Let’s start today’s podcast with a fairly simple history question: Who was the first man to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean?
Most people would respond with Charles Lindbergh, who flew from New York to Paris starting on May 20, 1927. Being a teacher, I would give you half credit for that answer. Lindbergh was the first to fly an airplane solo across the Atlantic, but he was not the first to do so.
The thought of flying over the Atlantic goes back to the beginning of flight itself: with the invention of hot air balloons. In 1859, Philadelphia native John Wise made the first attempt in an enormous balloon named the Atlantic. That flight ended with a crash landing in Henderson, New York.
Few people know this, but the first to fly over the Atlantic were British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Brown. Taking off from St. John’s, Newfoundland on June 14, 1919, the two flew nonstop across the Atlantic and landed sixteen hours later in the coastal town of Clifden, Ireland. Although they flew a far shorter distance than Lucky Lindy, they do get the nod for being the first to do so.
Two years after Lindbergh’s successful flight, three men decided that they would become the first Frenchmen to fly across the Atlantic in a yellow Bernard-191 monoplane named the – well I am going to mispronounce this so I will have my wife jump in here – L’Oiseau Canari, which simply means canary bird. Somehow that got translated to be the “Yellow Bird” in English.
Funding for the flight was provided by Armand Lotti, Jr, the only child of wealthy French hoteliers. He hired Jean Assolant as pilot and Rene Lefevre as navigator. Lotti had to settle for being co-pilot of the Yellow Bird since he had been partially blinded in his right eye in an earlier hunting accident.
While these three men may have dreamed of crossing the Atlantic in the Yellow Bird, the French government had placed a major obstacle in their way. Due to the great danger of Transatlantic flights in the 1920’s, the French had banned anyone attempting to do so.
There was one very big hole in the ruling and the Yellow Bird’s team opted to take full advantage of it. Their thinking was that while the French could forbid a plane from leaving French soil to fly over the Atlantic, there was little that could be done to stop a Transatlantic flight from landing on French soil.
So, they secretly flew the Yellow Bird to England, disassembled the plane, and then proceeded to crate it up for shipment aboard the SS Leviathan to the United States. To mark the second anniversary of Lindbergh’s historic flight, they chose the same date and airport: The Yellow Bird would fly out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 29, 1929.
That commemorative flight would never happen. The weather at Roosevelt Field was awful and the runway turned into soggy mush. The plane would be so heavy when loaded with enough fuel to cross the full expanse of the ocean that it was certain to sink into the mud.
On May 23rd, the decision was made to move the Yellow Bird to Old Orchard Beach in Maine. This location was thought to be better suited for the transoceanic flight. Not only was the beach made from firmly compact sand, but the Old Orchard runway length was approximately fifty percent longer than at Roosevelt Field.
At Old Orchard Beach, the Yellow Bird would not be the only airplane attempting to cross the Atlantic. There they met up with the Green Flash, another monoplane, which was piloted by Americans Roger Q. Williams and navigated by Lewis A. Yancey, who were already there awaiting clearance to fly off to Rome. Captain Yancey made it clear that the arrival of the Yellow Bird would not hinder their plans in the least. “We will wait for no one; we have a job to do.”
This was the start of the “First Transatlantic Airplane Race.” Could the American team beat the French team across the ocean? Would the smaller and more nimble Green Flash be able to outmaneuver the Yellow Bird? Or would the more powerful engine aboard the French aircraft offer it superior air power? The press did their best to promote this as a competition, but the pilots themselves saw it more as a friendly rivalry. All of those involved were incredibly cordial to one another, dined and socialize together, and each even helps the opposing team work on their flying machine.
Mother Nature turned out to be no more cooperative up in Maine than she was down in New York. Flying long distance was so incredibly risky in the 1920s that the weather didn’t simply need to be excellent in Maine, it needed to be relatively clear and calm across the entire ocean. That’s something that doesn’t happen very often. On Friday, May 24th, both planes were placed in the hangar at Buzzard Airport and basically sat there awaiting clearance from the weather services.
The planes were still grounded on Sunday, but it was agreed upon that the Green Flash would take off from the beach first. Fifteen minutes later the Yellow Bird would follow. The logic behind this decision was that the Yellow Bird’s more powerful engine would allow it to attain a greater flight speed and overtake the Green Flash at 75 miles (120 km) out. The two would fly alongside a Coast Guard plane for the first hour before their escort would turn back.
Finally, the decision was made for both planes to take off on Wednesday, May 29th. It was one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. For some unknown reason, it was decided at the last moment that the Yellow Bird would go first. A towing car pulled the airplane along the beach, but the Yellow Bird barely got off the ground. At 12,700 pounds (5760 kg), the plane didn’t seem to have enough lift with one wheel of its landing gear scraping the top of a wave as it went by. Slowly the Yellow Bird gained altitude and the Coast Guard amphibious plane fell in behind it. At approximately 9 miles (14.5 km) out the French plane crossed Cape Elizabeth and suddenly its engine began to sputter and the aircraft lost altitude. The Coast Guard pilot prepared to rescue the crew members when the plane hit the water. He reached for his emergency equipment – which consisted of nothing more than an ax with which to chop a hole into the Yellow Bird’s fuselage – and then radioed all nearby Coast Guard vessels to race to the rescue.
Aboard the Yellow Bird, co-pilot Armand Lotti noted a plummeting fuel gauge and made the decision to lighten its load by dumping 500 gallons (approximately 1900 liters) of fuel at sea. The Yellow Bird quickly rose back into the air and limped safely back to Old Orchard Beach. It was later determined that this near disaster was all Lotti’s fault. While the Yellow Bird had been sitting on the beach, he had inserted a rag into its air intake to prevent sand from getting into the engine. When they were cleared for flight, Lotti forgot to remove the rag, so it was sucked into the engine’s carburetor. This excessive engine vibration ultimately caused the gasoline tank to leak.
As for the Green Flash, it didn’t fare much better. Six minutes after the Yellow BIrd took off, the Green Flash made its way down the sandy runway. Suddenly, the plane hit a soft spot in the sand and the plane spun into a ground loop. Neither pilot Williams or navigator Yancey were injured in the slightest, but three spokes on one of the wheels were severely damaged. A replacement wheel was borrowed from another plane and the Green Flash was once again ready for flight the next day.
With both planes repaired and ready to go, the New York Weather Bureau provided more bad news on May 30th. A major storm with gale-force winds was sweeping northward across the Azores and would pass directly through their proposed flight path. The earliest day that they could fly again would be Saturday, June 8th. The two teams used their idle time to both tweak their aircraft and to take them out on short practice flights.
At 10 PM on June 5th, night watchmen guarding the two airplanes made an emergency call to the Brunswick Hotel, where the crews of the two planes were staying but were unable to locate them. The planes had been left on the beach overnight and while everyone seemed to be paying attention to the weather, no one seems to have been paying attention to the effects of the Sun and the Moon. An unusually high tide pushed the ocean water an estimated 60-feet (18 meters) farther up the beach than typical. The wheels of the Yellow Bird became submerged and the call was made out for anyone who could help move the two airplanes to higher ground. Firemen, reporters, and just about anyone who was available to help, attached ropes and pulled the two planes to safety.
The predicted departure date of Saturday, June 8th came and went. Once again, the weather was not suitable for the flight.
On June 9th it was announced in the press that the French Air Ministry had not approved the transatlantic flight of the Yellow Bird, claiming that the plane lacked sufficient lifting power. No airplane of its size had ever lifted such a heavy weight, so the French officials had good reason to reject their planned flight. Pilot Jean Assolant responded to this concern by pointed out that the Yellow Bird had already lifted this weight with a cloth-clogged carburetor and said, “If we make it, all will be forgiven.”
The next day 23-year-old Assolant would be in the news for a totally different reason. On June 10th, he wed 22-year-old New York City showgirl Pauline Parker. The law required that the couple wait five days after filing a marriage application, but the rule was waived by Judge Carroll S. Chaplin in probate court.
At this point in the story, you are probably wondering if either plane will ever take off. I’ve got bad news for you: the weather still hasn’t cleared and both planes are still sitting on the beach all these years later.
On the morning of Thursday, June 13th, hundreds of spectators watched as the Yellow Bird finally lifted off on its long flight to Paris. The takeoff was broadcast on 140 radio stations coast-to-coast via the National Broadcasting System (NBC).
