Lindy lucky to make it alive


Flight: Many tried in the 1920s to fly nonstop between North America and Europe, and many died.

May 17, 2002|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maybe, somewhere deep in the darkest of Maine's eastern woods and under 75 years of accumulated forest debris, lies all that is left of the Oiseau Blanc (White Bird) and all that is left of its two pilots, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli.

At least, that is one theory about what happened to one of the planes competing with Charles Lindbergh in 1927's great race across the Atlantic Ocean.

Another is that Nungesser and Coli never made it as far as Maine - despite the airplane noises heard the afternoon of May 9 - and perished at sea.

However they died, their failure left the way open for the young American to have his chance. On May 20, Lindbergh took it.

What Lindbergh accomplished was not the first flight across the Atlantic. That already had been done in May 1919 by a U.S. Navy flying boat piloted by Albert Read, which flew from New York to the Azores, and then on to Lisbon and finally London.

Nor was Lindbergh's the first nonstop flight across the ocean - despite what a sign at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum says. That came a month after Read, when British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whittten Brown flew from Newfoundland in Canada to Ireland. In July, the dirigible R-34 flew from Scotland to Long Island and, a while later, flew back again.

Other impressive flights also had been made. In 1923, Army Lts. Oakley Kelly and John Macready made the first nonstop flight across the United States, going 2,500 miles from Roosevelt Field on Long Island to San Diego in 26 hours, 50 minutes.

In April 1924, four U.S. Navy planes began an attempt to hop, skip and jump all the way around the world. Two of them made it, finishing in September. In 1926, Adm. Richard Byrd reportedly flew over the North Pole.

Nor was the main significance of Lindbergh's trip that he flew solo. At the time, no one seemed particularly interested in that aspect of his plans.

What Lindbergh and Nungesser were trying to do, less that 25 years after the Wright brothers managed to fly 120 feet nonstop, was to become the first to fly nonstop between New York and France and win a $25,000 prize offered by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig.

The prize had been on the table since May 22, 1919, and by 1926 it was beginning to look capturable. The main problem was not in the quality of the airplanes nor in the daring and ability of the pilots. Rather it was with the dependability of the airplane engines. The trip required one that could run nonstop and unattended for about 40 hours.

When the Wright corporation came up with its J-5C Whirlwind, the long Atlantic hop - about twice the distance of the Newfoundland-Ireland crossing - became more likely, and most of the Americans hoping to make the trip opted for it.

The serious competition for the Orteig prize began in 1926 when France's leading World War I air ace, Rene Fonck, taxied his Sikorsky trimotor onto the runway at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, on Sept. 21. But the plane failed to achieve enough speed to take off and crashed, killing two of the other three men aboard.

As the spring of 1927 came, there were four main competitors lining up in America and several others in Europe. The hope was to be the first to get plane and equipment together and tested. And the other hope was that the weather would be ready when they were.

His North Pole experience behind him, Byrd was set to tackle the Atlantic as organizer and navigator of a four-man crew aboard a Fokker trimotor. But on April 16, the America crashed on landing after a test flight, damaging the plane and injuring most of the crewmembers.

Ten days later, two American Navy officers, Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster, took off at Langley Field, Va., for a final test flight. Their American Legion biplane barely got off the ground. It rose a little, then stalled and splashed into a marsh. Trapped in the crushed cockpit, both pilots drowned.

Two weeks later, across the Atlantic, Nungesser and Coli were ready. Both were war veterans. Coli had lost an eye in the conflict and wore an eye patch.

Nungesser was France's third leading ace, with 45 kills, but he also had been wounded 17 times, twice seriously. Even a crash in January of 1918, when he fractured his jaw, skull and both legs, didn't keep him from soon flying again.

The Oiseau Blanc was a single-engine craft that jettisoned its landing gear after takeoff to improve its performance. It would land like a seaplane.

Weather was a special concern for pilots leaving from Europe. The winds across the Atlantic usually blew from the west, meaning the eastbound flight would be slower and longer.

After weeks of waiting for favorable weather, Nungesser and Coli took off May 8. They were seen flying past Ireland, then were never seen again.

But they might have been heard. The search for them uncovered a string of reports across Newfoundland that would coincide with the time they probably would have passed over.

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