Showing Up Really Is Half the Battle

04-02416 Francois Coli and French Air Service ...

Francois Coli, with Charles Nungesser (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

“Nungesser and Coli have succeeded,” declared La Presse, going so far as to detail their sea landing in New York Harbor and the “cheers that rose up from the ships that surrounded them.” Those heady first reports proved false. Charles Nungesser, a daredevil aristocrat and top French flying ace, and François Coli, a one-eyed mariner and former infantryman, had not arrived in New York. Their hulking single-engine biplane, L’Oiseau Blanc, or The White Bird, was never recovered.

via Resuming the Search for a Pioneering Plane Off a Remote Island – NYTimes.com.

The Times had a thing today about how some beret-wearing cheese sucker is sure he’s figured out what happened to the famous French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli.

Wuh… Who?

Excuse me, but I had never heard of them. (Which isn’t saying much, I know.)

The Times article seems to agree with me in spirit. No matter how famous Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli were, it seems they’re well forgotten now. I mean, check out the list of best guesses as to what happened to them: “The Frenchmen were thought to have gone down in the English Channel, or perhaps over the Atlantic, or somewhere between Newfoundland and Maine.” Some nuts think the United States Coast Guard shot the plane down.

In other words, no one has made any headway in solving what Times referred to as “one of aviation’s great mysteries.” No one, it seems, has even been trying very hard.

I don’t know how many people near the Channel said they heard an airplane, but supposedly nine witnesses in Newfoundland and four on the ought-to-be-part-of-Canada French island of St. Pierre said they did on the night the men disappeared. That’s 13 people (13!) who said they heard an airplane. If that many people said they had heard Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli strangle their cleaning lady, the two guys would have died in Sing Sing.

This was in 1927, mind you. There weren’t exactly airplanes flying all over the place.

Charles Lindbergh, with Spirit of St. Louis in...

Charles Lindbergh, with Spirit of St. Louis in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, Mr. Nungesser, whom The Times calls “a daredevil aristocrat,” and Mr. Coli, “a one-eyed mariner,” were vying for the Orteig Prize, which promised $25,000 to anyone who could complete a nonstop flight between Paris to New York.

Unfortunately, they “vanished ‘like midnight ghosts,’ wrote Charles Lindbergh,” according to The Times, probably not without a self-satisfied smirk. Thirteen days after the Frenchmen disappeared, Mr. Lindbergh would claim the Orteig for himself and set off an ill-fated and ungainly arc of celebrity.

Anyway, according to The Times, our present-day aviation sleuth is Bernard Decré, who explains his interest in the mystery by saying, “We just want to recognize that they accomplished a fantastic crossing.”

Yes. He really said that.

I wonder if Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli, who were planning a water landing in New York anyway, would have agreed.

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