One holds a photo of the plane.
Monsieur Decré, having studied this photo, but not having yet seen the debris, says that the pieces fit over the plane on photographs which were taken of it during its construction.
However, Monsieur Decré does not know where the debris is being stored. It could be, he thinks, in the Air Museum at Le Bourget Airport. It would however be in one of the very many crates stored in the airport’ hangars and filled with other debris from other crashed aircraft. He would therefore have to look for it; go through those crates. This he and his team will start to do on Wednesday, November 7.
Meanwhile the Atlantic Ocean keeps its secret and Coli’s grave in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery remains empty.
So, we will not quite yet know whether it was not Charles Lindbergh who was the first person to have flown across the Atlantic non-stop, but Charles Nungesser and François Coli.