Chasing the Midnight Ghost

A 1927 postcard depicts the French biplane L’Oiseau Blanc, along with its copilots Charles Nungesser (left) and François Coli.

Harold Vining, a blueberry farmer in Maine, was outside chopping wood when he heard a roar in the sky. As it thundered closer, he wondered if it might be an airplane. It was May 9, 1927—11 days before Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris—and airplanes were still a rarity in this sparsely populated coastal area. In fact, this was the first one Vining had ever heard. He looked to the sky in the direction of the rumble, trying to catch a glimpse, but the fog was too thick. He craned his neck, listening as the sound slowly faded into the distance.

Several miles away, a young couple also heard a plane that day. They were driving down the road and stopped their car to listen as it passed. Nearby, a woman was standing in her kitchen when she heard the unfamiliar grumble. A father and his 17-year-old son heard it, too. The boy thought it sounded like an old-fashioned cream separator floating through the sky.

A hermit named Anson Berry was fishing in his canoe on the south end of Round Lake when he caught the noise. He couldn’t see a plane but heard an engine sputtering overhead, followed by an unmistakable crash in the hills next to the lake. As the sun began to set, Berry returned to his campsite. It’s unknown whether anyone that day searched through the dense forest and steep inclines for wreckage.

In the decades since, legend has spread of a mysterious plane hiding deep in the woods. Dozens of hunters have reported seeing a large engine buried in a thicket beneath some trees, or covered in moss, but those are simply tales. The missing plane, the one Vining heard 90 years ago, is still out there.

 

charles lindbergh spirit of st. louis

Charles A. Lindbergh is shown with his plane, Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927. / File Photo

When Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, the 25-year-old former airmail pilot immediately became one of the most famous people in the world. Until then, most travelers favored steamships and trains, considering airplanes akin to a death trap. By connecting New York City and the European continent in a single, nonstop flight, though, Lindbergh arguably changed that practically overnight. As soon as he touched down—winning a $25,000 prize for becoming the first Allied pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, or vice versa—newspapers likened his historic voyage to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. Suddenly, Americans wanted to fly. The number of airlines multiplied and the aviation industry soared. The story of Lindbergh and his plane, Spirit of St. Louis, became the stuff of legend and inspired generations of American aviation enthusiasts—including many of the pilots and aircraft designers who went on to help win World War II.

Suddenly a celebrity, Lindbergh gave speeches and participated in parades across the country, using his fame to promote the industry he loved. For a time, he was bigger than Humphrey Bogart and as beloved as Mickey Mouse. But Lindbergh’s famous flight did more than just cement his name in the annals of history: It forever cast a shadow on a pair of French pilots who would have permanently altered aviation and world history had they not disappeared inside what’s now considered one of the world’s most mythic missing planes.

As Lindbergh was gearing up to make his record-setting flight, the two Frenchmen were already several steps ahead of him. The first was Charles Nungesser, a rugged, charismatic fighter pilot during the First World War with dozens of air-combat victories to his name. Aided in no small part by his pale-blue eyes, a wry grin, and a scar across the side of his jaw from one of his many crashes, he became a postwar celebrity and heartthrob throughout France. He lived in a mansion, starred in a Hollywood movie, and even married a New York socialite: Consuelo Hatmaker, the younger half-sister of one of America’s richest heiresses at the time.

After a failed business venture and a public divorce, Nungesser’s star began to fade. By the end of 1926, his wife was a continent away and the flying ace was broke. A wild man obsessed with flight, particularly with the Franco-American aviation arms race taking place, Nungesser’s dream was to fly across the Atlantic. He knew he could recapture the limelight by winning the $25,000 prize for flying between Paris and New York.

Unlike Lindbergh, Nungesser did not fly solo. Alongside him was another hero from the war: François Coli, a captain more than 10 years his senior with a wife and children, who’d lost an eye in a crash. The French company Levasseur agreed to build them a new biplane. It had a wooden fuselage, so it could land and float in calm water, and was roughly 31 feet from end to end, with a massive engine and propeller. When the plane was completed in April of 1927, it was painted white so that it would be easier to find if the pilots crashed. They dubbed the plane L’Oiseau Blanc—the White Bird. Then Nungesser added a personal touch: his fighter pilot emblem—a skull and crossbones with a coffin and two candles, all inside a black heart.

