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Tue, May 09, 2006

The Secret Of The White Bird

The Everest of Aviation Mysteries Still Stands

Seventy-nine years ago, on May 8, 1927, an overloaded airplane rolled down a runway towards a rendezvous with destiny. It lifted once, tentatively, then settled, the weight of an unprecedented fuel load dragging it down. It weighed over 11,000 pounds, quite a lot for a single-engine plane. Finally it lifted, to the cheers of nervous onlookers, and flew off, climbing painfully slowly. The plane's next landing was to be on the other side of the Atlantic, claiming the Orteig Prize.

The plane never arrived. It was l'Oiseau Blanc, the "White Bird" or "White Dove" of two wartime French aces, Charles Nungesser, 35, and Francois Coli, 45. Both men were officers of the French Legion of Honor; Nungesser, a top scorer with 44 Germans shot down, had a raft of other decorations including the British Military Cross. Coli, amazingly, took up combat aviation after serious wounds, including a lost eye, ended his career as an infantry hero. He was the first man to fly the Mediterranean Sea, in 1919; and he was skilled in celestial navigation. The two of them prepared obsessively for the mission, facing many of the same questions that Lindbergh and Byrd and the other would-be contestants had done.

In the French language, the name of the plane has the connotation of the white dove of peace. In the 1920s, after the nightmare of world war, the airplane seemed to be the technology of hope, the human achievement that would bring all the races of man together in peace and understanding. Indeed, most of the contestants on both sides of the ocean, that fateful spring of 1927, were military men turning their energies away from warlike tasks, and towards exploration.

But while the guns of '14 had been silent for years, the risks were as great as any combat pilot ever faced. The distance was unprecedented; the duration all but (a Bellanca had set a duration record long enough to make the flight, circling over land). Two crewmen died, and pilot Floyd Bennett was severely injured, in one crash; contestants Davis and Wooster, experienced Naval pilots, died in the test-flight crash of another trimotored contest special.

Nothing was known about weather enroute, except what little could be gleaned from ocean skippers. Their great circle route was planned to carry the two French aces far away from the sea lanes, across parts of the North Atlantic where the weather was little monitored at the time. Instrument flight had yet to be invented; Sperry was still tinkering with his gyroscope.

There had been eight west-to-east Atlantic crossings, but the Orteig Prize was for a specific navigational feat: New York to Paris, or vice versa. The previous crossings had been over shorter distances; Alcock and Brown's trailblazing flight of June 14, 1919 went from Newfoundland to Ireland, for instance -- roughly half the between New York and Paris. New York to Paris was at the ragged edge of the state of the art in 1927 (indeed, the Orteig Prize had stood for years with no attempt to claim it, until aviation technology caught up in 1926).

The Oiseau Blanc, like Byrd's Sikorsky or Lindbergh's Ryan monoplane, had its roots in a standard product but was entirely redesigned for the mission. The Levasseur PL8 was an adaptation of the PL4 reconnaissance biplane built as a floatplane for the French Navy. Pierre Levasseur's firm made aircraft, motor vehicles, and components for both. Nungesser and Coli worked together with Chief Engineer Emile Farret and factory manager Albert Longelot in the Parisian factory, much as Lindbergh worked with Donald Hall and Hawley Bowlus at Ryan Airlines in San Diego.

The aircraft was powered by a Lorraine Dietrich 450-hp W-12 engine (above), the cylinders set in three banks spaced sixty degrees apart from one another (this was not a radical layout for the time -- Rolls-Royce and Napier used similar cylinder arrangements in the late twenties). The engine was run-in for over forty hours at the factory in Chartres. The fuselage got the lion's share of the reconstruction, with the two forward cockpits being faired over, the fuselage widened to allow Nungesser and Coli to sit side-by-side, and the fuselage shaped to enable water landing, and compartmented and waterproofed like a warship: it was its own life raft. The fuel system was simpler than Lindbergh's, with only three tanks holding a staggering 4,025 liters of gasoline.

