Monday Mystery: L'Oiseau Blanc

On the 8th of May, 1927, François Coli and Charles Nungesser -- two French aviators, both aces in the dogfights of WWI -- took off from Paris en route to New York City. They flew a Levasseur PL.8 they called L'Oiseau Blanc, a biplane purpose-built for the task, in the hopes of winning the $25,000 prize for the first non-stop transatlantic flight between the two cities. They were escorted to the coast by French fighter planes, logged by a British submarine off the Isle of Wight, and spotted over the Irish towns of Dungarvan and Carrigaholt.

The biplane took off heavy, with a full load of fuel that should have given it 42 hours of flight time, enough to reach the Atlantic coast of North America. As the estimated time of arrival came near, thousands of people crowded onto the waterfront and into places like Battery Park, where they would be able to see the planned water landing in front of the Statue of Liberty. Rumors had been swirling of L'Oiseau Blanc being sighted over Nova Scotia, over Maine, or even over Long Island. Curiously, I can find no reports of rumors that placed the plane over Boston, which was right in their path, and over which they planned to pass before heading for New York City.

The scheduled moment came and went.

L'Oiseau Blanc was never heard from again.

Coli and Nungesser planned to take a "great circle" route across the ocean, so-called because when you plot it on a 2D map of the 3D Earth, it appears to swing way out of the way in a giant arc. (Great circles, also known as orthodromes, are the path of intersection between a sphere and a plane that passes through the sphere's center. An arc of a great circle is the shortest distance between two points on a sphere in the same way a straight line is the shortest distance between two points on a plane.) It would have been roughly this, although the NYC end is approximate; the field they took off from, Le Bourget, still exists, but JFK appears to be the nearest airport, as the crow flies.

To give you some perspective, Coli and Nungesser's route swung north of where the Titanic sank, over a section of the Atlantic beset by storms and clogged with ice. The most reasonable hypothesis, pursued by a collection of search parties run by the US Navy, the Canadian Navy, and the French authorities, was that they had run afoul of weather and gone down in a squall. No traces were found, but the ocean is big, and the PL.8 was tiny and fragile. The search continues into the present day, headed by organizations like TIGHAR, which is overenthusiastic and somewhat questionable, and NUMA, which is weirdly less questionable despite having been founded by Clive Cussler and named for the fictitious agency in his books.

There have been reports over the years of various people in Newfoundland and/or Maine having spotted a small white plane, and salvaged pieces of it when it crashed. Both locations would have been reasonable places for L'Oiseau Blanc to have flown over on its way to NYC. Rumors have swirled since about 1930 of someone in Maine having hauled away a small aircraft engine, but never anything about finding the actual plane, or the remains of the pilot and navigator. As of 2011, an unofficial French team has focused on the prospect that they encountered headwinds on the way out and ran out of fuel, going down in Eastern Canada somewhere.

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