The city of Paris claimed that two French pilots were the first to make a non-stop flight between mainland Europe and America, a title that for decades has belonged to American legend Charles Lindbergh.
In the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a plaque in the street named after French aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli has been recently changed to read that the pair “crossed the Atlantic on May 8-9, 1927.” Lindbergh did not make his storied journey from New York to Paris until two weeks later, on May 20 and 21.
Although the sign unambiguously states that Nungesser and Coli crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the truth of this claim remains a mystery and the pair’s disappearance has been a source of speculation among aviation enthusiasts ever since. The two former World War I fighter pilots took off from Paris’ Le Bourget Field — the spot where Lindbergh landed — early on May 8, 1927, with New York as their final destination.
Nungesser and Coli were among the many pilots competing for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward offered by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first aviator to make a nonstop flight between New York and Paris. The pair chose to cross the Atlantic from east to west and gambled by doing so relatively early in the month, even as others, like Lindbergh, decided to wait in fear of bad weather. The Frenchmen were reputed daredevils. Coli wore an eyepatch to cover his blind eye, injured in a plane crash, and Nungesser had been wounded 17 times in the war.
A Number of Speculations
After being spotted over southern Ireland, the French pilots flew out into the Atlantic and disappeared. Their plane, named L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), was not equipped with a radio and when they did not reemerge over America the next day, the United States, Canada and France launched a joint rescue mission to find them. No sign of their bodies or planes were found and later in his autobiography, Lindbergh would write that the two had simply vanished “like midnight ghosts.”
The new street signs in Paris state that Nungesser and Coli landed in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, a small French territory island off the coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The theory that the archipelago, the only remaining North American territory under French control, became the final destination for the two pilots has been chased since 2009 by a group of French researchers. The leader of this team, Bernard Decré, was drawn to the location when he discovered a U.S. Coast Guard telegram from August 1927 that described a biplane wing floating off the Virginia coast.
In 2013, The New York Times reported that Decré was searching for this wing, believing it to be a part of L’Oiseau Blanc. The paper also described Decré’s persistent search of other parts of the plane in the waters around Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, where local rumours describe some of the town’s ancient residents seeing a plane pass overhead in 1927 or hearing the pilots’ cries for help. It is speculated that Nussenger and Coli may have been shot down by the Coast Guard, as the U.S. Prohibition-era government at the time was on high alert for alcohol bootleggers entering the country.
The city of Paris seems to have accepted the validity of this claim even though no concrete evidence has been found so far. If true, Nungesser and Coli will take Lindbergh’s title for having completed the first transatlantic flight between mainland Europe and North America. However, the American will remain the first pilot to have conducted a solo flight across the Atlantic as well as the first to fulfill the Frenchmen’s dream of flying between New York and Paris.
Well aware of his predecessors’ attempt, after Lindbergh joyously completed his flight to Paris in late October 1927, claiming the Orteig prize, he paid a visit to Nungesser’s mother who was still waiting for her son to come home.