The French Report
Chapter 2
The Departure and Voyage As Far As Etretat

The evening which preceded the early morning departure has been much described; the far-off storm punctuated with lightning the course on which they would depart.

The meteorological situation was extensively reported in the Report, already cited, written in 1928 by the National Meteorological Office on the aerial crossings and attempted crossings of the North Atlantic in 1927; of which pages 113 to 131 deal with Nungesser and Coli’s attempt. In the sections following, much information is borrowed from this document, understanding that it is a “pro domo”1 plea, the ONM having been much criticized after the attempt failed.

It is clearly apparent that the weather situation forseen for May 8, 1927, was exceptionally propitious for the flight attempt, despite a lack of information in the area of Greenland on May 7. This situation, as we have seen, constituted the essential and determining element in the crew deciding to leave. Even if the weather’s development was perhaps not as favorable as the ONM stated, it is beyond doubt that a very important part of the planned voyage should have benefited from favorable winds, which was an absolutely essential condition for eventual success. The risks were still enormous for such a flight. First, let’s recall that on May 8, 1927, legal time was the same in France, England, and Ireland. That was summer time, equal to that of the civil time in Greenwich (correct denomination: universal time, and not GMT) increased by one hour.

Jacques Mortane reported, in his article published in the Journal Des Voyages Nº 97 of May 19, 1927, that at 3:00 a.m. (summer time) on May 8, the plane was brought out of the hangar for engine tests which began at 3:15 and ended around 3:30. The plane was put back in the hangar. Nothing is said about a final oil check or a full fill-up.

What quantity of fuel did l’Oiseau Blanc have (L’Illustration, under the signature of Henri Bouché on May 21, 1927, and L’Aéronautique Nº 97 of June 1927 both specify essence benzolée — refined benzine)? The following answers are an incomplete list of those found:

  • L’Aérophile (article previously cited by Marcel Ducout), Nº 11–12, June 1–15, 1927; 2880 kg.
  • L’Aéronautique, Nº 97, June 1927; 3800 liters.
  • Le Journal des Voyages (article previously cited by Jacques Mortane), Nº 97, May 19, 1927; 4025 liters.
  • L’Illustration (Henri Bouché’s article), May 21, 1927; 2800 kg.
  • Les Ailes, May 12, 1927; 3800 liters.
  • La Presse, May 9, 1927; 4025 liters.
  • L’Humanité, May 9, 1927; 4025 liters.
  • Le Temps, May 9, 1927; 2800 kg at 4000 liters.
  • Le Temps, May 11, 1927; 3860 liters.
  • The Times,2 May 9, 1927; 6160 pounds (2795 kg).
  • L’Auto (article by Robert Guerin), May 8, 1927; 2800 kg, 4025 liters.

So we have two answers: 3800 liters and 4025 liters, with a weight most often stated as 2800 kg. The capacity of the tanks was 4025 liters – at least this is a strong presumption. The newspaper Les Ailes of May 12, 1927, states that, even though the tanks had a 4025 liter capacity, “Given favorable conditions, and so that the aircraft would not be over-loaded, only 3800 liters was stored in the tanks.”

Mr. Maurice Bellonte, in his book Le Premier Paris-New York, cited in the previous chapter, says in his second appendix that the l’essence benzolée at 40% used in 1930 had a density of .78 and that at 10% a density of .72. Mr. Bellonte does not recall if the fuel used in 1927 was very different from that of 1930. We are going on the hypothesis that they were very similar, although the fuels used during the two flight attempts were very likely specially studied. Le Quotidien of May 9, 1927, under the signature of Jacques Berthet, reports as well that the aircraft received “4025 liters of a particularly sensitive filtered fuel.” The figures of 3800 liters and 2800 kg are therefore compatible (density .737), and more probable than 4025 liters and 2800 kg (density .696). (Nowadays 100/130 fuel has a density of .713 at 15°C.) A density of .737 would correspond, in 1930 (according to the figures given in the Bellonte Appendix 2 previously cited), to a gasoline of 18%. Mr. Bellonte recalls that for the “Point d’Interrogation” the quality of the motor-fuels led to the use of some benzine fuel at 40% for that part of the flight where the engine was working at full power, to avoid the occurrence of detonation, and then fuel of 10%.3

One may therefore hold that the quantity of fuel was 3800 liters or 2800 kg. The aircraft would then be prepared for its take-off for New York, with a range of roughly 40 hours of flight, a figure cited in Le Populaire on May 10, 1927. By not filling the tanks completely, l’Oiseau Blanc’s total weight was reduced by 166 kg.

