The greatest single mystery of the early days of aviation has been solved, according to French researchers.
The American pilot Charles Lindbergh was not the first person to fly the full width of the Atlantic in 1927, the researchers say. He was merely the first person to land his aircraft successfully, and the first to live to tell the tale.
Documentary evidence dredged from US official archives shows that two French pilots reached the Canadian coast from Paris 10 days before Lindbergh flew the Spirit of Saint Louis from New York to Le Bourget on 20-21 May, 1927.
The evidence suggests that Charles Nungesser and François Coli landed their sea-plane, L'Oiseau Blanc, or The White Bird, just off the coast of the French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, near Newfoundland on 11 May. Their plane probably broke up on – or soon after – touching down and both men were killed.
The fate of Nungesser, 35, and Coli, 45, heroes of the French air force in the First World War, has been called the "Everest of aviation mysteries". Their disappearance has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories – including one which suggests they were shot down by American anti-Prohibition drink bootleggers – for almost a century.
Bernard Decré, 70, the creator of the "round France" yacht race and an aviation enthusiast, believes he has solved the mystery at last.
One of the last pieces in the jigsaw was an internal US Coast Guard telegram found by his team of researchers in the national archives in Washington DC last month. It tells of the remains of a white aircraft seen floating in the ocean 200 miles off New York on 18 August 1927, which "may be the wreck of the Coli-Nungesser airplane".
This evidence, and other documents unearthed in recent months in Newfoundland and St Pierre et Miquelon, leads Mr Decré to believe he has finally pieced together the story of Nungesser and Coli's 5,200-kilometre flight. Although they failed to meet the "challenge" of flying between New York and Paris, they were, he believes, the first to complete a full, or "long", crossing of the Atlantic and the first to cross the Atlantic by plane from east to west.
"My intention is not to disparage the magnificent achievement of Lindbergh," Mr Decré told The Independent yesterday. "Enormous credit is also due to the British pilots (John) Alcock and (Arthur) Brown, who were the first to complete a 'short' crossing of the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919.
"But I believe that, just as any aircraft needs to be checked minutely before each flight, we must be as precise as we can about the early history of aviation. I believe that Nungesser and Coli, although they did not live to tell their story, should now be restored to an important place in that history."
Mr Decré said he believed both the American and French governments agreed at the time to cover up – or at least not pursue – substantial contemporary evidence that the Oiseau Blanc had reached the Newfoundland coast on 11 May. There had been considerable Franco-American political and popular tensions in the 1920s, fuelled by the rivalry to be the first to snatch the $25,000 prize offered by the New York hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first flight between New York and Paris.
Lindbergh's triumph made him a hero in France and the US, creating the mood for a declaration of Franco-American friendship later that year. In these circumstances, Mr Decré said it suited the French authorities to accept the original "official" story that the Oiseau Blanc had crashed in the Channel soon after take off.
There is documentary evidence, in Newfoundland archives, of an aircraft being seen and heard on 11 May. There are also well-documented witness reports, uncovered by Mr Decré's team, of the sound of an aircraft just off the coast of Saint Pierre et Miquelon between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Pieces of wing were picked up in the sea nearby.
Mr Decré dismisses the theory that the aircraft was shot down over Maine by bootleggers who feared it was a military or customs aircraft. However, he believes that Saint Pierre's role as a beachhead for illegal drinks exports to the US encouraged local officials to cover up the Oiseau Blanc's ill-fated landing off their coast. "The last thing that they wanted was officialdom from Paris snooping around," he said.
It was Nungesser and Coli's aim to land their sea-plane in New York harbour. Mr Decré believes that they realised they had insufficient fuel to reach New York. They landed in the sea close to Saint Pierre but the bi-plane, largely made of wood and canvas, broke up. Ocean currents carried part of the wreckage south to the New York coast.
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