The final touches on the glistening white airplane were the French tricolor nationality markings, and Nungesser's macabre personal insignia: a skull and candles on a black heart.

Nungesser and Coli made some decisions much like Lindbergh's -- to rely on a reliable single engine, and to dispense with the dead weight of the era's unreliable radios, for example -- but also adopted several ideas he considered and rejected, such as a jettisonable landing gear, using celestial navigation (Lindbergh stuck to dead reckoning), and designing the plane for water landing. One thing they did, that he never seriously considered, was to fly as a crew, the better to manage the hours of flight.

Finally, while starting in Paris came naturally to the Frenchmen, Earth's natural weather systems flow from West to East in the northern hemisphere. All the previous transatlantic flights had used the winds: Nungesser and Coli proposed taking them on directly.

The only part of the plane whose location is known today is the landing gear -- dropped on takeoff, it sits in the Musee de l'air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget. After that takeoff, the aircraft was seen crossing the French coast at Etretat, where a memorial to the two gallant Frenchmen now stands at clifftop, and it spotted off Ireland by a British naval officer, a fact lost to history until someone discovered his logbook-entry, years after the fact. That was the last definitive sighting of the Levasseur.

It did not arrive on time in New York. It did not arrive at all, and soon the numbers said there could be no fuel left. Nungesser and Coli were down, but where? No telegram came from a remote village. No wreckage was sighted.

After that, the rumors. Charles Lindbergh recounted the conflicting stories; La Presse, a major Parisian daily, reported that the two airmen were safe in New York at five AM: "The Golden Hour of French Aviation!" the paper trumpeted, but it was wrong; the resulting scandal led to the bankruptcy of the paper. Many of the rumors at the time appeared to Lindbergh to have been fabricated by the press (he was never a fan of the Fourth Estate).

Most of the rumors tracked back to "earwitnesses" who claimed to have heard, but not seen, the plane in Newfoundland and Maine. These signs fell in a line from Canada down to Maine. Chillingly, if they represented the French explorers, the headwinds had put their flight far behind schedule, committing them to coming down somewhere in Eastern Canada or Maine.

Floyd Bennett came out of hospital and, sponsored by Aviation Digest, backtracked over the area between New York and Newfoundland repeatedly for nine days, but sighted no signs of the lost aircraft. The Canadian Ministry of Lands and Forests launched two floatplanes to join the search -- one of which crashed itself.

Meanwhile, Lindbergh launched twelve days after Nungesser, landing to a hero's welcome in France. He had been worried that the French, still mourning their own heroes, would be angry; his concern turned out to be misplaced. They lifted him up on their shoulders and it was quite a while before the reserved young pilot could convince the adoring throng to put him down.

Since then, there have been claims in 1930 and 1930 that the engine of the aircraft (the only part certain to have survived of the largely wooden aircraft) had turned up in Maine. There have been attempts to map the reports from earwitnesses, to employ human reason and evolving technology. Nothing has panned out and the secret remains today as it was the morning of May 9th, 1927, when l'Oiseau Blanc did not arrive in New York.

Nungesser and Coli have since become aviation's own Mallory and Irvine, a mystery that occupies men's minds and challenges them to find solutions. The Mallory comparison is apt, for this is surely the Everest of aviation mysteries.

TIGHAR, The Interest Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, has called l'Oiseau Blanc "History's Most Important Missing Airplane." The French government examined the issue thoroughly in the eighties. Adventure novelist and explorer Clive Cussler has searched for the plane, trying the scientific approach, the opposite extreme of consulting psychics, and putting boots on the ground at the most likely area -- and ultimately joining Floyd Bennett and many others in frustration after three visits.

While most of the Atlantic seaboard of North America has extensive development, rural Maine and Newfoundland is little changed today from 1927. Is the White Bird there? Is it at the bottom of the briny Atlantic? Did they make it to the western side of the great ocean? Will we ever know?

Human nature being what it is, we probably will know, someday... because we'll never stop looking.

Godspeed, Charles and Francois.

FMI: www.tighar.org/Projects/PMG.html, www.numa.net/expeditions/white_bird.html

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