From the south end of the beach, Captain C.E.Fogg announced to listeners, “Both planes are ready. There is a big crowd here and it is growing larger. The mechanics are busy over the planes, around them and under them, and each plane is surrounded by the shifting group of the curious.”
After a brief interruption by the sound of a motor, announcer Fogg continued,” They have started the engine of the Yellow Bird, and now I’ll shift you to the north end of the beach.”
Listeners were now switched over to the voice of L.P. Pitman. “The Bernard is coming this way, its engine running, and towed as well. The Green Flash is also moving up. From here they seem to be moving very slowly. Now they are turning the Yellow Bird around.”
After a brief description of the sky and beach conditions, Pitman continued, “Here she comes, the Yellow Bird, and she’s coming fast. She’s a mile away – here she is – .” The Yellow Bird then roared on by and the broadcast switched to the reporter farther down the beach.
“Here she comes. Here she comes like the wind. It’s the Yellow Bird. She’s trying to get off. She’s flying, five feet, ten feet off the sands. The pilot is turning. They splashed just before she got off.” He continued, “Assolant has turned her out to sea toward the east. The plane is climbing slowly but steadily. He’s fifty feet up now, perhaps a hundred, and a couple of miles away. He’s flying beautifully.”
At this point, the broadcast was turned over to Ralph de Cota, the chief radio officer of the Coast Guard’s Loening amphibious bi-plane flying at approximately 1,000 feet (305 meters) above the Yellow Bird. “She looks pretty, that Yellow Bird. We are right over her. She shows up pretty against the blue water. She’s still climbing and going fast – going fast from us into the east. She must have nearly a 1,000 feet now. How fast she flies. Assolant is pulling her steadily into the east and flying well.”
He continued, “ We are twenty miles out and she is getting away from us. She must be ten miles away now and still climbing. She’s going fast, and she’s awful pretty against the water. We can’t go much farther but the Yellow Bird is keeping on.”
“She’s almost out of sight and apparently still climbing. She’s getting smaller and we are turning back. That water looks pretty rough down there.” De Cota concludes with “It’s getting hazy and the Yellow Bird has gone. She’s gone now and we’re going back.”
The radio broadcast the switches back to the reporters on the beach. “Here comes the Green Flash. She’s picking up speed. Williams has the tail up. She’s coming faster, sixty, seventy miles an hour.”
In an instant, the tone of the broadcast changes, “Something’s happened. I can’t see from here, but she seems to turn and go over on her nose. She seems to have crashed on the edge of the water. I’ll try to find out. They are nearly a mile from here, but it looks like a bad mess, a bad wreck.”
If you would like to see for yourself what happened, there is a silent newsreel of the accident on the website criticalpast.com. (Click on the image below to open it in a new window.) In the footage, the plane can be seen picking up speed as it rolled down the sandy runway. Then, suddenly, in the far distance of the camera shot, you can see its right wheel collapse and the plane begins to tumble over upon itself. When the violent flip ended, the Green Flash’s propeller had snapped, its left wing was badly torn, the fuselage dented, its landing gear virtually destroyed, and the engine looked quite mangled up.
The great Transatlantic Airplane Race had now officially come to an end with only the Yellow Bird starting on its planned journey. Now that it was off the ground, the question was whether or not the plane could really make it. That’s because weight was everything in the early days of flying. The heavier the plane, the more fuel consumed. The crew of the Yellow Bird had been careful in their planning so that the plane would be as lightweight as possible. This included co-pilot Lotti’s decision to remove the plane’s liferaft. Instead, he opted for two automobile inner tubes which could be used as life preservers. Pilot Assolant ordered that 100 gallons (378 liters) of fuel also be removed to lighten the load, which made it all that riskier that their engine would conk out before reaching the European coast. They even took minimal amounts of food; supposedly just a dozen each of both oranges and bananas, a half-dozen lemons, plus three quarts of water and three quarts of coffee. Oddly, one thing that they did take with them was their mascot Rufus, who just happened to be an 8-inch (20 centimeters) long alligator which had been presented to the crew by Portland resident A.W. Foss.