At 5:15 a.m. the engine was started. At 5:18 a.m., l’Oiseau Blanc took off. Its take-off run was about 900 meters and took 46-50 seconds (Les Ailes of May 12 said 54 seconds). If an average of 48 seconds is used, the calculations give a speed of 135 km/h at the moment of takeoff (with 54 seconds, 120 km/h). At a gross weight of 4864 kg (The Times of May 9 gives a gross weight of 10,923 lbs. or 4956 kg), this represents a very creditable peformance for an aircraft overloaded at 80kg per square meter [of wing] and 9.7 kg per horse at maximum power, about 500hp. Recall that Mr. Maurice Bellonte, in his book Le Premier Paris–New York, indicates in an appendix that the Breguet “Point d’Interrogation” was loaded at departure with 106.35 kg per square meter and 8.79kg per horse. The accounts of his departure are practically identical to those of the take-off description of l’Oiseau Blanc (preceded by two hops in a row visible to the spectators) as normally executed. The Musée de l’Air’s film entitled “Match pour l’Atlantique Nord” [“Competition for the North Atlantic”] which contains the take-off sequence, also shows l’Oiseau Blanc climbing well. Another film sequence (Cinema Eclair), also archived at the Center of Film and Photography of the Army gives the impression of a very good take-off (one infers that the second sequence was indeed filmed the morning of May 8). It should not be forgotten that the motor delivered all of its power to the one propeller of a fixed pitch [à pas fixe de laquelle]; one would anticipate a good result during a flight of which the greatest part would be accomplished at low power.

A short time after take-off, when the aircraft was over Gonesse, Nungesser released the landing gear.

The Trip to Etretat

To trace the trip between le Bourget and Etretat, we rely upon the account of the pilot Carniaux from the Levasseur company who accompanied Nungesser and Coli until they reached Etretat. This account was published in Le Petit Parisien (although the name of the pilot was spelled Carmiaux).

Paris to ChannelThe route is shown on the map [at right; click on the thumbnail to open a full-sized version]. It took the following course: Enghien, Montmorency, Pontoise, Meulan, Mantes, Vernon, Elbeuf, Rouen, Duclair, Caudebec en Caux, Bolbec, Etretat. One will note, however, that the photograph published in the book Histoire de l’Aéronautique by Charles Dollfus and Henri Bouché (op.cit.), has l’Oiseau Blanc flying over Gennevilliers along the Seine. The Musée de l’Air’s film, mentioned above, contains a sequence of l’Oiseau Blanc apparently flying over the Seine not far from Gennevilliers. Nungesser and Coli followed the valley of the Seine until reaching Elbeuf; then in order to avoid a storm, turned north towards Rouen before resuming a northwesterly course. Carniaux indicates that the weather was far from nice and that there was light rain. Nungesser, very heavy, avoided the squalls in order not to take on additional weight; and also the build ups of clouds, because he flew very low. At Etretat, says Carniaux, “The aircraft was lost to view, far away between the water and the sky.” At the beginning of the account, Carniaux says he was literally amazed at the beautiful appearance of the Levasseur-Lorraine which was perfectly balanced.

Nungesser’s northward deviation to the region of Elbeuf led to a curious error. L’Excelsior of May 9, 1927, published a photograph taken from an aircraft (photo by The Daily Mail, aircraft from Air Union) showing l’Oiseau Blanc, without its wheels, and said, “… flies out to sea above the cliffs of Onival.” L’Illustration of May 21, 1927, uses the same photo to illustrate Henri Bouché’s article, with mention of l’Oiseau Blanc “a moment before being left by its aerial escort.” The stories lead one to believe that the scene took place near Etretat. And l’Aérophile of June 1–15, 1927, in the previously mentioned article, begins by saying, “Sunday, May 8, at 6:45 a.m., over the cliffs of Onival, Nungesser and Coli … head out over the English Channel …” This was an accepted fact from then on. In reality, the “cliffs of ONIVAL” are “the rocks of ORIVAL,” thus described on the Michelin road map Nº 55. They are located at the bend in the Seine south of Rouen, four km north of Elbeuf. Le Matin of May 9 presents the photo, overlooking the Seine, with the “Onival” caption. The head of the Paris Regional Aeronautical District in Haute Normandie readily agreed to go identify the site of the course of these flights of fancy. His evidence is plain. In his opinion, l’Oiseau Blanc at this point was really on an almost northerly course and at an altitude of nearly 150–200 meters.

The trip described by Carniaux, in this respect at least, is therefore strictly accurate. The general effect of his story is resolutely optimistic. But the tone of the article in La Presse was very different. In the issue dated May 11 (and therefore two days later than the Le Petit Parisien which carried Carniaux’ account; by this time l’Oiseau Blanc was known to have disappeared), one may read that when l’Oiseau Blanc cleared the cliffs of Etretat at only 200 meters, it seemed, “according to an aviation expression … to drag [se traîner],” and also to have difficulty in climbing. Additionally, it is reported that a pilot, a close friend of Nungesser, “had declared” that the weight lifted by the plane encumbered it, and that it often altered its course. And the account’s author states flatly that he tends to believe that the plane was forced to a quick landing.

The aircraft cleared Etretat’s coast at 6:48 a.m.; some accounts say 6:45. Between the departure from Le Bourget and the clearing of the coast, one hour and 30 minutes had passed. The distance travelled, following the indicated route on [the map], is approximately 108 NM or 200 km, which gives a ground speed of 133 km/h. The true speed was undoubtedly higher, taking into account the wide turn at departure in order to go to Gennevilliers and other route diversions; but at any rate it was below that hoped for, when allowance was made for the quick release of the landing gear. One may assume that the wind did not play a significant role at this stage; it was relatively light.

