The Enduring Mystery Of The White Bird


A post card image of the White Bird and it's pilots.

A post card image of the White Bird and it’s pilots.


    mist It’s perhaps New England’s greatest unsolved aviation mystery that investigators and historians have been trying to unravel since 1927.  There are some who believe they may be close to finding the answer, while others maintain the truth will never be known for certain.  Riding on the outcome are the bragging rights of two nations, the Untied States, and France, both of which hope it was their countrymen who were the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean – non stop – by air.   

     Briefly stated; on May 8, 1927, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli attempted to be the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from Paris, France, to New York City.  They left in a plane called the White Bird, and after passing over Ireland they were never heard from again, and the mystery surrounding their disappearance has been a source of debate ever since.  Did they accomplish their mission before Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris on May 20-21?  Some believe they did.  Yet if so, then what happened to the White Bird?     

     The 1920s was a revolutionary decade for aviation, with new speed, altitude, and distance records being set and broken on a regular basis due to ever-developing technology.  Yet despite these milestones, the goal of the most intrepid aviators of the time was to be the first to fly from America to Europe, or vise-versa.  The desire to do so had been in the hearts of many since the first manned balloon flights had taken place in the late 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that aircraft design had reached a point where such a trip was considered theoretically feasible.   

     Besides the chance to make history, potential candidates were lured by the prospect of a standing $25,000 cash prize offered wealthy businessman Raymond B. Orteig to the first person(s) who could fly non-stop from New York to Paris, a distance of about 3,600 miles.  The prize money was a huge sum in those days, but initially, those who set out to collect it died in the process, until Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat in1927.  

     Each failed attempt brought hope that the next would succeed, and as more candidates announced their plans to fly the Atlantic the competition to be the first grew.  By early May of 1927, Lindbergh was ready to try form New York, and Nungesser and Coli were set to leave from France. Each knew of the others plans, and the race to be first was on.    

     So it was that Nungesser and Coli took off at 4:30 a.m. from Le Bourget Field in Paris despite reports of unsettled weather over New England and Newfoundland which they would pass over on their intended flight route to New York. 

     “You know what this means”, said Nungesser just before take off, “and we both do.  We are taking a risk, I know, but we are taking it willingly and with all our hearts.” 

    Both Nungesser and Coli were experienced airmen, having flown as combat pilots during World War I, with Nungesser shooting down forty-five enemy aircraft.  The airplane they were using was a Levasseur bi-plane which they had painted white and modified with extra fuel tanks for the anticipated journey.  Along the side was painted L’Oiseau Blanc. (The White Bird)

     Evidently some French newsmen were so sure of their countrymen’s success,   that they prematurely reported details of the White Bird’s successful landing in New York Harbor.  Unfortunately it wasn’t true, and within hours the world came to know that the White Bird was missing.

     Ships at sea were notified to keep a lookout for the airmen as one of the largest air-sea search and rescue operations in history was organized.  Military ships and aircraft on both sides of the Atlantic also joined the search. 

     While concern mounted, some hoped that the men had been rescued by a passing ship that didn’t have wireless communication capabilities.  In that scenario, it might be weeks before word of their safety was heard, but history has shown that was not the case.  

      On the afternoon of May 9th a report was received from Sydney, Nova Scotia, that the White Bird had been observed near Cape Race at 10:00 a.m. however this was never corroborated.  

     A later report on the 11th stated the plane had been found in Truro, Nova Scotia, but this turned out to be false.  

    CORB1318The last confirmed sightings of the White Bird came from Ireland as it passed over on its way west.  The plane was reported seen over Dungarvan, in County Waterford, at 10:10 a.m. on the morning of the 8th; over Cappoqin at 10:16 a.m.; Glin, County Limerick, at 10:45; Kilrush, County Clare, at 10:50, and Carrigaholt, County Clair, at 11:00 o’clock.  Carrigaholt is located 630 miles from Paris. The last known person to see the plane was Father M. Madden of Carrigaholt.  

     On the other side of the ocean, three reputable residents of Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, reported hearing what they thought might be the White Bird as it passed through overhead fog.  These reports coincided with the White Bird’s intended flight path.     

     Other citizens of the region also came forward with what they had heard.  William Parsons, living on Ocean Pond, about 25 miles southwest of Harbor Grace, stated he heard an airplane experiencing what sounded like engine trouble pass overhead which may have crashed.  A Newfoundland Constable reported what Parsons had told him, “that it sounded like an explosion of a boiler at first, but it soon became apparent that it was overhead and the repetition of the sound, although not regular as in the case of a well running motor, indicated that it came from an airplane.” 

     Despite those who heard an airplane pass overhead, none could state they had seen it, or verify that it was the White Bird, due to the fog and cloudy weather that had enveloped the region on May 8th and 9th.       

     The White Bird’s anticipated flight plan would have brought the plane over northern Newfoundland near Belle Isle Straits, however, investigators theorized that if the aircraft had drifted southward due to fog it would have passed over Harbor Grace.  Traveling due west it would then cross Trinity Bay , and if it stayed on the same course it would pass over Arnold’s Cove in Placentia Bay, then on to the interior of Newfoundland, which in 1927 was described as “a desolate and rugged region of forests and rocks.” Police officers and woodsmen familiar with the region began a search that was estimated would take weeks for they were looking for the proverbial “needle in a haystack”.    

