Searchlights probed the rainy darkness that evening as thousands of people waited at the Battery in New York City for the arrival of the two French aviators.
Their big white seaplane, L’Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird) — with its skull and cross bones insignia — was scheduled to set down in the harbor any second, completing what all hoped would be the first nonstop flight between Paris and New York.
Festive boats dotted the water, and dignitaries and a grand reception were waiting.
It was May 9, 1927, just shy of a decade before Amelia Earhart left for her doomed round-the-world flight in 1937.
On Wednesday a blurry photograph — supposedly showing Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, on an island after their disappearance in July 1937 — sparked excitement that the 90-year-old mystery surrounding her disappearance may have been solved.
But years before Earhart vanished, and days before Charles Lindbergh‘s famous New York-to-Paris flight, the world was riveted by the daring French fliers Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli.
Both were veterans of World War I. Nungesser, 35, was the White Bird’s pilot. Blond and handsome, he was said to have taught himself to fly by stealing an aircraft in Brazil.
He was wounded often during the war, shooting down 45 German aircraft, and legend has it that when one wound claimed most of his teeth, he had them replaced with metal substitutes. He still carried a wicked scar on his chin.
Coli, 45, a former sea captain from Marseille, was the navigator. He was said to have been the brains behind the flight. A dapper older man, he wore a patch over an eye lost while taxiing a plane into a hangar.
The two men were the toast of France after they announced their intention to attempt the 4,000-mile flight.
Their plan was dangerous. They would fly, sitting side by side, in a Levasseur 8 seaplane that was designed to take off from land, then jettison its heavy landing gear.
The idea was to land the plane, whose fuselage was shaped like a boat hull, in the water near the Statue of Liberty.
The night before the flight, hundreds had gathered at the airport in France with champagne and picnic baskets to say farewell. And although the weather was unsettled the pilots decided to make the “hop.”
“I take the responsibility,” Coli said, according to newspaper reports at the time. “We’re off!”
As they prepared to leave, Coli’s wife tearfully kissed her husband goodbye.
At 5:17 a.m. on Sunday, May 8, 1927, they departed Le Bourget airport, expecting to be in New York sometime Monday afternoon, Nungesser told reporters.
The single engine biplane had about 40 hours of fuel on board, no radio, and a primitive signal light beneath the fuselage that would continuously flash the letter N in Morse code — one long and one short — so ships might spot them at sea.
The route would take them by Ireland, across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and New England, and on to New York.
The plane was painted white with Nungesser’s wartime combat insignia — a black heart with a white skull, cross bones, candles and coffin on the fuselage.
Around the world, people waited for word of their arrival. Nungesser’s brother, Robert, had traveled to join VIPs in New York from Washington, where he reportedly worked as a tinsmith.
As the hours passed, reports of sightings came in. All were unfounded. And when the plane had not appeared in New York harbor by Monday night, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker’s flag-bedecked welcoming boat, the Macom, returned to shore to wait, the New York Times reported.
More time passed and worry grew. An ambulance and a nurse were summoned, in case the aviators arrived injured. The weather was foggy and rainy. At 9 p.m., it had been 45 hours since departure, and fear replaced anticipation.
The White Bird never arrived in New York that night. Searches began and went on for days, but proved futile. Over the years, various theories have held that the plane crashed in eastern Maine or off the coast of Newfoundland. No proven trace of it has ever been found.
“Theirs was a gallant attempt,” The Washington Post lamented in an editorial on May 10. “Ultimately the miles lying between Paris and New York will be spanned through the air.”
Ten days later the feat was accomplished by American aviator Charles Lindbergh, who became an international hero. And, slowly, Nungesser and Coli were forgotten.
Read more Retropolis: