On the 9th May, 1927, the people of the Avalon in Newfoundland and Labrador were aflutter with the news. As they often do, stories began to emerge, as everyone was trying to make some sense of what they’d seen in the sky.
They were determined. They knew they’d seen something. So several, from Baccalieu Island, Harbour Grace, Brigus, Ocean Pond and on to St. Mary’s, were even willing to give witness accounts. Little did they know their stories were tied to yet another story that had begun worlds away.
Is it Possible?
It was 1927. The United States aviation industry had already ascended into the skies, not by transporting people, but something equally crucial—mail. As The First World War drew to a close, on the 15th May, 1918, the first scheduled service began between New York City and Washington, D.C. They were making strides.
But hotel owner Raymond Orteig had his sights on something bigger. In the effervescence of Paris and New York, Orteig was buoyed by the promise of flight. And he meant business. He put up a prize for $25,000 for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris. This time, they’d cross the ocean.
The Atlantic had been crossed already, and the stipulation had simply been to cross from somewhere in North America to somewhere in Great Britain or Ireland. Just get across. With none of the technological distinctions that would help later aviators, Captain John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew from Newfoundland over the Atlantic, landing unceremoniously in a bog in Ireland. Not so this time.
Some Noteworthy Contenders
Anyone who was anyone in aviation eyed the prize. Charles Lindbergh, an airmail pilot was determined to step up to the plate. He had found some backers from St. Louis, Missouri and so his plane was named in their honour—the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Contenders made their first attempts to get off the ground in New York, some of them fatal.
However, it was in Paris where two First World War aviation heroes took to the stage. The plan was for François Coli to make an attempt with flying ace Paul Tarascon. Unfortunately, after a dreadful accident in late 1926 left Tarascon with severe burns, he’d have to be replaced. It was an equally skilled Charles Nungusser who took his place.
L’Oiseau Blanc or The White Bird taking flight.
At 5:17 am, 8th May, 1927, flying a newly designed Levasseur PL.8 biplane named L’Oiseau Blanc or The White Bird, Coli and Nungesser took to the air. It was a gala event, escorted by four military aircraft and then spotted from the Isle of Wight, Dungarvon, and then finally over the village of Carrigholt in Ireland. They were off.
Hopes were high. There were rumours they’d been sighted over Newfoundland, along their route and so the crowds who gathered in New York awaiting their arrival were buoyed. La Presse in France had even gone so far as to print false reports of their arrival. However, time passed. And when it exceeded the projected 42 hour or so flight time they had, given their fuel load, with heavy hearts, Coli and Nungesser were considered lost.
The Search Begins
A monumental search was mounted. From around the world, governments and private organisations banded together to look for Nungesser and Coli. But it was to no avail. Meanwhile, Charles Lindbergh seized the opportunity and in his Spirit of St. Louis flew from New York, landing in Paris to boisterous crowds and a hero’s welcome.
Photograph of The Spirit of St. Louis.
While many were overflowing with joy, the search continued. The Guggenheim Foundation employed an Australian pilot by the name of Sidney Cotton to do an aerial survey. Using a newly purchased Fawker Universal, a single engine float plane, one month after the disappearance, he undertook an aerial survey. Again, to no avail.
But on the Avalon, people were sure they’d seen something. Witness accounts, officially reported to the magistrate, came from different locales on the island—Baccalieu Island down through Harbour Grace, Brigus and Ocean Pond, and then on to St. Mary’s. At least one witness account had spotted something in the sky heading west across St. Mary’s Bay, trailing what was either steam from a failing colant system or smoke from a fire.
And then on an average Monday, the 9th of May to be exact, Nicholas McGrath was doing what he normally did, trapping muskrat on Branch. He reported being startled by three rapid explosions. No doubt, looking all around, there was nothing.
Piecing it Together
The next winter found Nicholas McGrath again out hunting—caribou this time—when he found himself traversing the ice on Gull Pond. He was astonished to find pieces of light weight metal painted blue scattered around on the ground. By then the stories of the ill-fated plane had reached every corner of the globe. So began the first stories of the plane in the pond.
Anthony McGrath, then 27 was hunting caribou with Ronald McGrath, 14 years of age. They too saw a large metal piece of metal emerging out of the ice. The metal was lightweight and riveted, painted a lovely robin’s egg blue on both sides. It was attached to wood framing, something that was suggestive of The White Bird, as it was a single-bay, wood and fabric covered biplane.
They had twisted the metal until it’d broken free. Although having been hunting, they were already carrying too large a load. So, they stashed it in a tuckamore near the southwest end of the pond, hoping to return. However, when they did return the next day to retrieve it, it was no longer there.
