September 24th, 2009

This IS me (by schwitters)Default

Normandy 3: Mystery of the White Bird

On May 8th, 1927, two Great War aces, François Coli and Charles Nungesser, took off from Le Bourget airfield in an attempt to make the first transatlantic crossing from Paris to New York. Neither they nor their biplane, L'Oiseau Blanc - The White Bird - were ever seen again. Their fate remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in aviation.

I only know this because when I was flicking through Howard's Normandy guidebook this bas relief of two eccentric-looking aviators caught my eye. When I read the full story, I was determined that Etretat should be added to the itinerary.

The journey took longer than we expected but was a pretty one, taking us across the Seine on a free ferry and, for the last part, along the coast, swooping down into the towns and up again to glimpse the sea. Eventually a narrow, winding path took us uphill to a stunning view of white cliffs and blue water. Dominating the scene was a graceful white needle, the memorial to Coli and Nungesser. The current needle was erected in 1963 after the original monument was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War.

The most intriguing part of the memorial for me was this giant, stylised concrete aeroplane, which must look wonderful from the air [Google Maps]. The French roundels and the name are done in mosaic. Here's me on the wing for scale.

When the ace Georges Guynemer, Coli's and Nungesser's countryman and contemporary, was reported missing in action in 1917 (no trace of his body or his aircraft were found), the belief was held among French children that their hero had flown so high he couldn't come down again. Perhaps a decade later he got some company up there?