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Search is on for Lindbergh's lost French rivals

Association La Recherche de l'Oiseau Blanc

French aviators Charles Nungesser and Fran├žois Coli were World War I aces.

By Eric Niiler
Discovery News

Search teams using underwater sonar, scuba divers and new accounts will try to solve one of the great aviation mysteries of all time: What happened to the L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird, a 31-foot long cloth-and-wood biplane that vanished while trying to cross the Atlantic from Paris to New York in 1927.

The disappearance of the plane and crew has been the subject of decades of speculation since two French World War I aces -- Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli -- took off from Le Bourget airfield north of Paris on the morning of May 8, 1927. The flight had a two-week jump on Charles Lindbergh, who departed New York in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20.

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The aviators took off without a radio or life raft. They even dropped their landing gear shortly after becoming airborne to save weight.

The two Frenchmen were attempting the first-ever transatlantic crossing and the right to a $25,000 prize. Witnesses at the time say they saw the plane cross England and Ireland, and crowds of people gathered in New York Harbor expecting the white plane to make a triumphant water landing at the Statue of Liberty. After several days passed without word, the flight was presumed lost and U.S. Coast Guard ships started a search-and-rescue mission.

Association La Recherche de l'Oiseau Blanc

The L'Oiseau Blanc (White Bird) may have crashed off the coast of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

In the decades since, reports have surfaced about bits of debris from L’Oiseau Blanc being found in northern Maine, Newfoundland or other parts of the Canadian coastline. None has survived. In the past five years, however, French businessman and aviation enthusiast Bernard Decre has pursued the case with new zeal.

After researching archival search records in France, Canada and the United States, Decre believes the aircraft went down just off the coast of St. Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French territory comprising several islands south of Newfoundland.

“It is a strange and fabulous story,” Decre said at the French Embassy in Washington. “Each year we receive more information.”

Later this month, Decre will lead an expedition to find L’Oiseau Blanc. He’s received financial backing from Safran, a French aerospace firm whose corporate grandparents built the 450-horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich engine that powered the plane. He has also enlisted the aid of the U.S. Coast Guard, which led the initial search for Nungesser and Coli back in 1927.

“If he has enough accurate information in his records, we can work backwards and construct a search area,” said Adm. Mark E. Butt, assistant commandant of capability for the U.S. Coast Guard.

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Butt said better data exists today about currents and tides that can help model the search. In June 2012, Decre searched for several weeks without luck.

The new search, from May 15 to June 7, will deploy additional ships and crew, a high-powered magnetometer to detect metal on the seafloor, a longer cable and remote-operated vehicles.

Decre also has some new information: an interview last year with a 95 year-old fisherman on St. Pierre. The man said that, as a boy, he spoke to another fisherman who saw the plane go down in thick fog on May 10, 1927. The fisherman also heard the two pilots cry for help.

While the story is second-hand, it is providing Decre with a starting point for the search grid. Even if the plane engine isn’t found, Decre and others involved in the search plan a ceremony at sea to commemorate the two French fliers with Eric Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh.