Chasing the Midnight Ghost

On an overcast day in 1927, two French pilots set off across the Atlantic Ocean all but destined to beat Charles Lindbergh in a race between New York and Paris. Then they disappeared. Now, 90 years later, has one man finally found history’s most mythic missing plane buried in New England? By Michael J. Mooney

In the decades since it disappeared, many people have gone looking for the White Bird. The story, populated by eccentric characters and overseas adventure—akin to pirates seeking lost treasure—has tickled imaginations and spawned countless searchers both here and abroad. By far the most famous is bestselling author Clive Cussler.

Cussler, an adventure novelist whose book Sahara later became a Matthew McConaughey movie, is also a real-life explorer. In 1979, he founded the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), a nonprofit organization that looks for historically significant shipwrecks. Since its inception, the group has uncovered more than 60 underwater sites. Cussler has also taken an interest in the White Bird. He has been to Round Lake several times, trudging through the mud and moist air. He’s written fictional accounts of conversations aboard the plane and put forward theories that it either flew past where Anson Berry said he’d heard a crash or that “the plane went down in an impenetrable bog and chances of it ever being found are quite nil.”

There are several competing theories among those searching for the plane. A French aviation enthusiast named Bernard Decré, for instance, submits that the U.S. Coast Guard may have accidentally shot the plane down, thinking the pilots might have been smugglers. He also thinks that the plane might have crashed off St. Pierre, a tiny island near the southern tip of Newfoundland that just so happens to be part of the only territory in the region still under the French government’s control. He has publicly suggested that the U.S. government knew about the downed plane but kept it quiet. (Gillespie dismisses Decré as a recalcitrant conspiracy theorist, not worth debating.)

As for Gillespie, public criticism focuses on his desire for attention and his knack for getting his name and face in newspapers, magazines, and on TV. Critics often accuse him of hyping discoveries that later turn out to be inconsequential—like he did in 1987 with those segments of wood in Maine—in an effort to raise money for TIGHAR. Cussler wrote a few years ago that he didn’t want to join Gillespie’s organization because “he lived on media hype,” adding, “My feeling has always been not to make a big deal out of an expedition unless you can prove you actually discovered your intended target.” Gillespie admits he’s ticked off a lot of people, saying, “There are people who hate my guts.”

Cussler’s and Gillespie’s organizations have crossed paths with each other over the years. Gillespie says that during the early days of his search in Maine, he wanted to borrow some metal detectors from the manufacturer, but they were already on loan to Cussler, who was not especially inclined to return them. “Sheesh,” Gillespie says as he recounts the particular episode. “I’ve never been able to get through one of his books anyway.”

Today, Gillespie says, TIGHAR has about 1,000 members. Participation ebbs and flows. Thrasher jokes that the organization is much like a cult, a group of people transfixed on seeking to know the unknowable. Tax returns for 2014 show TIGHAR received $731,000 in donations. Of that, $177,000 went to Gillespie in compensation for his role as executive director. Gillespie and his wife point out that the costs of chartering boats into the middle of the ocean and of mounting expeditions add up fast. Funding for the organization comes mostly from membership fees and donations. The couple’s income is solely dependent upon the good will of others.

 

Increasingly, all signs pointed away from Maine. The White Bird’s flight path had also crossed over parts of eastern Canada, so in 1992 Gillespie turned his attention to Newfoundland and to reports of possible airplane sightings on the morning of May 9, 1927. Within days of the disappearance, there were at least 12 residents who claimed they’d seen or heard a plane. Several witnesses had testified about it to local magistrates. He says that the distance between the witnesses and the times they reported hearing the plane line up with the known speed of the White Bird.

Finally, it seemed, there was new reason to get excited. Gillespie heard the story of a man near St. Mary’s Bay, in the Cape Shore part of Newfoundland, who said he’d been working outside when he saw a plane on the other side of the water, flying west. He said the plane was trailing white smoke and he assumed it was on fire. Gillespie was overjoyed. “An airplane on fire does not trail white smoke,” Gillespie has said. “It trails black smoke. If he saw white smoke, what he was seeing was steam from a failure in the coolant system.” At that point, Gillespie knew, the pilots would have had only have a few minutes to land before the engine seized.

The terrain in Newfoundland is dotted with countless small, placid ponds—plenty of places the French pilots might have decided to land if they were low on fuel or having mechanical problems. The ponds, though, are also deceptively shallow and rocky.

Gillespie thinks the pilots might have tried to put the plane down somewhere, hit a hidden boulder beneath the surface, and crashed. In fact, there’s a well-known folk legend in the area about “the plane in the pond.” Then, in the Newfoundland archives, Gillespie found a report from 1948 of a man named Patrick “Patsy” Judge, who said he’d seen wreckage in a pond not far from there.

Gillespie went to the pond, put on an immersion suit to stay warm in the freezing water, and searched for anything that didn’t belong. On a small rocky island in the middle of the pond, he discovered an old piece of metal that appeared to be covered in a very light blue-gray paint.

He took a sample and sent it to the museum in France that still displays the landing gear of the White Bird. “It’s the same type of paint,” Gillespie says, once again identifying a positive, but not definitive, clue.

Thus far, Gillespie and Thrasher have made nine expeditions to Newfoundland, venturing through the boggy marshes and climbing craggy, moss-covered rock, and becoming experts on the geography of the islands there. Their team has searched the area around the pond and in the pond. They visited in winter and walked across the ice with electromagnetic devices. They went back the next summer with divers. Gillespie is confident that the engine isn’t in that part of the pond, but he still thinks it might be close.

Amazing as it seems given the past four decades’ worth of false starts, Gillespie remains as brash and confident as a young pilot. It’s the frustrations, he knows, that make the good times that much better. “That’s what you get hooked on,” he says. “The highs don’t come very often, but because of that they’re real nice.”

Still, after spending a couple of days with Gillespie, I had to ask if he thinks there’s a chance that he’s chasing a ghost plane, something akin to the Loch Ness Monster or the Skunk Ape. Perhaps, I suggest, the people of Newfoundland like stories just as much as Mainers. After all, everyone wants to solve a mystery.

With no hesitation, he told me he’s not worried at all that he might be chasing a phantom. He knows there’s a lot of ego involved in believing that he’s the only person who can solve one of history’s greatest mysteries, but when he thinks of the White Bird, when he thinks of those two French pilots and everything he’s researched about the flight, he’s convinced the plane is out there somewhere waiting for him.

And he’s still hoping to find it.