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Enter the White Bird Nungesser & Coli

The October 26, 1969 issue of The Newfoundland Herald carried the banner headline “A KEY TO WORLD AVIATION HISTORY LIES BURIED NEAR PATRICK’S COVE.” An article written by Jack Fitzgerald revealed “secret” information disclosed in an exclusive interview with John McGrath, then living in Colinet but formerly of Patrick’s Cove. John said wreckage recovered from Big Gull Pond by James J. Doyle and Patrick Judge was identified as undercarriage of an airplane. McGrath believed the plane to be the White Bird, “a small blue and white aircraft” that “set out from France in 1921 with two pilots on board in the first attempted east-west crossing of the Atlantic.”

Although wildly inaccurate in its details, this is the first documented instance of the plane in the pond being linked to the disappearance of l’Oiseau Blanc. Up to this time, knowledge of the plane in the pond appears to have been limited to the McGraths of Patrick’s Cove and Patsy Judge and his father-in-law James Joseph Doyle who lived in Gooseberry two and a half miles up the road.

John McGrath was the older brother of Anthony McGrath who recovered a piece of the plane in 1940. In a 1992 interview, Anthony said his brother John had also collected a piece of the plane and, in a 1994 interview, John’s son Dermot said when he was a child (this would be around the same time the Herald article was published) his father would not let his children play with his “souvenir of the White Bird.” However, the 1969 article makes no mention of John McGrath having a piece of the plane.

According to Fitzgerald’s article, John McGrath connected the plane in the pond with the White Bird because:

The day following the takeoff of the White Bird the engines of a plane were heard flying over the Patrick’s Cove area of Placentia Bay. Suddenly the engines stopped. It was a stormy day, visibility was nil and people only possessed a limited knowledge of aircraft in those aviation pioneering days.

No move was made to check the possibility of the plane having crashed, simply because that possibility had not entered the minds of anyone in the community.

A couple weeks after the incident some residents venturing six miles into the woods to a pond known as Big Gull Pond saw what they believed to be part of a plane sticking up out of the pond.

There is no evidence anything like that happened. May 9, 1927 was nether stormy nor foggy, but there are accounts of Sydney Cotton’s plane being heard over Patrick’s Cove during his search for the White Bird in June 1927. The strongest evidence that the plane in the pond might be the White Bird is the body of documented accounts that trace the aircraft’s path on the morning of May 9th down the Avalon Peninsula and across St. Mary’s Bay to within seven miles of the Gull Pond — but none of that is mentioned in Fitzgerald’s article.

However flawed the information and reasoning behind the headline, the Herald article launched a new era in the Gull Pond saga. Suddenly the plane in the pond was no longer a local curiosity known only to a handful of people but a “KEY TO WORLD AVIATION HISTORY.” Fitzgerald wrote, “If McGrath’s theory is right then the first east west crossing of the Atlantic was made by two French pilots Nungesser and Coli whose skeletons should be located at the bottom of Gull Pond.” (Yes and no. If they reached Newfoundland it would be the first east to west crossing, but the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale does not recognize as an official record a flight that ends with the destruction of the aircraft and the death of the crew.)[8]

The following summer, in July or August of 1970, the Cape Shore parish priest, Father Charles McCarthy, 35, had Patrick McGrath, then 47, show him where he had seen wreckage many years before. Wearing a wet suit, mask and snorkel, McCarthy searched parts of the pond. On the rocky bottom in about one foot of water near the island, McCarthy found two metal bands connected with a six inch threaded bolt and nut. The ends of the bands were jagged as if broken by force, not corroded away. He thought it looked like something that might have been used to secure a tank or some heavy object.

The piece was lost after McCarthy left the priesthood the next year and moved to California.[9]

Charlie McCarthy sketched what he found for Ric Gillespie in 1993.