     At one point it was proposed to send the U.S. Navy airship Los Angeles to Newfoundland to assist in this search, but the plan was abandoned due to no substantiated reports that the White Bird actually went down in that region.            

     Some theorized that the craft might have made a water landing, and that the crew was safe living off provisions.  On the other hand, Henri Barbadoux, the engineer who designed the White Bird’s engine, offered his opinion that if the plane had made an ocean landing during the first portion of the trip, there would be no way to quickly empty the fuel tanks, and the weight of the gasoline would pull the ship under almost immediately.  If the men managed to escape the sinking plane, they most surely would have succumbed to hypothermia.      

     Hope that the mystery had been solved rose on May 18 when the captain of the steamship Bellepline, en-route from Rotterdam to Boston, reported sighting plane wreckage 100 miles out to sea from Boston.  He said the debris sighted on the 16th consisted of natural colored wood, “20 feet long and five feet wide, with cross and transverse ribs similar to an airplane wing”.  Unfortunately, attempts to bring it aboard were unsuccessful, so the ship moved on.

     The captain of a schooner seemed to support the Bellepline’s claim when he docked at Lynn, Massachusetts, and reported seeing a plane passing overhead in about the same area at an altitude of about 3,000 feet on the Monday the White Bird vanished.            

     Also on May 18th it was reported that a message in a bottle, allegedly written by Captain Nungesser, had been found on the English shore of Port Kerris. The message read in part, “Landed 75 miles lat (sic) off Ireland, engine trouble.  W.H. Nungesser.  Finder please communicate with H. Laurence R.A.F. (Royal Air Force)) secretary, London.”  The note was never authenticated.

     On May 20th another sighting of aircraft wreckage was reported floating in the water of Fort Pond at the end of Montauk Point, Long island, New York.  Coast Guard officials who examined the wing found it to be in very poor condition, and determined it had been in the water for a long time, not just for a week or two.  The canvas covering was shredded, and bore no identifying marks, and it was painted silver, not white.  It was their opinion the wing was not related to the White Bird

     DSC01884On May 26th it was reported that the search was now being conducted “with more vigor” after a report by two men near Placentia Bay, who claimed they had heard the sound of a plane overhead and then a crash on the day the White Bird vanished.  The search continued into June, and the aircraft Jeanne D’Arc, piloted by Major P. Sydney Cotton, was brought to Newfoundland by the Red Cross ship Silvia, to assist.    

     On July 25, 1928, more than a year after the disappearance, a piece of airplane wreckage with silver and bronze colored fabric was found floating in the ocean, with a portion of a wireless receiver attached.  The White Bird didn’t carry a wireless receiver, and the wreckage was determined to be from some other airplane.

     Eventually the world came to accept the fact the White Bird and her crew were gone, but that didn’t deter those intent on solving the mystery.  While some believe the aircraft went down in Newfoundland, others have explored the possibility that it continued as far south as Maine.    

     In 1966, famous New England author and historian Edward Rowe Snow published a book titled “Marine Mysteries and Dramatic Disasters of New England” in which he wrote a chapter about the White Bird.  Snow wrote that in 1947 (exact date unknown) a Maine lobsterman named Robert Mac Vane accidentally snagged a piece of airplane wreckage on one of this trap lines off the southwestern end of Jewel Island.  Snow brought several small pieces of the find to the South Weymouth Naval Air Station for examination where it was determined they were of World War II vintage. 

     Yet the find apparently intrigued Snow, for if it wasn’t the White Bird, then what aircraft was it?   Snow was also a scuba diver, and wrote that he had assisted other divers in recovering additional wreckage off Jewell Island.

     The pieces were put on display somewhere on Cliff Island, Maine, and news of their recovery eventually led a former member of the French resistance forces of WW II to visit the island and offer the opinion that they belonged to the White Bird.  Snow then went to Cliff Island and brought a piece to Quincy, Massachusetts, where it was examined by Major Marc Palabaud of the French air force, and Charles D. Pampelonne, the French consulate of Boston.  Major Palabaud was then allowed to take the piece back to France for further study. 

     Meanwhile, other pieces were sent to the J.H. Taylor Foundry in Quincy for testing.   While the French were extremely optimistic they now had proof that Nungesser and Coli had made it to America, Snow goes into detail relating how the Taylor Foundry spectrographic analysis concluded that the metal was   positively identified as being from an airplane of the World War II period.

     The French government wasn’t convinced, and asked that the area be dragged so that more wreckage could be retrieved, but this was never done.

     Snow’s research uncovered two WW II era aircraft wrecks that might be connected to the recovered wreck pieces. On April 5, 1944, a bi-plane belonging to the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Tuscaloosa, was lost in that area.  The pilot, Ensign K.W. Baker, and his radioman, C.E. Duiguid went to the bottom with their plane.    