Within minutes of the Yellow Bird’s launch, a rumor began to spread across Old Orchard Beach that there may be a problem that could potentially doom the flight. Spectators reported seeing a teenager climb through a hatch in the tail of the plane while the French fliers were having their photographs taken up front just prior to takeoff. Several identified the possible stowaway as 18-year-old Portland resident Allen Jordan, but it was later determined that he could not be the person on the plane, if there ever was one.
No one could say for sure if this rumor was true or not. If so, the added weight could cause the airplane to burn through its fuel more rapidly and leave it short of its goal. The Yellow Bird was still within range to turn back or report any problems by radio, but the crew had not done so. It was argued by experts that a stowaway was nearly impossible because there was very little room on the plane for additional supplies, never mind an entire human being. Yet, some said this may be the reason why the Yellow Bird’s tail seemed to drag a bit during takeoff.
Later in the afternoon, there seemed to be fairly conclusive evidence that someone did hide inside the tail of the plane. Mrs. Morris Schreiber told the press that her 22-year-old son Arthur had left their Portland home at 526 Washington Avenue the evening before the launch dressed in khaki pants and a leather flight jacket. The clothes had been given to him by his older brother, who served as a pilot during World War I.
Just hours after the Yellow Bird took off, J. Wilbur Clark, one of Arthur Schreiber’s friends, called his family and told them that their son had wanted to accompany the Green Flash on its flight to Rome, but upon realizing that the plane was too small, opted to jump aboard the larger Yellow Bird. Clark said, “When the plane was ready to go I rapped near the tail and a rap came back showing that Schreiber was aboard at take off.”
Arthur left the following note for his parents: “Dear Parents – I am attempting to go on the airship Green Flash. If I succeed in getting on do not worry for me. I am doing this thing of my own accord, and was not influenced by any one and wish no one to be held responsible for the consequences.”
He continued, “I am doing it because I know that if I succeed, I can do much for your happiness. Please do not think bad of me. I will cable you if I arrive in Rome. I am constantly thinking of you. Love – Arthur.”
This seemed to give credence to the stowaway theory, but it was not conclusive. This letter could have been a hoax and it was hard to imagine that anyone could hide in the belly of the plane and not be noticed. The plane did have one storage closet in the rear of the plane, but this was where the rubber life raft was stored. Oh, wait… That was removed from the plane just prior to flight.
The press reported the plane’s progress as it crossed the Atlantic.
10:15 AM – Yellow Bird was sighted passing over Matinicus Rock, Maine
5:40 PM – S.S. Wytheville reported that it had spotted the plane at approximately 850 miles (1370 km) from the eastern coast of the US.
7:30 PM Yellow Bird advised the S.S. Rochambeau that had changed course and planned to fly by way of the Azores and the Portuguese coast, adding 600 miles (965 kilometers) to its flight path.
11 PM – Communication with the S.S. American Farmer confirmed that all was going well.
1 AM (Friday) – S.S. King City communicated with the Yellow Bird.
6 AM – The crew of the Yellow Bird contacted the S.S. Niagara when it was approximately 800 miles (1290 km) from the Portuguese coast.
11:30 AM – When the plane about halfway between the Azores and Portugal, radio operators in Bordeaux intercepted a message from pilot Assolant expressing concern over strong head winds that were rapidly causing their fuel supply to dwindle.
1:40 PM The Yellow Bird is 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the Portuguese coastline.
Upon reaching Europe, the Yellow Bird was running dangerously low on fuel. The plane traveled northward closely following the shoreline in search of a place to land. Nothing seemed suitable until a wide level beach was spotted near Comillas, Spain and the plane was brought down safely.
The Yellow Bird became the 11th plane to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, the first by a French crew, and set a new record average speed to do so at 105 miles per hour (169 km/hr). The 3,128 mile (5,034 kilometers) flight, the longest flown over the ocean up to that point, had taken 29 hours and 52 minutes to complete. The French crew had landed about 160 miles (257 kilometers) from the border of France, so imagine their disappointment when they later learned that they had about 300 liters of fuel remaining, enough for three additional hours of flight, which have placed them on their native soil.