The morning before takeoff at Le Bourget Airport (where Lindbergh would eventually land nearly two weeks later), a crowd of reporters, curious spectators, and celebrities including Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, and future French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier gathered outside in the early-morning air. Ambulances sat parked along the runway. As the sun came up, a fire at a nearby factory gave the sky an eerie glow.

The pilots climbed into the plane wearing electrically heated leather flying suits. Nungesser stood, smiling and waving to the gathered masses. “We leave here broke, risking our lives,” he said. “If the Americans want my passport, I’ll turn back.” Coli added: “We’ve dumped everything, even our money.”

The White Bird started down the runway at 5:17 a.m. It lumbered forward, building up speed for nearly half a mile. The plane lifted off the ground, and then touched back down gently before climbing steadily into the air. The crowd went wild. As planned, the pilots jettisoned the wheels and landing gear to reduce weight. Escort planes followed the White Bird to the French coast, and then watched as it disappeared into the overcast morning sky.

The plotted route would take the plane northwest, over England and Ireland, then back southward over New England toward New York. The plan called for a water landing in front of the Statue of Liberty. The flight, from takeoff to touchdown, was expected to take roughly 40 hours. At approximately 7:15 a.m., a British submarine noted the plane over England. A few hours later it was spotted off the cliffs of Ireland. A French newspaper erroneously reported the next day that the duo had successfully landed. But the White Bird never arrived in New York.

Lindbergh, who nearly canceled his flight after learning that Nungesser had successfully taken off, wrote that the two Frenchmen had “vanished like midnight ghosts.”

 

Ric Gillespie

Airplane archeologist Ric Gillespie has been searching for the downed aircraft on and off for more than three decades. / Portrait by Ryan Donnell

In 1980, Ric Gillespie was opening the mail at his home in Pennsylvania when he spotted a letter from his younger brother, Bob, containing an article from Yankee magazine. The story told of a hermit who’d heard a plane crash in the hills of eastern Maine on the day the White Bird went missing. The article was extensive and it included a map. Fascinated that a famous missing plane was buried in the forest somewhere, Gillespie carefully placed the magazine clipping in a drawer for safekeeping.

If anyone was destined to search for missing airplanes, it was Gillespie. Raised in upstate New York, the eldest son of a decorated World War II pilot, he’s been consumed by aviation for as long as he can remember. He learned to fly around the same time he learned to drive a car, and he worked his way through college, where he majored in history, piloting charter planes. After completing a brief stint in the Army, he took a job in aviation insurance that allowed him to fly in and out of small airports all along the East Coast. Gillespie sold policies, but he also performed risk assessments and accident investigations. That was the part of the job he liked best: He had an eye for looking at the scene of a crash, examining all of the known evidence, and piecing together the puzzle of what had happened. “Aviation accidents were taking people away from the people they loved,” he tells me. “It was traumatic. I said to myself, ‘I want to help keep this kind of thing from happening. This kind of thing should be preventable.’”

Still, the longer he worked in insurance, the more time his managers expected him to sit in an office and stare at spreadsheets. Throw in an unpleasant divorce from his wife, and Gillespie was ready for a change. He’d always remembered the Yankee article and knew that if he could apply his accident-investigation skills and find the White Bird, it would change his life forever.

A veteran pilot with ruddy cheeks and a finely trimmed mustache, Gillespie’s first step was comparing maps of Maine to the one in the magazine article. He recognized that at this point, the only thing left of the plane, which was made mostly of wood and cloth, would be some wires and the engine. He also knew there were stories that had been passed down, like folklore, of hunters seeing an engine in the woods near Round Lake.

After researching the mysterious case, Gillespie theorized that Nungesser and Coli likely made it all the way to Maine, where they faced stronger headwinds than they’d expected. Perhaps the pilots tried to find another route around the icy weather and ran out of fuel where Anson Berry heard the crash. It was possible, Gillespie thought, that a hunter or woodsman could have stumbled upon the wreckage and, having no idea it was part of a famous missing plane, scavenged for anything valuable and left or buried the rest. Gillespie decided to go to Maine and look for himself.