Martin B-12A modified for sea duty.  U. S. Air Force Photo

Martin B-12A modified for sea duty. U. S. Air Force Photo

     Snow also heard tales of a plane that went missing from the Brunswick, Maine, Naval Air Station during a snowstorm off Jewell Island.  After diving in the area in water 134 feet deep, he discovered the remains of a B-12 trainer plane from Brunswick, NAS.    

      In 1980, Yankee Magazine published a story by Gunnar Hansen titled, “The Unfinished Flight of the White Bird” in which he described how a man named Anson Berry heard a plane pass overhead and then what he thought was the sound of a crash while fishing on Round Lake, in Maine, (which is not far from the Nova Scotia border) at the time the White Bird disappeared. 

     An interesting piece by Arthur P. Dolan, “Recovery Of White Bird Would Be A Feather In Maine’s Cap”, published in 2008, related how he and a friend discovered aircraft wreckage that might have been the White Bird while on a hunting trip in Maine in 1958.  In it he describes the scene, and the discovery of some bones which at the time they believed to be of an animal.  Years later he tried to locate the spot but was unsuccessful.   

     Others believe the wreck of the White Bird might be farther to the north.  In June of 2013, a New York Times article told of a man named Bernard Decre who had been searching the waters off the island of St. Pierre near Newfoundland for five years utilizing hi-tech sonar equipment to scan the ocean floor.  

     One noteworthy fact mentioned in the article was that Decre had discovered a U.S. Coast Guard telegram at the National Archives in Washington D.C. that is possibly related to the White Bird.  The telegram dated August of 1927, pertained to a bi-plane wing discovered in the water off the coast of Virginia.  A quote from the telegram read: “It is suggested to headquarters that this may be the wreck of the Nungesser Coli airplane.”  Unfortunately, what became of the wing is not known.

     It can be surmised that with the passage of so much time the debate as to whether Nungesser and Coli completed their flight or not will go on and on unless someone comes up with indisputable proof in the form of human remains, or an identifiable part of the White Bird.  Even today there are millions of unexplored square miles of wilderness in Maine and Newfoundland. Perhaps the remains of the White Bird will one day be discovered in one of these remote areas, or perhaps not.  As for now, the search continues, and the mystery endures.  


Woonsocket Call, “No Trace Of Nungesser – Coli Plane Found By Searchers Scouring Ocean And Shore”, May 10, 1927, pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Naval Tugs Leave Boston In Search Of Missing Flyers”, May, 10, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “De Pinedo, Fog – Bound, Blames Air Conditions For Frenchmen’s Plight”, May 10, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Nungesser Reported Sighted Off Coast of Newfoundland This Morning”, May 9, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Intensive 24-Hour Search Of North Atlantic Ocean Fails To Reveal Trace Of Flyers”, May 11, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Sea And Land Give Back No Answer To Anxious Questions”, May 11, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Nungesser’s Brother Feels Sure He Will Be Found”, May 11, 1927, Pg. 12

Woonsocket Call, “Number Of Persons In Southern Ireland Claim To Have Seen Plane”, May 11, 1927, Pg. 12

Woonsocket Call, “Hope Dwindles In Paris As No Word Of Airmen Comes”, May 12, 1927, Pg. 18

Woonsocket Call, “Ebbing Hope OF Searchers For Missing Flyers Seem To Rest On Newfoundland.” May 12, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Report Of Plane Whirring Through Fog Northwest of St. John’s N.F., Monday Morning Causes Stir.” May 13, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Intensive Search On Land And Sea Fails To Bring News of Nungesser & Coli”, May 13, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Hope For Safety Of Nungesser-Coli Waning Despite Vague Reports”, May 14, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Member of Newfoundland Constabulary Writes Canadian Authorities That William Parsons Of Ocean Pond Less Than 100 Miles From Bay, Says He Heard Plane.” May 16, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Continued Search Of Bleak Shores Of Newfoundland Fails To Reveal Any Trace Of Missing Flyers”, May 17, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Report of Plane Wreckage In Sea 100 Miles From Boston Made BY Steamer Captain”, May 18, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Airplane Wing Picked Up In Sea, Off Montauk Point, Long In Water”, May 20, 1927. 

Woonsocket Call, “Search For Missing French Flyers Goes On With More Vigor”, May 26, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Nungesser-Coli Search Airplane At St. John’s N.F.” June 9, 1927, Pg. 1

The Evening Independent, “Floating Wreckage Found Off Jutland Coast Sent To Paris For Identification As Part of Nungesser-Coli Machine” July 25, 1928.   

New York Times, “Lindbergh Rival’s Wreck Sought In Maine Woods”, February 22, 1987

New York Times, “A Fragment Of History Is Uncovered In Maine”, October, 15, 1987

New York Times, St. Pierre Journal, “Resuming The Search For A Pioneering Plane Off A Remote Island”, By Scott Sayare, June 24, 2013.

Yankee Magazine, “The Unfinished Flight Of The White Bird”, by Gunnar Hansen, June, 1980. 

“Marine Mysteries And Dramatic Disasters Of New England”, By Edward Rowe Snow, Dodd Media & Co. N.Y., C. 1976. (Chapter 10, Nungesser And Coli) 









Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