While everyone knows the story of Charles Lindbergh and his record-breaking New York to Paris flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, the story of the L’Oiseau Blanc and its French war hero pilots has been relegated to the history books. To set the scene leading up to that fateful day in 1927, when pilots Charles Nungesser and François Coli vanished without a trace, you have to understand that it was all about flying across the Atlantic and claiming the Orteig Prize.
Following the First World War, aviation was still very much in its infancy, with pilots and planemakers all looking to push the envelope to the next level. In 1919 French-American hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first aviators who would make a nonstop flight between New York and Paris. That same year British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown managed to fly their Vickers Vimy bomber from Newfoundland to Ireland, yet the Orteig Prize remained unclaimed.
Most people planned to fly from New York
In 1924 Ortieg renewed the offer, and with advances in aviation technology, many teams set out to claim the prize. Most like Lindbergh had decided to attempt the journey from New York to Paris. Still, French aviator and war hero François Coli thought he would try to cross the Atlantic in the opposite direction. Already holding various records for flying around the Mediterranean Sea, Coli planned to make the Atlantic crossing with his wartime buddy Paul Tarascon, a flying ace with 12 victories. Sadly in late 1926, an accident destroyed their Potez 25 biplane leaving Tarascon severely burned.
Nungesser needed a navigator
Charles Nungesser, a highly experienced flying ace with over 40 victories, the third-highest in the French military, was planning to attempt the prize with his Levasseur PL.4. The French-built Levasseur seemed an ideal choice for an ocean crossing as it was designed to operate from aircraft carriers and had a boat-shaped fuselage enabling it to land on water.
Nungesser still needed a navigator for his Atlantic crossing, and Coli’s name was put forward by Pierre Levasseur, a French aircraft and component maker. The pair seemed well suited to the task, with Nungesser having worked as a gaucho in Argentina and a stunt pilot in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Coli had made a name for himself after having set several aircraft endurance records.
Both men were WWI war heroes
Then, of course, there was the war where both men were considered heroes for their exploits. They also had the scars to prove it. Nungesser had survived 17 wounds and endured so many surgeries that newspapers claimed he was part “part platinum.” For his part, Coli was partially blind following a crash and wore an eyepatch over his right eye.
Along with the French pair, other aviators planning to claim the Orteig Prize included a veritable who’s who of early aviation. Amongst them were top WWI fighter ace René Fonck and Medal of Honor recipient Richard E. Byrd the first man to fly over the North Pole.
The plane was modified to carry enough fuel
The French due named their plane L’Oiseau Blanc (the white bird) and had it modified to carry 1,000 gallons of fuel-enough to stay airborne for 40 hours. For good luck, Nungesser emblazoned L’Oiseau Blanc with his WWI flying emblem: a black heart with a skull and crossbones.
The plan was to take off in Paris and cross over England and Ireland before heading out over the Atlantic searching for New Foundland. Once they sighted land, they would follow the contours on New Foundland, Nova Scotia, and New England. They would then finish the Atlantic crossing in spectacular style by making a water landing near the Statue of Liberty. On the morning of May 8, 1927, Nungesser and Coli climbed into the cockpit of L’Oiseau Blanc at Le Bourget Field. As the plane took to the sky, little did the spectators know that it would never be seen again.
Other teams decided to wait
Other teams, including Charles Limbergh, had decided to wait a little longer for their attempt at the Ortieg Prize, fearing bad weather over the Atlantic. This, however, did not deter the French daredevils from their shot at becoming the first aviators to cross the Atlantic.
The last sighting of L’Oiseau Blanc was over southern Ireland at around 10:30, and with the plane not being fitted with a radio, there was no further contact. A large crowd started to gather along Manhattens waterfront in anticipation of L’Oiseau Blanc’s arrival, but people began fearing the worst when the allotted time came and went.
Planes and ships scoured the North Atlantic
With the plane now missing, a search operation was organized utilizing ships and aircraft from the United States, France, and Canada, all scouring the North American coastline for the French duo. Because L’Oiseau Blanc could land on water, there was some hope that Nungesser and Coli could still be alive.
By the time Charles Lindbergh made his triumphant crossing in late May, there was still no sign of the French pilots. To this day, the fate of L’Oiseau Blanc remains one of the most compelling mysteries in aviation. Many modern researchers maintain that Nungesser and Coli successfully crossed the Atlantic after several people in Maine reported hearing the plane buzz overhead. While the theory that L’Oiseau Blanc was the first plane to conquer the Atlantic is provocative, no wreckage has ever been found.
In recognition of Nungesser and Coli’s attempt to win the Ortieg Prize, a statue was erected at Le Bourget Airport near Paris. The inscription on the statue reads, “In honor of those who tried, and of the one who succeeded.”