"Ten times faster," he said with a smile and a little wonderment. "Three hours and 26 minutes from Paris to New York."
It was Maurice Bellonte talking yesterday about his latest trip to the United States aboard the Concorde. His first trip was a world first. Fifty years ago this week, Dieudonne Coste and Bellonte became the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from east to west. The trip, from Le Bourget airfield in Paris to Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, N.Y., took 37 hours and 18 minutes.
Bellonte, navigator and co-pilot, remembers it well, especially the bad weather during the crossing, but he insists, as Coste did, that they knew they would make it even though others had died trying. "We were always sure," he said yesterday. Three years earlier, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh had made the first successful west-to-east crossing but a crossing the other direction presented west winds for which the planes of the day were ill-equipped.
Bellonte, now 84, says the key to their success was three years of preparation. "We had more than 200 hours of test flight, so we were very confident."
The year before their successful Atlantic crossing, Coste and Bellonte had set the world record for the longest nonstop flight for a journey from Paris to Tsitsikar, Manchuria. The trip of more than 4,877 miles took 51 hours and 39 minutes. "After Manchuria, we thought our plane could do Paris-New York," he said.
Their plane for the two flights -- and for another record-breaking Hanoi-Paris trip -- was a red cloth-covered open-cockpit Breguet sesquiplane, a plane with a big upper wing and a smaller lower wing, called Point D'Interrogation -- Question Mark. The plane had double controls. Why the name Question Mark?
"It is quite a story," Bellonte said. Because many attempts to fly over the Atlantic were unsuccessful, the French minister had cancelled all flight authorizations. "But Coste and I were decided to fly over the Atlantic, and were going on with our preparations. But we couldn't tell the reporters what we were doing. After one of the reporters said rhetorically to Coste and Bellonte, 'What is your plane? It is a question mark,' the mechanics painted two white question marks on the plane.
"In the morning they were going to remove it, but we told them, 'Don't remove it; it is all right'," Bellonte's wife, Raymonde, who accompanied him on this three-day whirlwind trip to the United States on the anniversary of his first flight, yesterday wore a pin in the form of a question mark on her dress.
When the Question Mark landed in Valley Stream, N.Y. -- escorted in by seven American fighter planes -- Lindbergh, who had landed at Le Bourget three years earlier, was among those waiting for them. He also laid out the route for a four-week good-will tour that took Coste and Bellonte and their plane to 37 American cities, including Dallas where they picked up $25,000 offered by a Col. W. E. Easterwood to the first person who could fly Paris to Dallas -- with a stopover at New York.
Going back to Paris, "We did the same as Lindbergh; we took a boat," Bellonte said.
Though she didn't yet know him, Mrs. Bellonte was just a few miles away from her future husband attending school in Great Neck when he and Coste made their historic landing on Long Island but "did not know anything about it at all" until an announcement was made at the end of the school day and small bottles of Coca-Cola were passed out. They met later in Europe.
Bellonte retired 19 years ago at age 65 after a lifetime in aviation activities but logs thousands of miles a year making appearances around the world as befits a French national hero. Besides his famous flights, Bellonte served with the first aviation group on the French Front in World War I; he also was decorated with the Crois de Guerre and the Rosette of the Resistance for his service in World War II.