The Phantom Letter

The revelation that the plane in the pond might be of great historical significance prompted competing claims about who had been the first to see the wreckage. Nicholas McGrath told a dentist from St. John’s that he had heard explosions in May 1927 and saw metal under the ice the following winter. Anthony McGrath claimed he had been the first, twisting a piece out of the ice in 1940. Patsy Judge defended his claim to fame by saying he had recovered a piece of the plane in 1932, had later sent it to England, and had received a letter in return confirming the piece was from the undercarriage of either the Bluebird or the White Bird. Such a letter would, of course, be of tremendous significance.

According to a 1994 interview with Patsy’s son James:

About 25 years ago [ca. 1969] a man visited Patrick Judge and proceeded to ask questions about the plane in the Gull Pond. He offered Patrick 10,000 dollars if he would turn over the letter from England. Patrick could not find the letter and refused to give any more information (the man didn’t identify himself). Patrick’s wife was very upset because of the incident. She did not want Patrick to tell the man anything. This man was not French but was not from the area.

In 1973, the story reached Robert Parker, producer of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series “Up Canada” in Toronto. Seeking to track down a copy of the letter, Parker contacted Ralph Martin in England. Martin confirmed he had received a piece of metal from Judge and had given it to someone at an AVRO Aircraft factory near his home, but he had no further information.

In a May 24, 1974 letter to Ralph Martin, Parker thanked him for his help and said he had spoken with the Managing Director of Hawker-Siddeley which had acquired AVRO in 1963. The executive promised to search the company’s back files and make inquiries of senior employees but cautioned that a fire several years ago had destroyed a number of old records. TIGHAR has since confirmed that an October 3, 1959 fire at the Chadderton AVRO plant near Martin’s home destroyed large sections of the production and office facilities.

Unable to confirm Judge’s claim about the letter, Parker dropped his investigation. Patsy Judge was incensed and, on June 18, 1974, sent a hand-written letter to Ralph Martin (spelling as in the original).

Dear Sir

I know you will be surprised to Hear from me. I am writing you conserning the peice off metal which I found in 1932. As you remember I gave you a Portion off this to you. and this was in 1947. and you presented it to a place in England and they in turn wrote me a letter saying it was undoubtfull a part off the under carrige off the plane called either the Blue Bird or the White Bird. perhaps you can find out which plane they were searching for here in 1928?

At the present time there is a group searching for it in the Pond where I found this plane and they are trying to deny that I was the first to find this Part and trying to say it was years later. So if you could write me a letter conserning this transacton between you and I in 1947 this would prove I am Right in what I am saying.

On July 4, 1974, Martin replied:

Dear Mr. Judge,

Thank you for your letter of 18th June.

I was not really surprised to hear from you as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had been in touch with me regarding the piece of metal which you found many years ago.

Whilst I wish to assist you as much as I am able I fear that I cannot obtain any information whether the plane was called Blue Bird or a White Bird. All that I am able to say is that I remember you giving me a piece of metal when we were staying on your land with Mr. and Mrs. Peters way back in 1947.

This piece of metal was given by me to the Avro Aircraft people, a firm which is now a part of a larger organization called, I think, the Hawker Siddely Aircraft Corporation...and I understand that they wrote directly to you on their investigation. I did not have any copy of that letter.

However, I understand that the Manufacturers concerned have had a fire since writing to you and I believe that the correspondence in question was destroyed.

All that I can therefore confirm is that you handed me a piece of metal which was delivered as I have stated and I thought the reply had been sent and received by you.

Hope this may be of some assistance.

A TIGHAR researcher’s notes from July 6, 1993 telephone interview with Ralph Martin, then 88, provides more information.

Martin owned a textile mill in Bradford, Yorkshire, and Mr. Peters was his agent in Newfoundland for the sale of cloth to the Newfoundland police, Salvation Army, etc. Peters took Martin and his wife on a camping trip to Gooseberry Cove, where they met Patsy, who owned the land they camped on. Peters knew Judge because they used to come into St. John’s to make their weekly purchases. Patsy supplied the camp with eggs and milk.

