ELLSWORTH — Seventy years after a French biplane disappeared on a historic mission en route from Paris to New York, a handful of Maine residents are still on its trail. Armed with aerial photographs, World War II Army records, and a smattering of eyewitness reports, the Maine Aviation Historical Society is trying to track down the final resting place of l’Oiseau Blanc — the White Bird — in the remote woods of central and eastern Maine.
The quest, based on the slimmest of evidence, attests to the power the White Bird legend still possesses decades after World War I flying ace Charles Nungesser and his navigator, Francois Coli, flew into oblivion while trying to set an Atlantic crossing record.
Most of the search participants met up in the late 1980s when they joined the eight-year quest in Washington County sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. When TIGHAR gave up, transferring its attention to Newfoundland, the current enthusiasts resolved to continue the chase.
They think TIGHAR was simply looking in the wrong place, but they can’t agree on what the right place is. Two competing theories have arisen — but the MAHS members say they can’t afford the technology to thoroughly investigate either one.
Inspired by an old newspaper story about a plane wreckage and some photos of a mysterious object on a remote mountainside, Oscar Blue of Hancock and Leo Boyle of Westbrook believe the White Bird might have crashed on Big Spruce Mountain, about 20 miles southwest of Millinocket. Next spring, they’re planning their fourth expedition to look for it.
Jim Chichetto of Etna, on the other hand, thinks the plane’s remains lie buried on a mountainside in Sullivan. His theory is based on the account of Jim Millett, now in his late 80s. Millett found a large black metal object that he thought was an engine while on a hunting trip there in 1953.
The subject of all this speculation, the White Bird, was built in 1927, the same year an unknown 25-year-old from the Midwest was working on the Spirit of St. Louis. Decorated with French red and blue military markings and Nungesser’s insignia black heart, the plane left Paris on May 8 and was last seen for sure flying over the west coast of Ireland.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in New York City to watch the plane swoop in over the Statue of Liberty. It never arrived. Eventually newspapers ran the reluctant headline that the two pilots were presumed drowned in the Atlantic. The plane itself has never been found.
Less than two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris and became an international hero. Had the White Bird made it to New York, its two French pilots would have been the first to fly the Atlantic nonstop on that route. And they would have done it with the wind against them. Lindbergh was the first to fly it solo.
Some clues suggest that the two pilots did in fact reach North America, and maybe Maine. More than a dozen eyewitnesses in Newfoundland claimed they saw the plane, and in 1927 a plane overhead was a rare event. A few Down East residents said they heard the plane in the Machias area. Robert and Evelyn Magoon, aged 9 and 14 at the time, claimed they saw it over their house in Crawford, heading west.
“There was this plane sort of circling,” said 87-year-old Viola Sargent of Ellsworth, a proponent of the Big Spruce theory whose son-in-law is a cousin of the Magoons. “And finally it took off and it would have been in the right direction.”
Big Spruce theory
The right direction, according to this theory, was westward toward Big Spruce Mountain, about five miles north of Katahdin Iron Works in an unorganized township called Bowdoin College Grant East. If the plane was running low on fuel or having engine trouble, the pilots might have realized they wouldn’t make it to New York and would have headed instead to Montreal and the St. Lawrence River, their alternative destination.
Flying inland to avoid the fog shrouding the coast that day, and possibly with Moosehead Lake in mind as an emergency landing site, their flight path would have taken them near Big Spruce.
The source for this theory is a 55-year-old newspaper clipping, which the MAHS members heard about while participating in TIGHAR’s trips to Washington County. On Aug. 16, 1942, the Bangor Daily News reported that Army air corps searchers had seen an “unidentified plane wreckage” on “Spruce Mountain.” At the time, searchers were looking for a Canadian Air Force bomber that had crashed on nearby Saddleback mountain, and was quickly found.
The article inspired Blue and Boyle to go on three flights over Big and Little Spruce mountains in 1994 and 1995.
From several hundred feet up, Blue took photos of the pine-covered slopes. He scrutinized them with a magnifying glass for two days, he said, before he identified a rectangular shape on the southern slope of Big Spruce, in all three sets of photos. To the uninitiated viewer, however, Blue’s object looks like a shapeless blob.
The photos were sent to Brunswick Naval Air Station, where the image was enhanced. Boyle said Brunswick reported back that the shape was a man-made object about 15 feet long, about the same size as the metal hull of the White Bird.
“It’s highly probable that this wreckage is the White Bird,” said Sargent, who was a teen-ager when the plane went down. “There’s something there, and there’s pictures to prove it, and the Navy doesn’t think it’s a rock.”
