The Unfinished Flight of the White Bird

pages 5 & 6

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

Scroll down to read a transcription of the text.


If the plane Anson Berry thought he heard crash near Round Lake in Maine on the afternoon of May 9 was the White Bird, then the answer to what fate befell the two pioneer aviators probably lies somewhere in the shaded area on the map at right. It is doubtful the path of the plane described by Berry (shown as the broken line) could have taken it over the highest of the three hills directly west of Round Lake.

This aerial photograph shows the dedication ceremonies for the monument to the unfinished flight of the White Bird that was constructed in memory of the two French fliers. It is located on the coast of France near Etretat, where they last saw their native land.

For weeks prior to their flight, Coli and Nungesser were the frequent targets of reporters and photographers, and speculation on their impending flight was so widespread that Nungesser quipped, "I am aware that each night in well-known Paris bars numerous ground aviators cross the Atlantic between cocktails."

... White Bird to have reached Round Lake and reasonable to expect it to have passed that way, and if Berry really did hear an airplane, then it may well have been the White Bird.

But the thread of evidence is admittedly thin; and it must begin in Newfoundland. How likely were the 16 sightings there to have been of the White Bird? First is the problem of time. Nungesser and Coli had expected to reach Newfoundland at about 2 a.m.; the sightings were more than seven hours later. One American aviator, himself planning a transatlantic flight at the time, thought their time calculations, based on Alcock and Brown’s 1919 flight, were in error to begin with. Adding the factor of the headwind they encountered, he concluded the time of the Newfoundland sightings was reasonable.

What lends credence to the sightings is that, though officials sought information throughout Newfoundland, only persons in a line from Old Perlican to St. Lawrence reported hearing or seeing anything. And an airplane flying a course from Old Perlican to New York would have passed close enough to each of these locations to be heard or seen.

But why would this plane then have passed over Round Lake, which is west of this course? If, at Nova Scotia’s southwest coast, Coli decided it best to cross the Bay of Fundy by the shortest route before proceeding again to the southwest, the turn would have taken the plane toward Round lake, 5 miles inland from the Maine coast.

Round Lake is approximately 1700 miles from Harbour Grace, a flight of six and a half to seven hours for the White Bird. The Harbour Grace plane would then have reached Round Lake between 4 and 4:30 p.m., 15 minutes either side of the time the White Bird was expected to run out of fuel. (Berry’s time estimate was uncertain. He described it only as “late afternoon.”)

But if an airplane did crash near Round Lake, why has no one come upon it by now? First, because any sign of the wreckage that might at the time have been visible from the air would long since have been obscured. And because of the heavy undergrowth, few persons ever walk through there.

In the more than 50 years since the crash, perhaps the only surviving identifiable remnant of the wood and cloth White Bird would now be the engine. And, if the plane did hit a marsh, it could be completely submerged.

Did Nungesser and Coli, though tragically short of their goal, succeed in making the first east-to-west transatlantic flight? Do the remains of the White Bird lie somewhere west of Round Lake, Maine? Some evidence suggests they may. Perhaps someday a searcher will come upon the White Bird’s rusted engine; and with that discovery will be solved one of the longest standing, most puzzling mysteries in aviation history.

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