Little Bits of History

May 8

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 8, 2017

1927: L’Oiseau Blanc takes off from Paris, heading for New York City. The biplane was a French Levasseur PL.8 and the name is given as The White Bird in English. Two French World War I flying heroes were attempting to win the Orteig Prize. Charles Nungesser and François Coli had worked closely with Émile Farret and Albert Longelot in creating the newly designed biplane. Based on the Levasseur PL.4, the newer plane was built to carry two crewmembers seated side-by-side in an open cockpit. The fuselage was reinforced and the shape was altered to allow the two men their preferred seating arrangement. The wingspan was also increased. Two additional fuel tanks were added so 1,063 gallons of fuel was available for the nonstop transatlantic flight. New safety features were also added.

In April, the plane was shipped to Nungesser so some proving tests could be made. The plane was never fully fueled for these test flights and during one, Nungesser reached a cruising speed of 129 mph at an altitude of 16,100 feet. The plane was deemed fit and prepared for takeoff. At 5.17 AM local time, Nungesser and Coli took off from Le Bourget Field in Paris. The plane was exceptionally heavy for a single engine craft with a weight of 11,000 pounds at takeoff. It barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway. The flight path was to take the plane over the English Channel and southern England and Ireland. The plane would cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland and head south over Nova Scotia, Boston, and land in New York City.

Four military aircraft escorted The White Bird to the edge of France. They last saw the plane as it headed west. It was again spotted by a British submarine near the Isle of Wight. A civilian noted the plane flying over Dungarvan, Ireland and a priest reported the plane’s passing over Carrigaholt. No other sightings were made. Tens of thousands of anxious spectators gathered in Battery Park in Manhattan, awaiting the arrival of the historic flight. There were claimed but non-confirmed sightings and a French newspaper even reported the successful landing in New York City. However, even with the increased fuel capacity of the plane, it had a limit of 42 hours of flying time. It did not arrive within that time frame.

An international search was launched to find Nungesser and Coli. The French, US, and Canadian Navies all participated in a search for the missing plane and men. Two search aircraft were sent up (one of them crashed) to try and find some clue to the missing plane. Nothing was ever found. The mystery remains. The White Bird may have crashed over the Atlantic during a squall. There were 12 witnesses who claimed to have seen the plane in Newfoundland and Maine but the weather was foggy at the time. The plane was never recovered and its fate remains unknown. Twelve days after The White Bird left Paris, a relatively unknown American pilot, Charles Lindberg, left New York City. With a tail wind to help, he was able to land the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris and collect the $25,000 (~$342,000 now) Orteig Prize.

Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care. – Raymond Orteig

There are only two emotions in a plane:  boredom and terror. – Orson Welles

The modern airplane creates a new geographical dimension.  A navigable ocean of air blankets the whole surface of the globe.  There are no distant places any longer:  the world is small and the world is one. – Wendell Willkie

Lovers of air travel find it exhilarating to hang poised between the illusion of immortality and the fact of death. – Alexander Chase


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