Nungesser, Coli and the White Bird: Mysterious disappearance.
In 1924 a New York hotelier named Raymond Orteig renewed an aviation challenge he had issued a few years earlier. He offered the sum of $25,000 to any ‘person or persons’ who could fly nonstop between France and the United States.
His previous offer had been largely ignored because it was generally thought that such a flight was impossible. But two men took up the challenge. They were Captains Charles Nungesser and François Coli, both Frenchmen.
Also they were both flying heroes from the First World War.
Coli was one of the most injured pilots ever to fly in those days. He had damaged just about every part of his body at some time and lost his right eye, hence the monocle you see in the photograph.
But his injury’s paled into insignificance next to Nungesser’s – he even listed his broken bones on his business card. He was so wrecked that during the war he had to be helped into his aircraft but nevertheless shot down at least forty four enemy planes.
As with many flying heroes from the war, they were both at a pretty loose end after the war and unable to find jobs that used their skills.
Nungesser ended up in the States where he performed stunt flying in Hollywood for a spell. He married the wonderfully-named teenager Consuelo Hatmaker.They split up over where to live. Consuelo refused to live in France and Nungesser refused to settle permanently in the USA.
Nungesser decided to defend the honour of France by trying to win the Orteig challenge. Coli was happy to join him as his navigator and they selected a French made plane, naming it l’Oiseau Blanc or the White Bird.
They decided to start the venture from Paris. Others warned them against this as it would mean flying into prevailing winds but the patriotic Frenchmen were determined.
Before they left, they agreed that the plane was overweight so jettisoned most of their rations, their life jackets and their inflatable dinghy. Now, if they had to ditch the plane, their supplies consisted of device to distill sea water, a fishing line, three cans of tuna, a few bananas, sugar, a flask of hot coffee and a bottle of brandy.
The white-painted plane took off at 5:17am on May 8th, 1927. Despite the pilots having removed weight, it was still heavy and tricky to get off the ground but they managed it. They took off in the direction of the British Isles, heading for the United States.
The following day, two French newspapers reported gleefully that the plane had landed ‘stylishly and smoothly’ in New York Harbour. They described how the skillful pilot had motored the plane to the foot of the Statue of Liberty (also French, take note). Once ashore, the reports continued, the aviators were cheered and showered with ticker tape during a Fifth Avenue parade.
They were completely wrong
These reports were totally fabricated.In fact, the plane hadn’t been seen. The two men were missing. A huge search was undertaken. A $25,000 reward was offered for the recovery of the aviators – dead or alive. But they held out hope. Two years earlier airman John Rodgers and his crew had spent nine days floating in the Pacific after ditching their aircraft. But no-one was aware the Nungesser and Coli had jettisoned their rations – and their inflatable dinghy.
There were dozens of rumours that now started circulating – about sightings of the white aircraft. A rumour circulated in France that the US Weather Bureau had deliberated held back information from the Frenchmen because they wanted an American to win the coveted prize and the accompanying glory. (Which soon happened – as Charles Lindbergh made a successful transatlantic flight twelve days later).
The pilots and the plane were never found
Over the years, many different people and organisations have tried to find the remains of the pilots and the fated White Bird. They have been determined to show that Nungesser and Coli did in fact fly from France to the United States thus deserving the prize that Lindbergh eventually won.
They have not succeeded.
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