By Thomas D'Agostino
Charles Lindberg is credited for the first transatlantic flight after leaving Long Island, New York, on May 20, 1927, and landing safely in Paris on the 21st. This is pretty widely known in history but what is lesser known is that two pilots took off from a Paris airfield and crossed the Atlantic Ocean 12 days before. The only difference: They have never been found. The disappearance of L'Oiseau Blanc is considered one of the great mysteries in the history of aviation and remains to this day unsolved.
On May 8, 1927, the L'Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird, left Le Bouget airfield in Paris en route to New York. The Levasseur PL.8 aircraft was propelled by a 450 hp Lorraine-Dietrich 12-cylinder water-cooled engine and held three fuel tanks totaling 4,025 gallons. The pilot, Charles Nungesser, was a decorated World War I flying ace and navigator. Francois Coli had several successful flights under his belt. The specially designed bi-plane left the airfield at 5:41 a.m.
The plane was seen flying overhead in a small town in Ireland before heading out over the Atlantic. No further sightings were reported. On May 9, people in New York awaited the arrival of the White Bird but after it failed to show, everyone knew the plane had met with disaster. There was enough fuel for 42 hours of flying, plenty of time to make the trip but the White Bird and its crew, as Mr. Lindberg stated, “vanished like midnight ghosts.”
According to witnesses in Newfoundland, the aircraft was sighted over a dozen times. On May 9 at 9:20 a.m. Arthur Doyle and three other eyewitnesses spied a white biplane coming off the Atlantic towards land. Just after 10:00 a.m. several more witnesses saw the plane pass over Harbor Grace. Airplanes were rare at that period in time so the sight of one was somewhat memorable. Sometime early afternoon, Anson Berry reported hearing a low flying plane crash near his camp at Round Lake in Maine. He also made clear that just before the crash the engine was sputtering erratically. Searches for the missing plane turned up nothing and soon the matter was left to legend until 1980 when Gunner Hanson, who played Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, took interest in the story. He and others, such as author Clive Cussler and his organization NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency), made many attempts to locate any remains of the White Bird and its crew.
Hanson spoke with a hunter who in 1950 had discovered a large engine partially buried in the woods of Maine where the plane had reportedly crashed. Subsequent searches for the wreckage turned up pieces of struts, wood used for building planes and engine parts but little else. The plane, being mostly constructed of wood and fabric would have long rotted away. It was enough for experts to conclude that the White Bird did in fact reach North American soil.
Another clue that would lead to a dead end for the discovery of the aircraft’s remains turned up when locals remembered that a large engine was dragged from the woods during a logging operation in 1974 and sold for scrap.
Lindberg may have been correct in his statement but in a more supernatural manner. Although the White Bird may never be physically identified, its ghostly visitations, however, are a different story. On the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, the woods take on a more ominous tone and the sounds of the White Bird are once again heard. Witnesses near Round Lake have heard the eerie sound of a very low flying aircraft and have actually watched the trees part as if something was brushing their tops. Some claim to hear a crash but upon investigating, find no sign of any such tragedy. Perhaps it is the ghosts of Coli and Nungesser reliving that fateful moment when they touched down on American soil but never lived to celebrate their accomplishment.