Everyone has heard of Charles Lindbergh, but only the most dedicated student of early aviation history would recognize the name Charles Nungesser. But he came close to beating Lindbergh across the Atlantic; and if we may believe the optimistic speculations of some, it is possible he may even have been the first to “cross” the Atlantic by air.
Nungesser was a famous French air ace of the First World War; he had about forty-five kills to his credit before the war ended. With little to do in peacetime, he was attracted by the cash prize offer extended by New York businessman Raymond Ortieg for the first man who crossed the Atlantic by plane. Ortieg was offering $25,000, a tremendous sum in the 1920s. Nungesser was without question a brave man and knew the risks he was taking.
In preparation for the attempt, Nungesser converted a Levasseur biplane to enable it to carry extra fuel; he named the plane L’Oiseau Blanc, or the White Bird. He also asked a friend named Francois Coli to act as his co-pilot. They also set aside a store of food in the form of tinned sardines, chocolate, crackers, coffee, and brandy. The decision was made to leave Le Bourget Field in Paris on the early morning of May 8, 1927.
The weather forecast for that day and the coming days across the Atlantic did not anticipate any special problems, so the aviators had every reason to believe that their flight would be arduous but not foolhardy. The aircraft took off from the field, climbed slowly into the early morning mist, and was never heard from again. The plane had received an official escort as far as the English Channel, but that was the last contact they had had with anyone.
The imagination of the public was initially fired by false reports that Nungesser and Coli had actually landed in New York. A special edition of the French paper La Presse published on May 9 falsely reported that the trip had succeeded, but it turned out to be only rumor-mongering masquerading as journalism. What had happened was that an American hydroplane sitting in New York harbor had been mistaken for the L’Oiseau Blanc. An excited reporter, wanting to scoop his competitors, wired the story to Paris as if it were fact.
Within two days, it was clear that the plane had been lost. There were some reports of sightings near Newfoundland and coastal Maine, but hard data was lacking. A lighthouse keeper in near Seguin, Maine claimed to have heard the sound of an engine spluttering overhead in the fog, but the sound faded away soon after he heard it. Disappointment turned to anger in France once the reality of the situation was manifest. Furious mobs broke into the offices of La Presse, seized copies of the paper with the erroneous story, and set them on fire.
A few hints turned up over the years. Some ancient wreckage was discovered in the early 1960s near Jewell Island, Maine, prompting Paris Match to publish a story on February 11, 1961 claiming that Nungesser had actually beaten Lindbergh across the Atlantic. But analysis of the fragments showed that they could not have come from a 1927 airplane.
But the plane must have gone down somewhere. If the lighthouse keeper in Seguin is to be believed, then the plane must have come very, very close to the American coast. Its wreck must still be in the coastal waters of Maine, awaiting discovery by some diligent hunter. With the advances that have come with digital mapping and undersea imaging, it is not unreasonable to imagine that the L’Oiseau Blanc may still be located after all these years.
Like George Leigh Mallory, the Mount Everest pioneer whose dramatic story I told in Thirty-Seven, he simply vanished into the unknown in pursuit of his great quest. He deserves to be better known. For oblivion is never the just fate of those who dare the extraordinary, or the impossible.
You can learn more about the epic struggles of great men in my book Thirty-Seven.