It’s fun to speculate how the course of history might have changed had one thing happened, or not happened. For instance: What if Charles Lindbergh had not been the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris? What if, instead, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, the two French aviators piloting the plane L’Oiseau Blanc, had made the transatlantic flight first?
Nungesser and Coli were trying to do just that — from Paris to New York, in their case — less than two weeks before Lindbergh successfully flew his plane, Spirit of St. Louis, along the same route. Both were vying for the Orteig Prize, which would award $25,000 (around $360,000 in 2019 dollars) to the first pilots to fly non-stop between Paris and New York, in either direction.
Coli had already made aviation history as the first person to fly solo across the Mediterranean, while Nungesser was one of France’s most decorated World War I flying aces. Lindbergh, at the time, was an essentially unknown Air Mail pilot.
Unfortunately for the two French pilots, L’Oiseau Blanc — the White Bird — crashed sometime on May 9, 1927, supposedly somewhere between Newfoundland and Maine.
Twelve days later, on May 21, Lindbergh touched down in Paris, where about 150,000 cheering people met him at Le Bourget Airport. The fervor with which his feat was greeted was one of the catalysts for the development of commercial air travel as we know it, and it cemented Lindbergh’s seemingly eternal fame.
L’Oiseau Blanc, meanwhile, has to this day never been found, and like the fates of Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, its crash is still among the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts to find it, however. The leading theories as to where the plane crashed are that it either went down at sea, crashed somewhere in Newfoundland, or met its fate in the woods of Maine’s Washington County.
Peter Noddin, former president of the Maine Aviation Historical Society and a self-described “amateur aviation archaeologist,” has searched for — and sometimes found — crashed planes all over Maine. Finding the “White Bird” is one of the “big ones” for him and his fellow aviation history enthusiasts.