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Last flight of The White Bird at Étretat

The first monument to Nungesser and Coli by Louis Rey

The first monument to Nungesser and Coli by Louis Rey

The terrible weather was perfect for our next postcard, the site of a French tragedy.

While matching our postcard we looked out over the English Channel above Étretat with admiration and astonishment.

Here two brave Frenchmen flew into history in a small wood and fabric covered biplane.

Last flight of the white bird

Monument remains, destroyed by the occupying forces in 1942
Monument remains, destroyed by the occupying forces in 1942

‘L’Oiseau Blanc’ The White Bird, was a custom built Levasseur PL.8.  On Sunday 8 May 1927 it took off from Paris Le Bourget airfield  heading for New York and a prize of $25,000. 

New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig had offered this outrageous award for the first non-stop transatlantic flight between the two cities.

What happened next is one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time.

François Coli and Charles Nungesser

Pilots François Coli and Charles Nungesser were confident of success as they skimmed the white cliffs of Étretat at 6.45am and said goodbye to their military air escort.

François Coli, 45, was a WWI veteran and recipient of the Legion of Honour.  He had made record-breaking flights across and around the Mediterranean and had been planning a transatlantic flight for some years.

His co-pilot was 35 year old Charles Nungesser, a highly experienced flying ace with over 40 victories, ranked third highest among French pilots.

Last sightings of The White Bird

Memorial stone by the museum, Etretat
Memorial stone by the museum, Etretat

On that grey Sunday in May the next official record of their journey was made by the commanding officer of British submarine H.50 who logged a sighting 20 nautical miles southwest of the Isle of Wight.

A short time later a priest in Ireland reported seeing them sail over the village of Carrigaholt.  After Ireland the brave pilots faced a long, cold and treacherous passage across the Atlantic.

New York New York

The prize money had whipped the media and the public into a frenzy and on Monday 9 May tens of thousands of people crowded Battery Park, Manhattan to see François and Charles arrive.  They were scheduled to touch down with a dramatic water landing by the Statue of Liberty.

Suddenly reports were telegraphed across the world that L’Oiseau had been sighted from New York.  In Paris excitement and patriotism exploded on the boulevards.

But the report was a mistake, François, Charles and L’Oiseau never arrived.

New monument to Nungesser and Coli at Etretat
New monument to Nungesser and Coli at Etretat

‘Vanished, like midnight ghosts’

Unconfirmed reports were later received of a biplane above Newfoundland and Long Island.

Other reports suggested L’Oiseau had been shot down over Maine by rum-runners with tommy guns, or that Charles and François were alive and living with Red Indians in Canada.

Was a crash covered up to make Lindenbergh’s successful attempt a short time later possible?

As late as 1989 the French government made an official investigation but the mystery continues.  Did they reach America?  If this could be proved it would change the history books.

But as American aviator Charles Lindbergh said, they had ‘vanished, like midnight ghosts’.

Another hero

Two weeks after the last sighting of L’Oiseau, Lindbergh successfully crossed from New York to Paris and was given an immense hero’s welcome by the French, even as they mourned the losses of Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli.

Last view of France, Etretat
Last view of France, Etretat

If you are in Étretat

On top of the cliffs along Avenue Damilaville (either walk up from the beach or park), you cannot miss the dazzling white spike that looks across the sea and honours CharlesFrançois and their extraordinary bravery.

Even in the rain the view across the sea and down to Étretat is beautiful.  For pilots François Coli and Charles Nungesser this was their last view of France.

The very brave and very cool Nungesser and Coli
The very brave and very cool Nungesser and Coli

2 thoughts on “Last flight of The White Bird at Étretat

  1. Hello,

    Just to say that you’ve written a great piece here. (You commented on what I had written about these two aviators on my website. I’ve not been to the monuments and it was wonderful to see your photos.

    By the way, I’ve written a novel set in beautiful Normandy.The title is ‘Bella … A French Life’ and it is on all the Amazon sites.

    All best

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