Charles Lindbergh Won the Prize, but Did His Rival Get There First?

A Countryman Tries to Unravel the Unsolved Mystery of Charles Nungesser’s Last Flight


PARIS—Right after his historic, 33-hour trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, Charles Lindbergh asked whether there was news of French aviator Charles Nungesser.

Searching for the White Bird

French aviator Charles Nungesser was Charles Lindbergh’s great rival in the race to fly nonstop across the Atlantic.

La Recherche de l’Oiseau BlancA postcard commemorates the attempt by Charles Nungesser, left, and navigator François Coli, right, to fly from Paris to New York.

Mr. Nungesser, an adventurer and World War I ace, was Mr. Lindbergh’s great rival in the race to fly nonstop across the Atlantic in one direction or the other. He had set off with a navigator from Paris for New York just two weeks before Mr. Lindbergh’s flight. But his biplane—called L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird—never arrived in New York, and for decades it was assumed that it had crashed in an Atlantic storm.

Eighty-four years later, Bernard Decré, a French aviation enthusiast, is on his own quest—to rewrite history. He has come to a different conclusion: The Oiseau Blanc probably flew over Newfoundland, before crash-landing off the coast of Canada.

Last year, Mr. Decré discovered a 1927 U.S. Coast Guard telegram that reported sighting parts of the plane three months after the flight.

“My heart started pounding,” Mr. Decré, 71, remembers.

So Mr. Nungesser and navigator François Coli might have been the first men to fly nonstop to North America from Continental Europe. Messrs. Nungesser and Coli would then have held the world flight distance record, if only for 12 days and under tragic circumstances.

The race was triggered when New York hotelier Raymond Orteig in 1919 offered a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight between New York and Paris. In the ensuing years, a number of fliers made it across in other ways—via Ireland, or by refueling at sea—but the nonstop, continent-to-continent challenge was different. “There was an incredible competition to drive the birth of commercial aviation,” says Eric Lindbergh, the aviator’s grandson.

Mr. Nungesser was right out of the age of swashbuckling adventurers who lived short, glamorous lives. Photographs show him with thick, swept-back blond hair—and a scar on his chin from one of his many crashes. At 16, he left France for Brazil and Argentina, where he boxed, raced cars and learned to fly a plane over the Pampas.

Returning to France at the outbreak of World War I, Mr. Nungesser got himself into a bomber squadron. He achieved fame in 1915, when he abandoned his post to take off in a fighter plane and shoot down a German Albatros biplane. He was put under house arrest by his French military superiors for insubordination—and awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for heroism in combat.

Made a fighter pilot, he finished the war with 43 official victories, the third highest of French fliers, having suffered a number of fractures and bullet wounds.

After the war, Mr. Nungesser lived in a house on the Champs-Élysées, partied at Fouquet’s, the famous brasserie, and lost money running a flying school. To raise cash, he sold off a Rolls-Royce that King George V had given him as a gift. To revive his fortunes, Mr. Nungesser went to the U.S. to star as himself in a 1925 film called “The Sky Raider.” And that led to air shows, where he re-enacted his World War I dog fights.

On May 8, 1927, while Mr. Lindbergh was stuck in fog on Long Island, Messrs. Nungesser and Coli took off from Le Bourget, the airport north of Paris. The plane was given a military escort to the Normandy coast. Thousands of people crowded New York City’s Battery Park to see the scheduled touchdown on the water near the Statue of Liberty.

Two weeks later, however, Mr. Nungesser had still not turned up, and Mr. Lindbergh arrived triumphantly in Paris.

Over the decades, reports circulated of plane wrecks in Newfoundland and Maine—along or near the planned route—that might have been the Oiseau Blanc. Some researchers in Newfoundland found a moss-covered pair of French binoculars of a type made between 1910 and 1920. But no conclusive evidence was turned up. In 1984, a French government report concluded that there was no evidence that Messrs. Nungesser and Coli had completed their ocean crossing.

Mr. Decré, an amateur pilot and sailor, became obsessed with the story in 2006, after his daughter had given him a book on mysterious wrecks.

Trying to figure out the fate of the Oiseau Blanc, he studied weather records from the day of Mr. Nungesser’s flight and interviewed elderly people in Newfoundland. Some remembered talking to eyewitnesses who heard a plane flying over the island on May 9, 1927.

Mr. Decré found the telegram while trawling through U.S. Coast Guard records at the National Archives in Washington. On Aug. 18, 1927, a Coast Guard officer said he had seen a pair of joined white wings floating several hundred miles off the coast.

Mr. Decré’s findings were examined in January by the history and culture committee of the Aéroclub de France in Paris.

France’s culture minister turned up in July as he was continuing research on the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, south of Newfoundland. The ultimate goal is to find a piece of the plane, something he hopes to do with the aid of divers and sonar equipment.

In July, in Saint-Pierre, he found a copy of the parish bulletin for May-June 1927, mentioning that an airplane engine had been heard over the south coast of Newfoundland. “We want to establish the true history of the tragic end of our pilots,” says Mr. Decré. “Then we want to answer Lindbergh’s question, by saying we have now had news of Nungesser.”

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