|The French Report|
On the morning of May 8, 1927, the aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli left the French coastline near Etretat, in order to fly over the English Channel in a northwesterly direction, aboard their plane the White Bird, with which they were attempting the first East—West aerial crossing of the North Atlantic. They disappeared in the course of this attempt.
Even though this happened over half a century ago, it has never ceased to stir interest due to the importance and the risks of the enterprise, the dramatic circumstances surrounding it, and the personalities of the two aviators. At the end of 1980, press articles published in Haute-Normandie and in the rest of the nation gave an account of statements of the region’s population showing new information about this event. This information brought up a sufficient enough interest that it seemed desirable that the dossier of this disappearance be re-examined.
According to one of these statements, the White Bird crashed into the water of the English Channel off the coast of Etretat and floated for a rather long time before foundering. Its crashing in the English Channel was considered by experts in the field as early as two days after the departure. The possibility was widely reported in the newspapers. Léon Nungesser, the pilot’s half brother, even made public his personal fears about such an occurrence.
The theory of a crash into the English Channel (the result, in the mist or fog, of losing control of the heavily-loaded airplane) could not be ignored. It was therefore necessary to make a rather thorough examination of the dossier in order to see if the precautions taken by the crew before the departure regarding safety were satisfactory, and to find out whether or not a crash into the English Channel in the absence of engine failure was plausible; this explains the analysis made of the preparation of the attempt in Chapter One.
The public, in the years following World War I, manifested an exceptional interest in aeronautical activities. Tens of thousands of people assembled at Le Bourget for Lindbergh’s arrival, and at Curtiss Field for Costes’ and Bellonte’s arrival. Several thousand attended even the smallest festival for a provincial airfield. Aeronautical information had its place in everyday news and in periodicals of general information during this time. As for the specialized press, it was coining money.
This world of the 1920s was inundated with crews in search of any spectacular record flight. The North Atlantic itself was the stage for a large number of crossing attempts. (It is important to remember that the Englishmen, Alcock and Brown, flew from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy biplane in June 1919.) Who remembers (aside from enthusiasts) that at about the same time that Nungesser and Coli disappeared in their attempt over the North Atlantic, Mouneyres and Petit, departing from Saint Roman, were victims of the same sort over the South Atlantic? In 1927, four crews accomplished the crossing of the North Atlantic. Thirteen failed, of which four were lost at sea, as Edmond Petit recalls in his Histoire Mondiale de l’aviation [Worldwide History of Aviation] (Hachette, 1977). The newspaper Le Matin of April 1, 1927, reported that the Paris – New York or the New York – Paris flight was made the subject of a Challenge.1 R. Saladin, in La Presse of April, 1927, gave the list of crews that were preparing to attempt an Atlantic crossing: Paris – New York, five (including Nungesser and Coli and Costes with an unknown person); New York – Paris, four; Berlin – New York, one; Paris – Buenos Aires, one; Seville – Buenos Aires, one (in an airship).
Marcel Ducout, in an article from the Aerophile Nº 11–12 from June 1–15, 1927, indicates that the construction of the plane l’Oiseau Blanc started about February 15, 1927, and the attempt was to take place on May 8. It was thus put into action with only a little more than two and a half months between the two dates. One would perhaps be surprised that such a short time could have sufficed to build and try out a new plane destined to attempt a crossing of such difficulty. However, the East–West aerial crossing of the North Atlantic would bring to those who did it glory and perhaps fortune, but essentially only to those who did it first. La Presse of March 16, 1927, under the signature of R. Saladin, confirmed the departure of Byrd for the beginning of June and spoke of Lindbergh’s attempt.
The same newspaper, under the same signature, dated the 16th of April, asked the question: “Which of the two teams, Bert Acosta–Chamberlain or Nungesser and Coli, will be the first to cross? The actual Atlantic question is uncertain.” Under these conditions, from the moment the decision was made to undertake the adventure, the whole affair would have to be accomplished very quickly.
In this attempt, because the companies Levasseur (the plane’s builder) and Lorraine-Dietrich (the engine’s builder) would probably benefit in the case of success from spectacular publicity, they decided to put their reputations and finances on the line (R. Labric, in the Paris-Soir of April 2, 1927, indicates a total of more than 1,350,000 French francs). Jacques Mortane states in his book Le Miracle Aérien de l’Atlantique – de Read à Lindbergh [The Aerial Miracle Over the Atlantic – From Read to Lindbergh] (Bernardin edition, Bechet, 1927), that Mr. Levasseur had announced that the plane would be the exclusive property of the crew at the moment of the take-off for the attempt.
It is fitting to say first off that the documentation research was disappointing. All the services charged with managing the archives, including the National Archives and the historical museums and services which conserve this type of information, manifested the friendliest welcome and the most complete help. But outside of the Meteorology Report,2 which was spoken of often, the result was very meager. The photographs, on the other hand, were numerous and many among them were of excellent quality. There are additionally some very interesting films. It should be noted that the National Library bought the collection of one of the best known photographers of the time, Meruisse, and that the record of his negatives show that numerous photographs were taken the morning of May 8, 1927. However, none of these are found in the collection that was bought.
