The Most Important Failed Flight

Charles Nungesser
François Coli

May 9, 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the most important failed flight in history. On that day in 1927, the world waited breathlessly for word of the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic between New York and Paris. On the morning of May 8th French aces Charles Nungesser and François Coli had taken off from le Bourget Field in the giant Levasseur PL-8 biplane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), and headed westward in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first flight between Paris and New York. It was the first time an airplane loaded with enough fuel for a nonstop crossing had gotten airborne. Two rival aircraft had crashed on takeoff at the cost of four lives. Another competitor, a modified Ryan design, was in California being flight tested by a little-known airmail pilot. He cancelled his plans to try for the prize when he learned that the famous Frenchmen were on their way to New York.

But the crowds and official welcoming committee in New York waited in vain. An impatient French journalist wired home a complete account of The White Bird’s triumphal arrival. Paris went wild until it became apparent that the news was tragically premature. Nungesser and Coli were down – somewhere. A massive search by the navies of four nations (larger than the search for Amelia Earhart ten years later) was launched, and the airmail pilot in California set out for New York and immortality.

For the next eleven days, headlines covered the fruitless search and marveled at the audacity of “the Flying Fool” who was determined to try for the prize solo. When Charles Lindbergh left Roosevelt Field on May 20, few among the 500 people who saw him off expected that he would ever be seen again. The next night, when he landed The Spirit of St. Louis on the same runway where Nungesser and Coli had departed just days before, a screaming crowd of 100,000 was there to greet him.

Although little remembered in the U.S., the failed flight of L’Oiseau Blanc was a hinge-pin in history. Had Nungesser and Coli arrived in New York, Lindbergh would not have flown the Atlantic and the tremendous boost to American aviation development and innovation inspired by his accomplishment would not have happened. What might have been the consequences a few years later when the fate of the world rode on American wings.

3 thoughts on “The Most Important Failed Flight”

  1. I vividly remember when I was about 13 and my father and I picked you up at the airport near Washington DC. You were going to go to the French Embassy the next day to petition them for funds to help you in your search for the White Bird.

    1. That was probably in 1985 or maybe even ’84. We never got any money from the French but we did get great cooperation from the French Transportation Councillor to the U.S.
      Funny story:
      The French government had recently commissioned an exhaustive official study by the Ministry of Transport titled “Nungesser & Coli Disparaisent A Bord L’Oiseau Blanc – Mai 1927” (Nungesser and Coli Disappear Aboard The White Bird – May 1927). The French embassy wanted to give me a copy of the report but there was a problem. It was not cleared for release to anyone not officially associated with the French government. Their solution was to make me a temporary, honorary “capitaine” in the Legion Etrangere. Total baloney. Just a cover story in case anyone found out they gave me a copy – but I still have my kepi. Vive la France!
      The report was later cleared for public release, we translated it, and it’s now available in the TIGHAR Store at

  2. I’m rooting for you to find the definitive evidence about AE soon, so you can move on to finding these two. To me these courageous French fliers were far more relevant to aviation history than AE ever was.

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