A rock, however, is exactly what Jim Chichetto says the object is. Chichetto organized an expedition into the Bowdoin College Grant East township in the fall of 1995. Using Global Positioning System technology and metal detectors, Chichetto said the team conducted a thorough search of the mountainside, including the area where Blue has pinpointed his oblong object.
“There was a nice little mossy meadow and some blow-downs,” said Chichetto, “but there was nothing there.”
“They just took a romp in the woods. They could walk right by it and not see it,” counters Blue, who has also had his own crew of searchers on three trips into the Big Spruce wilderness.
“I’ve spent my life in the woods,” said Sargent, a supporter of Blue’s theory who drove up to Big Spruce to search one year. “And it could take you two hours, in parts, to go a mile up there. If they find anything, it’ll be because they stumble across it.”
To really investigate whether the White Bird crashed on Big Spruce, Blue and Boyle say they need a helicopter equipped with an infrared sensor that can hover over the slope and scan for metal. The sensor also has to be able to distinguish between iron ore and the aluminum of the White Bird’s propeller.
Chichetto said he too needs advanced metal-detection equipment to pursue his theory. He assumes that the plane did make it to Machias, but that it then continued down the coast and, in the bad weather, crashed into a mountain, which he declined to identify, north of Route 1 in Sullivan.
This theory centers on one account by a hunter who ate lunch next to a curious, engine-like object almost half a century ago. Jim Millett of Old Town tried to move the half-buried piece of machinery, but it was too heavy. He also said he found a white laminated canvas and a piece of bone at the site.
Like Big Spruce, Chichetto’s targeted hillside is a wooded, road-less area. Chichetto says he has narrowed the area down to a 1,000-square-foot zone.
Blue says the Sullivan wreck sounds like an old fire pump engine.
There are a few other elusive clues to the Big Spruce theory. One involves a man named John Argraves, who used to live near the Iron Works and who said he saw a wreck with white fabric on Big Spruce.
“By the time we tracked him down, he was dead,” said Chichetto. “But his son knows his father died believing that plane was on Big Spruce Mountain.”
Richard Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR, heard about the Big Spruce theory in the 1980s, but he didn’t find it convincing enough to warrant a search. TIGHAR is now hunting for Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and a Canadian group continues to pursue the quest for the White Bird in Newfoundland.
Action-adventure novelist Clive Cussler, whose hobby is discovering lost shipwrecks, has also searched for the White Bird in Washington County. Last October, Cussler and a team from the National Underwater Marine Association brought a boat with side-scanning equipment into the backcountry to survey three lakes in the area where TIGHAR thought the plane went down. They too found nothing.
Working from such slender evidence may sound daunting. “It is a one-in-a-million thing,” said Boyle. “If I had to bet my life on it I’d say they’re at the bottom of the Atlantic.”
Yet once caught up in the chase, the White Bird hunters say they won’t rest easy until the mystery is resolved.
“It’s a hobby run amok,” admitted Chichetto, who also goes scuba diving for shipwrecks off the Maine coast.
Hero or footnote?
William Nungesser of Long Island, a cousin of the French pilot, has also developed an interest in finding his relative’s lost plane. “There’s so many stories up there,” said Nungesser. “You have to take them with a grain of salt. But you have to investigate everything.”
He got involved in the White Bird hunt in 1989 when his uncle read an article that mentioned TIGHAR’s activities in Maine.
To get the expertise and equipment to follow up their theories, the searchers have asked the U.S. military and even France for help. Nungesser has headed for Paris to seek support for his cause.
“Over in France he’s a national hero,” said Nungesser. “In America, he’s a footnote.”
In America, William Nungesser is a maintenance mechanic for the town of Riverhead. In France, he’s “le cousin du celebre aviateur,” according to the magazine of Saint Mande, Charles Nungesser’s hometown.
As the cousin of one of France’s most celebrated military heros, William Nungesser’s been invited to champagne and caviar with the mayor of Saint Mande and interviewed for magazine articles and local TV shows.
On one of his five trips to Paris, Nungesser met Laure Leveziel, who oversees Charles Nungesser’s archives in Saint Mande. This August, he brought her to New York and Maine. Now Blue has recruited a senior French class at Sumner Memorial High School and its teacher, Anne Osborne, to translate letters to and from Leveziel.
On his sixth trip to France, Nungesser hopes to meet Coli’s daughter. The two families have not been on speaking terms since the fatal flight, for which each blamed the other.
Nungesser has not, however, persuaded France to offer any financial assistance to the White Bird quest. Nor have any of the MAHS members managed to convince the military to make a training mission in search of the plane.
Nonetheless, Boyle and Blue are planning a fourth expedition to Big Spruce next spring. Blue drove his Jeep up to Big Spruce this fall to practice using his hand-held GPS device.
In Long Island, William Nungesser says he’s waiting for the call.