From the point of view of the presented documents’ importance, the quality of these documents, notably the photos from the museum at Etretat (situated a few steps away from the commemorative monument of the attempt erected on the cliff) is a remarkable accomplishment.
The archives of the present General Management of Civil Aviation of the Ministry of Transportation and those also of the Ministry of City Planning and Housing, which is the successor to the Ministry of Public Works, do not contain any files on this attempt. The Havas Agencies’ estate of archives, which now is at the National Archives, only seems to contain two telegrams concerning this event, dated from June 16, 1927, originating in Canada, about a supposed discovery of the two aviators.
The announcement, denied immediately afterwards, of the aviators’ arrival in New York by certain newspapers, and notably by the newspaper La Presse, on May 10, 1927, set in motion a street demonstration in Paris (Le Monde from May 10 stated that similar demonstrations had taken place in Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyon, and Le Havre). And on this same date, the government, questioned in Parliament, decided, according to what La Presse reported in its May 12th issue, to open “an investigation on the mistaken transmission of news announcing the arrival of Nungesser’s plane in New York. Mr. Lahure, head of the radio broadcasting service of general safety, was charged with gathering all information useful towards discovering the truth.” Other newspapers from May 12 also reported this mission. La Presse from May 18 confirmed that Mr. Lahure pursued his investigation on the false news and that it was a very difficult task. It has not been possible to find Mr. Lahure’s report, or even to find out if such a report existed. Actually, the official newspaper that reports the debates during the question period3 makes no reference to this investigation. It is the same eventual report presented to the Post Office Minister which is listed in La Presse of May 15. In order to inform the President and the various Ministers concerned about the crew’s disappearance, it is probable that an official report was issued by the General Management of Aeronautics, which at that time was connected to the Ministry of Commerce, headed by Mr. Bokanowski, who died in an airplane accident in 1928. This report could not be found. So it was necessary to be patient and to persevere when looking through the daily newspapers, periodicals, books and encyclopedia which dealt with Nungesser and Coli’s attempt. It was also necessary to write numerous letters and to investigate the event extensively, because the research and writing of such a report as this is also the result of the work of those who accept the job of researching and analyzing the documentation that they hold. Those who contributed their generous cooperation and those who served as intermediaries should be thanked.
This research and compilation of work should not be considered perfect, and any errors or omissions should be excused. An important objective will have been achieved if this report inspires deeper research on the part of those affiliated with the history of aeronautics.
Let’s recall the essential elements of this attempt:
Sunday, May 8, 1927, at 5:18 a.m., the pilot Charles Nungesser and the navigator François Coli took off from Le Bourget with their plane l’Oiseau Blanc to attempt to reach New York non-stop. Officially, the flight’s objective was to beat the world record for distance, and with this goal in mind, the plane had been marked and equipped with sealed barometers before departure. This was done by Commissioners designated for this purpose by the Aéroclub de France, Mr. Dollfus and Mr. Renvoisé, the latter also being the Commander of Le Bourget airport.
The landing gear was jettisoned shortly after take-off near Gonesse. It is presently on exhibit at the Musée de l’Air. Some planes escorted l’Oiseau Blanc during the first part of the flight to the French coast. These included one military plane flown by Captain Benson, accompanied by Captain Bellot; two planes with movie cameras; and one plane flown by Carniaux from the Levasseur Company. At the coast, near Etretat, l’Oiseau Blanc started over the English channel at 6:48 a.m. and disappeared from their view, heading toward England. In the days that followed, much information came through indicating that the plane was sighted in England, Ireland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and in Maine. The retractions then followed. In the weeks and months afterward, other information was circulating about the possible presence of the two aviators in isolated regions of Canada, and searches were undertaken. But the disappearance was complete.
Contrary to popular opinion, the newspaper La Presse did not fold as a result of the erroneous report contained in one of its special editions. The newspaper survived until 1956, retaining its original address on Rue Montmartre. Much information from this paper was used in this report because it had a semi-daily aeronautical column which was lengthy and factual. Taking into account the difficulties resulting from the famous special edition of May 10, 1927, it seemed possible that a defense file had been assembled by those responsible for the newspaper. The successors to La Presse agreed to do research in the archives, but could not furnish the records of 1927, which seem to have been destroyed.
Of the exhaustive searches attempting to find the missing aviators, which were carried out over Newfoundland and in the eastern part of Canada and the United States, some were organized by privately funded organizations especially set up for the search. This points up the importance of the attempt on an international basis.
It is appropriate to remember that the first North Atlantic crossing from New York to Paris was accomplished on May 20 and 21, 1927 (twelve days after the disappearance of Nungesser and Coli), by Charles Lindbergh with “The Spirit of St. Louis.” The first crossing from Paris to New York was accomplished on September 1 and 2, 1930, by Dieudonné Costes and Maurice Bellonte, with the “Point d’Interrogation.”