After two days, Patsy brought a piece of metal to Martin. He told Ralph that he thought it was part of the undercarriage of an airplane. Patsy said they had heard an airplane going over while he was fishing in a pond; he found this piece.

Martin was the first foreigner Patsy had met, the first Englishman. He thought the piece was from a plane that was either English or was going to England. Patsy didn’t mention what year he heard it, or what year it came over.

The piece was comparatively light. It was about 12 to 14 inches long, about 3 inches at its widest part. It was bent and somewhat crumpled, with a lot of strange numerals stamped on it. Ralph thought it was aluminum or stainless steel, as it showed no corrosion and was bright and shiny. No wood or rivets.

Martin gave the piece to the A.V. Rowe factory which made Lancaster bombers. This factory was about 5 miles from his mill. The piece he described was as is, he doesn’t know what Patsy may have done to it between the time he found it and when he gave it to Ralph. Patsy believed that it was from an undercarriage. When Patsy told him this, he had no reason not to believe him, since Ralph had no experience with airplanes. Martin thought it looked like a support piece and didn’t come from a wing or the fuselage.

When he gave it to A.V. Rowe, they asked him where he got it. He told them the story, and they got very interested. He never heard from them what it was. Didn’t remember who he gave it to. He never heard the White Bird mentioned.

While there is no doubt that Patsy Judge gave a piece of metal to Ralph Martin who then passed it on to AVRO, the letter Patsy said he received in return makes no sense.

  • It is inconceivable that anyone at AVRO in 1948 could have identified a component of the one-off 1927 Levasseur PL-8 without consulting French authorities and it is equally inconceivable that such an identification could take place without making international news.
  • Patsy was on record in 1948 as believing the plane in the pond was the Blue Bird but in his 1974 letter to Martin it was “either the Blue Bird or the White Bird.” The 1969 Herald article had identified the plane as the White Bird. It appears that Patsy included that option in his 1974 letter to enhance his credibility.
  • Patsy already believed the piece was from the undercarriage of an airplane when he gave it to Martin, so he had that information before the piece went to England. According to Judge’s son James, it was the U.S. Navy in Argentia who made that identification.
  • No one claimed to have actually seen the letter identifying the metal except Patsy himself. Ralph Martin took Patsy’s word for it that he had received the letter. Patsy never mentioned AVRO. He said only that he had a received a letter “from a place in England.” Judge’s son James thought the letter came from “the manufacturer of a lost plane called the White Bird or Blue Bird.” The White Bird was a product of Société Pierre Levasseur Aéronautique which had been out of business since the 1930s.
  • When someone called Patsy’s bluff and offered him $10,000 for the letter he couldn’t find it.
  • It is difficult to conclude other than that the letter was Patsy’s invention to bolster his claim to fame.
  • Nonetheless, Patsy’s identification of the piece he gave to Ralph Martin as a part of the undercarriage of the White Bird could be correct. L’Oiseau Blanc dropped its wheels after takeoff but the attach points on the plywood fuselage for the jettisonable undercarriage were “Acier speciale” (special steel) of the general shape and dimensions described by Martin.[10]

All of the interviews and documents cited below are available at the Resources link below.

8 Newfoundland Herald, Vol. 24, 10/26/1969; Ric Gillespie interview with Anthony McGrath 9/18/1992; Robin McGrath interview with Dermot McGrath 7/1994.
9 Charles McCarthy: Ric Gillespie interview with Charles McCarthy 11/5 1993; Note and pencil drawing sent by Charles McCathy to Ric Gillespie 12/1/93; Ric Gillespie interview with Patrick McGrath 9/18/1992; Ric Gillespie interview with Hubert McGrath 9/17/92.
10 Phantom Letter: Florence Coffey interview with James Judge 7/17/1994; Robert Parker letter to Ralph Martin 5/24/1974; Patrick Judge letter to Ralph Martin 6/18 1974; Ralph Martin letter to Patrick Judge 7/4/1974; Jay Veith interview with Ralph Martin 7/6/1993; Levasseur Album Photographique, Avion marin.

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