Among the allegations which came to light at the end of 1980, and the item which motivated the present inquiry, was one comprised of a written message in a metallic tube, which was found near Saint-Pierre de Manneville (article by Mr. Bernard Veillet-Lavalée in Le Matin of December, 1980). The handwritten message is worded this way:

Urgent Urgent
Télégraphier Secret Aéro Paris Secret Telegraph to Aéro Paris
6 h 25: – Nungesser à 300 m sur la gauche 6:25 a.m. – Nungesser at 300m off my left
– Marche normale – progress normal

The author of this report did not have in hand the original message, but only a photocopy; and he did not question the holder of the original. It did not appear possible to detemine if the message was authentic, because its author is unknown. Was this one of the messages which Carniaux had accepted to “drop from the aircraft during the first part of the trip if anything important happened”?

G.D. Raffalovitch, in Le Journal of May 9, 1927, spoke of these messages by reporting their huge success, even though one of them noted the crossing of the Cape of la Hève.

One may simply note that “Secret Aéro Paris” could be a corruption of the expression: “Secrétariat Aéronautique Paris” [Aeronautical Secretary of Paris]. Actually, there was an Assistant Secretary of State for Aeronautics until July 1926, when this post was succeeded by a general aeranautical steering committee. L’Oiseau Blanc did pass very near Saint-Pierre de Manneville.

It is interesting to examine the results which may be drawn from hypothesizing the time of overflights. We have:

Le Bourget–Etretat: 200 km in 1 hour 30 minutes; average ground speed 133 km/h.

Le Bourget–Saint-Pierre de Manneville: 139 km in one hour 7 minutes; average ground speed 124 km/h.

Saint-Pierre de Manneville–Etretat: 61 km in 23 minutes; average ground speed, 159 km/h.

On the other hand, Le Havre-Eclair of May 9, 1927, indicates that the boatmen of the Basse-Seine confirmed sighting the plane, accompanied by four seaplanes [?—CPM] below Villequier, at 6:30. L’Oiseau Blanc very probably passed in the immediate vicinity of Villequier, and the time of its overflight indicates a ground speed of 132 km/h from Bourget to Villequier, and 136 km/h from Villequier to Etretat.

The same edition of Le Havre-Eclair reports a statement from one of the accompanying pilots (Darcourt, who would have landed around Bléville, near Havre), reporting l’Oiseau Blanc’s speed at the start as 160 km/h, and after dropping the gear, 185 km/h. These numbers do not correspond to the evidence compiled along the route from Le Bourget to Etretat. One may note that L’Humanité of May 9, 1927, reports that the plane was flying at an approximate speed of 150 km/h when the escort made the turnaround at Etretat.

Although the times of the overflights of Saint-Pierre de Manneville and Villequier must be viewed with an extreme caution, it is nonetheless very likely that the first part of the route, and without doubt the longest, was travelled under conditions which led to reports that the aircraft seemed “to drag [se traîner];” then afterwards, the speed increased, and during the second part the aircraft approached more normal flight (the airplane was lighter only by 300 kg at Etretat: the landing gear plus the fuel consumed).

The leg of the flight between Le Bourget and Etretat, examined in this chapter, was therefore covered by l’Oiseau Blanc at a slower speed than was anticipated. This could explain the quick release of the gear (which Carniaux justifies, on the other hand, by the crew’s confirmation of the perfect functioning of the aircraft); the levelling off at an altitude which was relatively low (l’Oiseau Blanc had only 150/200 meters of altitude at the rocks of Orival, and probably hardly more at Etretat); and the resolute course of flight over the Seine, beginning at Gennevilliers, which would permit an emergency landing. It must be left to the aircraft historians who specialize in this era to examine the possible reasons for these actions. For this investigation, it is appropriate to take into consideration the following finding: on this route, the photos and the films indicate that the aircraft’s attitude appears normal.

At Etretat, the crew made the decision to pursue the attempt. We will see in Chapter 4 that they certainly had good reasons for making this decision, as l’Oiseau Blanc’s speed seems to have been wnear what was anticipated for a hypothetically safe crossing of the Channel.

We note that Le Havre-Eclair edition of May 9 reports the flight over Havre, and not Etretat, an error also picked up by other papers. This tends to confirm that the correct route for l’Oiseau Blanc over French territory was never published officially, even though Le Matin of May 9, 1927, reproduced the route very accurately over England and Ireland.


NOTES
1 The term "pro domo" is a legal term meaning, roughly, "cover your butt." Ed.
2 The Times is The Times of London; all other newspapers with "Times" in their titles are correctly modified by the name of the city, but The Times is the original newspaper of that name and retains its singular identity. Ed.
3 We are not sure to what these percentages refer, and have simply translated them directly. Ed.

Translator’s Note Introduction Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3
Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Supplement Acknowledgements

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