The Unfinished Flight of the White Bird

pages 3 & 4

by Gunnar Hansen
©Yankee Magazine, June 1980
Republished by permission.
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Captions:

The two dashing pilots could not have been better cast for their roles. Both François Coli, 45 (left) and Charles Nungesser, 35, were officers of the French Legion of Honor because of their flying exploits during World War I, and Coli was already known for the first nonstop flight across the Mediterranean. The unusual skull and crossbones marking had been Nungesser's insignia during the war.

The Great Circle route which the aviators planned to follow took the White Bird over open ocean from the coast of Ireland – where she was sighted five hours after leaving paris – to the top of Newfoundland, where several witnesses heard what they thought was the plane at 9:30 on the morning of May 9. Some navigators disputed Nungesser's estimates of headwinds he might encounter on this route.


... twice that of Alcock and Brown.

It seems, in retrospect, that Nungesser and Coli’s careers had prepared them for such an attempt. Both were officers of the French Legion of Honor because of their flying exploits during the First World War. And because of their careers, the public was fascinated with them. By early April major newspapers were giving them almost daily coverage, reporting on their test flights and explaining the special construction of their Levasseur PL8 biplane.

To the surprise of many observers who felt the weather conditions were not favorable, the White Bird taxied down the runway at 5:17 a.m. on Sunday, May 8. It rose and faltered; after rolling half a mile it finally labored into the air. It was no more than 700 feet off the ground when it disappeared in the distance. Less than five hours later the White Bird was sighted leaving the Irish coast on it sway westward over the Atlantic.

The next day rain squalls covered Newfoundland, and light snow was falling at Cape Race. Fog shrouded the northeastern U.S. coast, and those who waited in New York wondered how the Frenchmen would be able to find the harbor, even if they did reach it.

By the time Berry heard what he thought was an airplane engine, those who waited in New York were beginning to despair of seeing the White Bird at all. By nightfall they knew Nungesser and Coli would not be arriving.

The next morning a massive sea search for them had begun. But no one knew where to look. They two Frenchmen could be anywhere in the North Atlantic, if they were even still afloat.

One sighting report arrived on May 11, and though it held little promise, it was not immediately disproved. A farmer in Harbour Grace, on Conception Bay in eastern Newfoundland, said he had heard an airplane engine nearby at 9:30 the morning of May 9.

In the meantime the sea search continued. But the combined vessels of four nations – America, Canada, England, and France – failed to come up with a single trace of the two men or their plane.

By May 12, however, the number of Harbour Grace witnesses had grown to six. Two men claimed it had been audible for 20 minutes.

By May 16, at least four more persons in Newfoundland had reported seeing or hearing an airplane on the morning of May 9.

On May 18 The New York Times published a letter suggesting the two fliers by have landed on some lake in Maine. In spite of the suggestion, no search was attempted in Maine.

On May 20, 12 days after Nungesser and Coli left Paris, Charles Lindbergh departed from New York in his attempt to connect the two citites. His success eclipsed questions about their uncertain fate.

But they were not forgotten, of course. Quebec Province airplanes were searching Labrador and the north shore of the St. Lawrence. The Cotton Relief Expedition began an air search over Newfoundland that was to last eight futile weeks. At that point, having covered 15,000 square miles, they were now convinced that Nungesser and Coli never eached land.

Over the next years no new clues surfaced to suggest any other conclusion. Except, that is, for Berry’s story, told long after most people had forgotten Nungesser and Coli.

But if Berry actually did hear a plane, why would one think it was – or could be – the White Bird?

Given the weather that day, the presence of any other plane would have been extremely unlikely. In addition, airplanes, rare as they were in 1927, were especially so in eastern Maine. So if it were both physically possible for the ...


Fog shrouded the northeastern U.S. coast, and those who waited in New York wondered how the Frenchmen would be able to find the harbor, even if they did reach it.

Pages 5 & 6