Everyone remembers Charles Lindbergh and his flight from the US to Paris in 1927, in pursuit of history as well as a $25,000 prize. Not so well remembered, however, are Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, two French aviators who disappeared just 12 days before Lindbergh’s flight, as they tried to make the same Atlantic crossing in reverse, from Paris to New York.
Some believe their big Lavasseur biplane, the L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird, crashed in Maine’s Washington County after they ran out of fuel in a heavy fog.
TIGHAR, a research group that specializes in historic aircraft recovery, came to Maine in April of 1987 to search the dense woods for L’Oiseau Blanc. I took part in that search and wrote about it.
By ARTHUR FREDERICK
MACHIAS, Maine (UPI) – If a certain theory is correct, the big white biplane was nearly out of fuel when it flew low over the Atlantic and skimmed over the eastern coast of Maine in chilly, foggy weather on May 9, 1927.
According to the hypothesis, the French pilot flew inland and peered down through the fog, looking for a place to land. He finally sighted a small lake and began to descend in a slow circle.
Perhaps the pilot did not see a ridge in front until it was too late, or perhaps the big Lavasseur biplane simply ran out of fuel.
Whatever, a fisherman casting for pickerel on Round Lake heard an engine, a ripping sound, a crash, and then, once again, silence.
No one knows for sure, but the fisherman, Anson Berry, may have heard the tragic end of an historic attempt to link France with New York by two of the world’s most famous fliers of the day, pilot Charles Nungesser and navigator Francois Coli.
Coli and Nungesser were trying for the prize that lured Charles Lindbergh to attempt the same flight from west to east, just 12 days after the French plane is believed to have crashed.
Now, 60 years later, searchers are getting ready to head into the dense Maine woods, about 50 miles east of Bangor, in hopes of untangling the mystery once and for all.
Richard Gillespie, an aviation historian who is heading the search for the White Bird, said the chances of finding the plane’s wreckage are fairly good if his theory about the end of the flight proves true. Previous searches have narrowed the area to be covered, he said, and some sophisticated equipment will be used for the first time, which may make it possible to locate the plane from the air.
Gillespie’s group, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, plans to send a crew to Maine today to lay down search grids. On Saturday, ground crews will begin searching the woods for the remains of the plane.
“On the 30th of April, an Aerospatiale helicopter will arrive, equipped with a special forward-looking infrared turret installed for this search,” Gillespie said. “The aircraft has every remote sending device they know of, and we will use it for aerial searching April 30 through May 2.”
The search will continue through the weekend of May 9-10, and Gillespie hopes that will be enough time to find the wreckage.
The searchers will look for a huge 12-cylinder engine that several hunters reportedly have seen in the woods over the years. It is believed to be half-buried under 60 years of undergrowth and fallen leaves.
The helicopter-mounted infrared, it is hoped, will be able to sense the heat that the engine absorbs from the sun.
“The forward-looking infrared will look down through the trees, looking for the heat difference between the engine of the airplane and the surrounding terrain,” Gillespie said.
The search relies heavily on the stories of Anson Berry, the pickerel fisherman, and a deer hunter who happened to sit down to eat his lunch a few years ago just a few yards from a large rock.
The hunter, who had serviced aircraft engines while in the military service, suddenly realized that the rock was a large engine, probably from an airplane.
“He drew a sketch of it that showed an engine of the right size with particular features unique to this engine,” Gillespie said. “He mentioned a large exhaust pipe and couldn’t understand why it would have such a large pipe. He took it to be an airplane engine, but not one he had ever worked on. He thought someone had used an airplane engine for a mill operation.”
“Years later, when we showed him pictures of the plane, he pointed to the air intake which was a trumpet-shaped circular intake, and said, “That’s the exhaust pipe I was telling you about.”
Another hunter also reported seeing an engine in the woods, some years earlier than the other hunter.
“We went to talk to him and at first we were disappointed because he said it was a radial engine. The White Bird engine was a W-design 12-cylinder with three banks of four cylinders,” Gillespie said. “He then said it was half-buried in the ground, and all you could see was the three banks, and he held up three fingers.”
“We had been waiting a long time for someone to hold up their fingers like that,” Gillespie said.
Finding the site would be only the beginning. Gillespie said the next step will be a complete archeological evaluation of the site, with archeologists locating a number of specific items from the plane. They will watch carefully for a number of gold platinum and silver parts from the body of Nungesser, who survived several major air crashes before the White Bird flight.
“We don’t know to what extent human remains will survive,” said Gillespie. “But Nungesser had a silver ankle, a platinum wrist, a gold palate and gold teeth, and he had a number of metal pins in him.”
Although the two flyers didn’t know it, the plane also carried a French aviation society medal that would have been presented to them in New York as a prize for completing the flight.
“After everything is recovered, the remains of the airplane and crew will be flown by French aircraft to New York to symbolically complete the flight,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie said French officials are talking about transporting the remains to France aboard a special Concorde airliner. The remains would be flown to Le Bourget Airport near Paris, where the White Bird flight originated, in time for the Paris Air Show, which will be held at Le Bourget this summer.
“Le Bourget is also the site of the French National Air Museum,” Gillespie said. “So we have a unique chance to bring history full circle, and mark the triumphant return of these two heroes to the airport where they took off 60 years