John McGrath, who was Anthony’s older brother had also found a piece of light metal, about 18 inches, that looked like it had been torn apart, either from an explosion or having been hit very hard. He’d done an interview with The Telegram regarding The White Bird which helped to further fuel the mystery.
Later, a Patrick “Patsy” Judge from Gooseberry, a great storyteller and musician in his own right, had also found several pieces of metal in the pond. This had been back in 1948. While Patsy was determined to get to the bottom of things, he lacked the resources needed to really dig in. Luckily, he had some well-connected friends in St. John’s. By that time, many had questioned whether the pieces of metal were indeed part of The White Bird.
So, Patsy Judge asked his connections if he could discover if there were any planes that had gone missing. But there was nothing. The Bureau of Aviation for Newfoundland had no records of missing planes and Argentia told him what he had seemed to be part of the plane’s undercarriage. Although, this couldn’t be strictly true as The White Bird had jettisoned its undercarriage in France to lighten its weight.
However, there is a good description of the piece that Patsy found and later conclusions determined it had very likely been one of the steel braces on the hull of the airplane to which the undercarriage attached. It also seemed that part of the fuel tank and shattered hull crashing into the island exploding in the manner that coincided with the three sounds Nicholas McGrath heard at the time. The pieces were coming together.
The Story at Present
Ric Gillespie is the Executive Director of TIGHAR—The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and their goal is to find some conclusive answers. They searched the pond in 1993 and 1994 and found three artefacts that might be from the plane crash. However, none were diagnostic.
Still, the sentiment is that the people decades ago who made affidavits actually did see something. And the gut feeling is that the plane is indeed in the pond. In the 1990s, they’d been using remote sensing to find some evidence of the plane. They’d received large anomalies such as what one would get from a large mass of metal. Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction.
After asking the Department of Mines and Energy if there was anything significant in the pond, they were told no. TIGHAR was still getting signals. The following spring, they sent divers out after the ice had melted to check it out.
As it happens, that anomalous signal turned out to be rock. TIGHAR felt they really needed to conduct a good magnetic survey of the pond. Although, the cost was prohibitive. Enter the Discovery Channel.
The Discovery Channel produces Expedition Unknown and were interested in exploring the idea of the plane in the pond for an episode. Luckily, they were willing to pay for a magnetic survey of the pond using a drone. This would form the heart of the episode.
During the filming, they actually found a short length of copper wire, as well as a small metal disc. Again there was nothing definitive. But both the wire and disc were circumstantial, pointing to an airplane. It was promising.
Plans for the Future
When they received the results of the drone survey, they realised why it was so active magnetically. Dykes had formed millions of years ago. These are igneous1 rocks that intruded into preexisting rocks. And igneous rock is highly magnetic.
Consequently, they now realise it is pointless to do a search magnetically on account of the background noise generated by the large number of dykes. However, the alternative will be to use hand-held metal detectors (pulse induction metal detector). So, instead of measuring the magnetic field to detect the plane, they will now be detecting the presence of metal.
Another line of analysis will again take advantage of the physical characteristics of the environment, this time the sediment. A laboratory at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador intends to take a core sediment sample from the pond. The idea will be to look for any material such as high levels of lead, charcoal, tiny bits of linen2 and so on that would point to the presence of the plane.
The plan is to set things in motion in the next few months. While TIGHAR has its work cut out for it, all those involved have a sense they’re on the right track.
A promising sign actually appeared on the doorstep of St. Luke’s Cultural Centre the day Ric Gillespie was doing his presentation. A copy of the song “The French Flyers: Nungesser and Coli” was left at the door.
The French Flyers — Nungesser and Coli
In the pages of history are written,
The names of two men, brave and true,
Two heroes who fought for their country as only true heroes can do.
They fought till the world war was over,
For their homes and freedom of men.
And the world’s highest honour was paid them,
For they helped bring that war to an end.
But then on a fine summer morning,
They climbed in their airship so grand.
And started to fly o’er the ocean,
To bring greater fame to their land.
The eyes of the world were upon them,
As they sailed proudly on through the night.
But the thought never came for a moment,
That this was to be their last flight.
A great crowd was waiting to greet them
In old New York town far away.
For they hoped every moment to greet them,
But they waited in vain all the day.
And then o’er the waves flashed the message,
Our brave heroes cannot be found.
And great crowns went forth to the rescue,
For they knew that the airship was down.
There’s a lesson to learn from this story,
Each life is a ship on its way.
And we must be ready to answer,
When the master shall call us some day.
It was a clear harbinger of the future. This song is sung by some on the Cape Shore, evidence the story is still vibrant and alive, all these decades on. So, let that light your path Ric Gillespie and other members of TIGHAR as you take your next step.
1These are rocks derived from the solidification of magma or molten lava.
2Linen was a fabric commonly used to cover planes when they were being constructed.