In the summer of 1984, he called up his brother and asked if he might want to spend a weekend in Maine looking for an old plane. They had a fun trip, talking with locals and playing Indiana Jones in the woods, but they didn’t find anything.

It was around that time, though, that Gillespie met his second wife, Pat Thrasher. “She was crazy enough to find all this stuff as interesting as I did,” he says. Together, they quit their jobs and dedicated their lives to finding missing planes. In January 1985, the couple founded the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).

Over the years, Gillespie has examined historical crash sites around the world, worked with the U.S. government to reinvestigate decades-old incidents, and appeared on countless television shows and documentaries. Gillespie also wrote a history book about the Amelia Earhart mystery, and he has a convincing theory about what may have happened.

Earhart’s story tends to get more attention, Gillespie says, because Americans learn about it in elementary school. Conversely, he believes, the White Bird is more important. If the plane had landed ahead of Lindbergh, he says, it might have sparked an alternative history: Imagine, for instance, if the French—and not the Americans—had been inspired by their hometown heroes and taken the aviation industry by storm?

For generations, Mainers have earned a reputation as rugged and self-reliant, and along with that comes a healthy distrust of outsiders. Gillespie certainly didn’t expect many people would talk to him when he first started hunting the White Bird. He was, in the parlance of the locals, “from away.” Much to his delight, though, nearly everyone he met was willing to open up. Gillespie sat down with Harold Vining, the blueberry farmer who’d heard plane noises that fateful day in May 1927. He talked to acquaintances and relatives of Anson Berry, the reclusive woodsman who said he’d heard the crash. He even talked to hunters who said they’d seen the wreckage over the years.

The plane’s precise whereabouts have never been known. When it first disappeared, experts assumed it had plunged into the roiling swells of the Atlantic. The French, United States, and Royal Canadian navies launched a massive sea search along the planned flight route but came up empty. Eventually, though, reports began to surface of people in both Maine and southeastern Canada who saw or heard a plane on May 9, the day Nungesser and Coli would have been flying overhead. Gillespie believes the chances are “100 percent” that the French pilots made landfall. “It’s just a matter of where they decided to land,” he says.

 

Gillespie and his wife made expedition after expedition through the Maine woods, thrashing the thickets with machetes, walking the old logging trails with metal detectors, and making camp in the dense brush. One summer, they teamed up with the author of the Yankee magazine story, a 6-foot-4 actor turned writer named Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Together, they borrowed planes and helicopters to search the steep hillsides and valleys near Round Lake. At various points throughout the mid-1980s, Gillespie attracted dozens of volunteers from across the country to join his search. The fact that none of the hunters who said they’d seen wreckage were able to find it again was frustrating, but the stories—and the tantalizing possibility of discovery—pushed them forward.

In the fall of 1987, Gillespie finally had exciting news. He staged a press conference and announced that his team had discovered a narrow piece of wood that may have belonged to the White Bird. It was broken into different segments that, when pieced together, amounted to the approximate width of one of the plane’s wings. Botanists and archeological experts had verified that the stick wouldn’t have grown naturally in Maine, Gillespie explained, and that it may not have even come from North America. Tree rings in the area also indicated that there may have been a fire there years earlier—the type you might see at the site of a plane crash. “We are not trying to convince anyone that we have found the White Bird,” Gillespie told reporters, “but we suspect we know where it is.”

In a small town an hour outside of Philadelphia, not far from the Delaware state line, Gillespie and Thrasher’s 200-year-old house is overflowing with boxes and historical files. On the wall near the back door is a framed sketch of the White Bird. Behind the bar is a painted wooden model Gillespie made a few years ago. Many of their neighbors are Amish and have never been on a plane.

In eight full years, Gillespie and Thrasher made 20 trips to Maine, each time testing a different theory or searching a new hill or bog. Yet aside from the mysterious stick and questionable tree rings, they have never found anything that could pass as evidence of the plane. “We finally realized that all there was in Maine was stories,” Gillespie has said. “People in Maine love stories. They’re very good at telling stories and those stories always get better each time they’re told.” His organization, he says, “has to follow the evidence.”

 

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.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2017/08/13/white-bird-missing-plane/