Resuming the Search for a Pioneering Plane Off a Remote Island

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ST.-PIERRE -- Two French aviators had done it, it seemed -- accomplished the first, near-unthinkable flight between Paris and New York, and on May 10, 1927, newspapers across France proclaimed "the triumph of French wings" and a "golden age of French aviation."

"Nungesser and Coli have succeeded," declared La Presse, going so far as to detail their sea landing in New York Harbor and the "cheers that rose up from the ships that surrounded them."

Those heady first reports proved false. Charles Nungesser, a daredevil aristocrat and top French flying ace, and François Coli, a one-eyed mariner and former infantryman, had not arrived in New York. Their hulking single-engine biplane, L'Oiseau Blanc, or The White Bird, was never recovered.

They had vanished "like midnight ghosts," wrote Charles Lindbergh, the American who only days later reached Paris from New York. The Frenchmen were thought to have gone down in the English Channel, or perhaps over the Atlantic, or somewhere between Newfoundland and Maine.

Their disappearance, considered one of aviation's great mysteries, has inspired decades of hypothesizing.

A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that the aviators crashed off the tiny St.-Pierre, a craggy outcrop of lichenous rock and boxy, brightly colored houses about 10 miles from Newfoundland. It is a theory championed by Bernard Decré, an obsessive and excitable French septuagenarian who has committed the past five years to a full-time search for L'Oiseau Blanc.

"I was always at the back of the class, making drawings of ships and airplanes -- that hasn't changed, actually," said Mr. Decré, 73 and retired, who indeed remains a constant scribbler and hopes to "readjust the history of aviation."

"We just want to recognize that they accomplished a fantastic crossing," he said. A nonstop flight from Paris to Newfoundland would have been the first between Continental Europe and North America, and the first Atlantic crossing from east to west.

At 5:17 a.m. on May 8, 1927, loaded with 3,800 liters of fuel -- barely what the 3,600-mile journey was thought to require -- the wood-and-canvas Oiseau Blanc trundled down the grass airstrip at Le Bourget, outside Paris. Seated side by side in the open cockpit, the aviators reportedly brought with them canned fish, bananas, rum and little else, concerned as they were with weight; they carried no radio, and the wheeled undercarriage was jettisoned shortly after takeoff.

In Manhattan, thousands had gathered to await the plane's arrival, newspapers reported. A water landing was planned beside the Statue of Liberty.

"They really needed to have a tail wind the whole way to make it," Mr. Decré said. "But these guys were gamblers."

Like Mr. Lindbergh, the two aviators were competing for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris, or vice versa.

Mr. Decré believes the French fliers were forced off course by storms over Newfoundland. With fuel running low after about 35 hours, the men attempted a fateful sea landing off St.-Pierre, he contends, amid a heavy, late-morning fog.

An expert mariner -- he founded the Tour de France à la Voile, a major French sailing race -- and a onetime communications executive, Mr. Decré began his investigation in 2007 after reading an account by the novelist Clive Cussler of his own search for the plane in Maine. Mr. Decré has since combed archives in France, Canada and Washington and come repeatedly to St.-Pierre, where a small team of technicians has scoured the seafloor for the remains of L'Oiseau Blanc.

He has come upon archival records showing that 13 people saw or heard the plane heading south along the eastern coast of Newfoundland on the morning of May 9, along with at least four residents of St.-Pierre. A local fisherman, no longer living, used to speak of hearing a plane crash and cries for help, Mr. Decré said. Residents and sailors reported debris in the area shortly after L'Oiseau Blanc was missing, and other fishermen are said to have dredged up aircraft wreckage over the years.

Mr. Decré's search is the first to focus on St.-Pierre, which, despite its location, in fact belongs to France. This was a distinction of particular importance during Prohibition in America, from 1920 to 1933, when the island became a major hub for bootleggers. Merchants in Montreal, for instance, could legally ship whiskey to French St.-Pierre; speedboats then raced the liquor to the American Northeast.

It has been suggested that L'Oiseau Blanc was shot down by the United States Coast Guard, mistaking the French fliers for rumrunners.

Whether or not that was the case, the Coast Guard may prove to be a key to finding the plane. At the National Archives in Washington, Mr. Decré has unearthed a Coast Guard telegram from August 1927 describing what appeared to be the wreckage of a biplane wing floating off the Virginia coast.

"It is suggested to headquarters that this may be the wreck of the Nungesser Coli airplane," it reads.

That sighting would be in keeping with a crash off St.-Pierre, Mr. Decré calculates. He suspects that the Coast Guard plucked the wreckage from the water and that it is now resting forgotten in a warehouse, somewhere.

"We're sure they've got a piece of the wing," he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Decré was here in St.-Pierre once again last month, this time equipped with a powerful magnetometer and a multidirectional sonar unit. (With backing from the local authorities, the French government and especially Safran, the aerospace and defense company, Mr. Decré's budget this year reached about $200,000.) Three weeks of scans in about 180 feet of water turned up nothing, though.

Unlike French newspapers of the time, Mr. Decré has yet to cry victory, but last month he organized a wreath-laying ceremony here in honor of the fliers. Mr. Lindbergh's grandson, Erik, attended. "Before my grandfather flew across the Atlantic, people who flew in airplanes were called barnstormers and daredevils -- they were crazy," Mr. Lindbergh said. Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli may not have succeeded, he said, but their daring ought to be celebrated.

Still, Mr. Decré means to find physical remains and has every intention to continue his search.

Less certain is whether his sponsors will follow suit. The local populace remains skeptical, too. While they admire Mr. Decré's enthusiasm, many inhabitants say they are unconvinced he will find any wreckage, even if there is indeed any here.

"It's like trying to haul up water with a fishing net," said Serge Perrin, 56, shucking scallops on the deck of his boat. "We never heard anyone talk about L'Oiseau Blanc before he showed up," Mr. Perrin added, suggesting that some locals had perhaps invented memories of the plane -- consciously or not -- after reading about the crash.

"There are some who believe it and some who don't believe it -- it's like Santa Claus," said Amandine Pinault, a reporter for the local television station. "In any case, it's a beautiful story."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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