A researcher has spent decades trying to unravel the mystery of a 95-year-old missing plane

Pilots Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser disappeared along with the L’Oiseau Blanc — the White Bird — in 1927 attempting the first non-stop transatlantic flight. (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery)

The disappearance of the L’Oiseau Blanc — the White Bird — in 1927 has left historians and aviation enthusiasts stumped. One man in Oxford, Penn., has spent the last 40 years trying to uncover the mystery. 

The large French biplane, along with its pilots Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, disappeared during an attempt to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight between Paris and New York City, and to win the $25,000 Ortieg Prize.

Just two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh successfully made the flight — and history, as the first solo pilot to cross the ocean. [British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first transatlantic flight in 1919, flying from St. John’s to Clifden, Ireland.]

At the time, residents of the Cape Shore on Newfoundland’s southeast coast said they watched Nungesser and Coli’s plane fly overhead. Later, some even reported seeing pieces of airplane wreckage in nearby Gull Pond near St. Mary’s Bay. 

No conclusion was ever drawn and the plane itself has never been found.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, hasn’t given up the hunt since he first heard about the legend in 1980. 

“This is the most important missing airplane in history,” Gillespie told CBC News in an interview. He said his research has taken many twists through the years, with researchers following speculation about crashes in New York and Maine. 

Three men in colourful protective suits stand near a small pond.
Ric Gillespie, left, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), on an excursion to Newfoundland in search of the L’Oiseau Blanc. (Submitted by Patricia Thrasher)

“We started searching [and] eventually started a non-profit organization that does historical investigations. We looked in Maine for eight years and found nothing but stories,” he said. 

“In Newfoundland there are more than stories. There are witness reports. We shifted our search to Newfoundland in 1992 and started to find things.”

| From 1993, a Reg Sherren documentary on the hunt for clues about Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli: 

​​In search of ​Nungesser and ​Coli: From 1993, a ​documentary on an aviation mystery

French pilots Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli disappeared in 1927 while hoping to become the first to win a transatlantic contest. Reg Sherren reported for CBC’s Here & Now in a documentary that aired Nov. 16, 1993.

Gillespie has made several trips to the province since 1992 but has yet to find any conclusive evidence that the flight crashed in or around the island, though on one such trip the search group found a part of a steel cylinder painted blue, something Gillespie is of unknown origin. 

He said witness reports from people in St. Mary’s at the time say they saw the plane cross the bay while on fire, but notes it could have been steam instead since the engine was liquid cooled.

In Newfoundland there are more than stories. There are witness reports– Ric Gillespie

“These people swore affidavits before magistrates at the time. That’s good, solid, hard evidence,” said Gillespie.

“The pond on the Cape Shore, it’s a legend. [There are] people’s stories told years later — much fuzzier but worth checking out. There were no active aircraft in Newfoundland on May 9, 1927. If these people heard and saw an airplane, as they swore at the time they did, it was the White Bird.”

One more shot

Gillespie is back in Newfoundland this week to give a presentation and discussion about the history and the mysteries of the disappearing L’Oiseau Blanc.

He also filmed an expedition with Discovery Channel for the show Expedition Unknown, which aired Wednesday.

An archival black and white photo of a biplane with a pilot seen in the seat.
The L’Oiseau Blanc — or the White Bird — attempted to make the the first-ever transatlantic flight in 1927. (Submitted by Patricia Thrasher)

“What we hope is that people from the Cape Shore, or anybody who has information or wants to hear about the White Bird, comes … and hope that people share their stories with us,” he said. 

“My long forlorn hope is that somebody on the Cape Shore has something stashed back in their closet that their great-uncle said, ‘This is from that plane from the pond’ and nobody ever came forward with it before.”

A presentation on Saturday starts at 7 p.m. NT at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Placentia. 

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