May 8th, the Anniversary of Intercontinental Mystery

The history of Aviation is full of unsolved disappearances, mysteries, and unexplained occurrences.  But rivaling the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the Lindbergh Baby is one other name, itself eclipsed by the others.  It’s the story of The White Bird.  And it’s impossible to refer to this legendary plane without invoking a sort of wonder about its fate and a single core question.  Was Charles Lindbergh really the first to cross the Atlantic?

It all started in 1919 when a man by the name of Raymond Orteig put up profits from a successful hotel as a prize for the emerging daredevils who defied widely held conventions and took to the air in simple biplanes.  The prize was offered to the first man who could manage to take a plane from New York to Paris without stopping.

A transatlantic flight from Paris to New York at this point in history was widely considered madness.  Aviators were frequently heard boasting about one day taking the flight, but none had actually done it.  It wasn’t until 1923 that World War I aviator Francois Coli finally began toying with the idea of actually accomplishing the impossible.  When the open bet was renewed in 1924, he phoned the newspapers and his comrade in arms Paul Tarascon.  The two had won several sorties throughout the Great War, and had earned quite a reputation for themselves.

But then the first of a long line of complications arose.  Tarascon was involved in an accident that caused the plane they had been planning to take to burst into flames.  Tarascon himself was injured too badly to take place in the promising historic flight.  Replacement Charles Nungesser could hardly believe his luck when the baton for copilot was passed to him.

The plane, named “The White Bird” was outfitted with detachable landing gear, expecting to make a water landing once it reached New York.  Thousands crowded into trains bound for the Big Apple to witness the historic plane’s arrival.

Fishermen in Newfoundland caught the novel sight of a plane passing overhead and made note of it in their log books.  Everything was progressing according to plan despite the lack of a radio, which the aviators had discarded as too heavy for the journey and the limited fuel they would be able to carry.

The crowds in New York waited with bated breath even as headlines came out in Paris declaring the successful landing of the two aviators.  Crowds cheered in France even as witnesses in New York still waited the arrival of the two men.  It wasn’t uncommon for newspapers to jump the gun on important stories, publishing events before they had even happened in hopes of beating their competition.

Time passed.  After 48 hours it was clear that something with the flight had gone terribly wrong.  Investigations soon followed.  Even as search crews were still looking for the failed flight from Paris, a man named Charles Lindbergh would make his own flight from New York to Paris.  But was his the first true intercontinental flight?  We still don’t know.  Until the wreckage of the White Bird is discovered, we may never find out who the first really was.