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
From the page: “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.
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 Decre, 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. Decre 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. Decre, 71, remembers.
So Mr. Nungesser and navigator Fran§ois 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-elysees, 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….”