Nungesser and Coli … plane found at last … or not … ?

  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 […]

L’Oiseau Blanc – the White Bird

 

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.

Coli

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.

Nungesser

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.

Coli’s empty grave

 

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.

I’ve already written about Nungesser and Coli and you read the articles here and here .

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

6 Responses

10-28-2012 at 08:42:48

Good article, Marilyn. I’ve forwarded it to aviation enthusiast husband who I know will be fascinated.

11-14-2012 at 21:38:32

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5-31-2013 at 02:50:02

Marilyn

I’m writing an article about the formation flight of Italian flying boats led by Italo Balbo to the Chicago World Fair in 1933 and am including previous Atlantic flyers. So I was most interested in your stories of Nungesser and Coli, and your reference to further exploration in 2013. I would be most interested and most grateful to know what is the latest news.

Kind regards

Geoffrey

10-31-2013 at 22:57:12

Fascinating; I’ve just re-watched the 1957 movie “The Spirit of St Louis” which came about out of my overall interest in aircraft and pilots and particularly Paul Mantz whose red Mustang I’m doing a model of at the moment. Losing Nungessor and Coli to the Atlantic is as tragic as losing Earhart to the Pacific. Our only compnseation is that these great aviators were doing what they loved when they passed on.

12-27-2013 at 11:36:36

Your Comments
Even if it could be proved that Nungesser and Coli had succeeded in crossing the Atlantic non-stop (and it is highly debatable whether ditching somewhere in the sea actually constitutes a crossing), remember that their goal was to fly between Paris and New York. The Atlantic had already been crossed non-stop by air long before this attempt, by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, in a Vickers Vimy in 1919.

1-11-2014 at 08:25:23

Very interesting article, thank you.
We recently visited the Nungesser and Coli memorial at Etretat, Normandy – some photos here http://www.normandythenandnow.com/last-flight-of-the-white-bird-at-etretat/
It’s a stunning memorial but a bit ignored? The museum to them seemed to be permanently closed.
Also posted is an old image of the original memorial, blown up by the Germans in WW2.

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