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The Legion of the Lost


Capt. Charles Nungesser and M. Francois Coli were overdue. “Hours turned into days.

The Princess wore the correct clothing for the King’s Cup flight in 1922. She is shown here with pilot Leslie Hamilton. A glimpse of her can be had by Googling Air Race for the King’s Cup (1922). — Submitted image

Ships and aeroplanes searched the seas. The wireless stations were kept ready for conveying news as soon as received. But as the days passed and no sign of machine or men was discovered, the world realized with a new-found horror that the Atlantic had claimed two very gallant airmen.” (Aviator J.A. Mollison, writing in the late 1930s).

May 8-9, 1927: As with many flights and disappearances in those days when men and women risked everything to achieve an aviation record, stories and rumours of the whereabouts of the two favoured French flyers were everywhere.

Theirs would have been a difficult flight — Paris to New York was not only long, but flying east to west was to battle prevailing winds.

The very next month a letter came to light by way of a resident of New York, who had received it from a friend, a priest living on the west coast of Ireland. With heightened interest here in Newfoundland on the success or failure of any of those attempting to set aviation milestones, The Evening Telegram reported on the contents of Rev. Patrick Madden’s letter.

Madden wrote on May 26 to tell his friend that he had seen the Nungesser and Coli plane as it passed over Ireland. That was May 8, and later that same day, Madden watched a fight in the air between two hawks and a homing pigeon. He said he believed the pigeon to have been released by the French airmen “when they realized their plane was not properly functioning.”

The pigeon was brought down by the hawks and when two lads found the dead bird it bore the rings and rubbers used for securing messages to it. But there was no message.

The priest wrote that he believed the airmen hovered over Tarbert (County Kerry) thinking to come down — but “they chanced a further flight then, and then about 100 miles out they decided to return. They doubtless were going very badly then so they released the pigeon which got back here about two hours after they had left. Making back to Ireland they fell into the sea about 75 miles off Loop Head. No search was made around here while valuable time was lost searching the Channel and your side. It is all too bad.”

 

Two airmen and a princess

Newfoundlanders watched no early flight more closely than that of the St. Raphael, a Fokker monoplane which, on the last day of August 1927, left the ground at Upavon, Wiltshire, England, and laboriously turned its nose toward Ottawa, Canada.

Interest was heightened by the fact that the attempt at such a long flight was not only underwritten by a woman, but she was a passenger, as well. This unquenchable lady had agreed with Lieut.-Col. Frederick Minchin and Capt. Leslie Hamilton that she would foot the bill only if she could come along.

Born in England in 1864, Lady Anne Savile had married a prince of the German house of Lowenstein Wertheim Freudenberg. So, she became a princess. Author Bill Bryson (“One Summer, America, 1927,” Doubleday Canada, 2013) unearthed the fact that she had gone aboard the St. Raphael wearing “a stylish hat and an ocelot coat.”

To our newspapers, no detail was too small. By the time the St. Raphael took off, it was on the minds of many Newfoundlanders. Harbour Grace, with its airstrip by Lady Lake, was alert, even though the intent of the flight was to fly from England to Canada’s capital. But in these years, Harbour Grace was always a potential port in a storm. Lights outlined the airstrip there and that night people of the town stayed around until 3 a.m., no doubt straining to hear the sound of an airplane over the wind.

The princess, Minchin and Hamilton left England at 7:30 in the morning of Aug. 31. The Evening Telegram tumbled into print everything it could glean from the wires: “At 10 minutes past 12 this afternoon, they passed over County Galway on the west coast of Ireland; flying at a height of 900 feet; weather off the Irish coast was foggy at the time; the east to west flight across the Atlantic has not yet been accomplished and weather conditions obviously render it more difficult and hazardous than going from west to east; the princess is the first woman to fly the Atlantic; the princess is an intrepid air woman, she learned to fly before the war.”

Sept. 1, from The Evening Telegram’s editorial of the day: “The St. Raphael was expected to make the Newfoundland coast about midnight according to messages we have received. We should be disposed to think that the time allowed was considerably too short.”

The newspaper then went on to speculate that the pilots may have chosen to fly west by north to considerably shorten the over-water portion and to see North America perhaps at the Labrador coast. It added that “every preparation was made” at Harbour Grace to guide in the St. Raphael.

There was discussion of the difficulties of setting the collapsible boat afloat and of manoeuvring it in the mid-Atlantic.

With the next day’s issue, the tone of the editor had become more solemn: “(B)y mid-day Sept. 1 no news had reached London of the monoplane; rumours that they were seen in Canada have been discredited; the fate of the Princess, Hamilton and Minchin is in the blackest doubt.”

Elsewhere in the same issue, The Telegram reported, “Newfoundland and Canadian coast wireless stations say no word relating to the St. Raphael has been received by them. The last of the 800 gallons of petrol would have been exhausted between 1:30 and 2:30 this morning (Thursday) … the safety of the crew would depend upon their being sighted and rescued by some passing steamer.”

An oil-carrying ship reported having sighted the plane on Wednesday evening “some 400 miles south of Greenland’s Cape Farewell” and, as the paper pointed out, 640 miles east of Hawke’s Island, Labrador — “to all intents and purposes this might be spoken of as mid-Atlantic and the plane would have had six more hours of flying to get here to Newfoundland.”

But by now any discussion of strong east-flowing headwinds, of collapsible boat difficulties or the possibility of rescue by a ship without wireless, all was academic. The paper speculated, “in the event the float was incapable of supporting three people, one of the men would have surrendered his space to the Princess.”

There is closure in the loss of lives through aircraft mishaps over land. But there are many times when the ocean betrays nothing. On those occasions, the only thing it gives back is mystery.

On Sept. 5, the Sir John Carling landed at Harbour Grace having come from London, Ont., heading for London, England. It, too, disappeared, as did Old Glory, on Sept. 6, flying from New York hoping to reach Rome. The last sighting of that plane was 350 miles east of Cape Race.

NOTE: The phrase “The Legion of the Lost” was first penned by aviator James Mollison (1905-1959).

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

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