Coincidentally, the crew of the Green Flash, Yancy and Williams, would successfully leave Old Orchard Beach on July 8, 1929. With the Green Flash out of commission, the two flew in The Pathfinder and encountered the same strong headwinds that the Yellow Bird did. Low on fuel, they had no choice but to land the plane on the same beach in Spain.
Of course, there was still one big question to be answered: Was Arthur Schreiber on board the Yellow Bird? The answer to that question became obvious when four men, not three, emerged from the plane’s fuselage.
During a 1966 interview, Schreiber described what had happened. The day before the flight, he had accompanied some friends to view the planes at Old Orchard Beach. One of them bet that none would have the guts to take such a flight, so Arthur decided to take that dare. He raced home, put on his brother’s flight suit, and returned to the beach to help load the airplanes with fuel and supplies. His plan was to fly on the Green Flash, but the pilots said that there wasn’t room for him.
The next morning, as volunteers helped to push the Yellow Bird into position for takeoff, Art pushed on a door handle for leverage, which caused it to turn and open a hatch. It was at that moment that he hopped into the plane. He looked around for a place to hide, but could only find two places to do so. One was the life raft compartment and the other that housed the airplane’s control cables. He opted for the latter, placing himself inside the compartment in such a position so that he would not touch the cables.
“I found that I could squat with two wires between my legs and with two others under my arms. I thought that I would be able to hold that position for quite awhile.”
About twenty minutes into the flight, Art decided that it was time to make his presence known. “Because I had no experience, I thought we were still on the ground warming up the engines. So I thought this was adventure enough and that I could get out while I could.”
He continued, “When I crept forward through the second door, there was the navigator, Armand Lotti, Jr. with his back to me. He couldn’t hear me because of the terrible noise of the engines. I opened the hatch to jump out and was aghast to see nothing but ocean below.”
“Well, there was nothing else to do. I had to present myself. Lotti was very surprised when I tapped him lightly on the shoulder.”
Shortly after the plane had made its successful landing in Spain, Assolant told the INS – the Independent News Service – that “The tail of the plane felt unusually heavy, and I found that I had to get the motor roaring at full speed before the plane could leave the ground. The trouble mystified me considerably, but I was determined to keep on if possible.”
“About twenty minutes after we had left Old Orchard beach behind us, I was amazed to see a man crawl from the tail of the plane, where he had hidden himself before the take-off.” He continued, “My first feeling was of utmost anger, and I felt like throwing him overboard into the Atlantic…”
Lotti told the New York Times, “We looked at him and realized that it was he who had added the weight to the Yellow Bird and our feelings – well, they weren’t precisely friendly.” He added, “He made himself useful the rest of the trip and now we count him as one of us.”
Lotti also described a harrowing incident that occurred about five hours into the flight. For the first two hours, their fuel came from storage tanks in the wings, and then they switched to their first reserve tanks, which they anticipated would last another four hours. Their flight nearly came to an end when those reserve tanks emptied sooner than expected and the motor suddenly stopped. Lefevre and Lotti raced to open the valves to another fuel tank. Luckily, the momentum of the propeller had kept it spinning and as soon as the first drops of fuel entered the combustion chamber, the motor came back to life.
As the plane sat on the beach in Spain, mechanics worked to get it tuned up so that the Yellow Bird could be flown back to France. The biggest problem was that the beach at Comillas could not handle the weight of the plane when it was loaded with fuel, so a pit stop would need to be made along the way. On Sunday, June 16, 1929, the Yellow Bird took off once again, first landing at Mimizan-Les-Bains to refuel, and then touching down for good in Le Bourget at 8:47 PM. The aircraft carried not just its original crew of three, but also stowaway Schreiber and their mascot Rufus.
All received international press coverage, but Arthur Schreiber was now a celebrity. Anticipating that this would occur, Lotti said, “I made Schreiber sign a rude contract aboard the plane providing a 50-50 split of all newspaper earnings with Assolant and LeFevre.”
What is most surprising was that the Yellow Bird’s crew never blamed Schreiber for their failure to reach French soil. While his added weight may have played a small part, they attributed their inability to do so on a strong headwind that slowed the plane down and being slightly off course when they landed. After landing at le Bourget, Lotti was quoted, “We thought we were over France when we landed.” He added, “We were most surprised when the first men we met spoke no French.”
While in Paris, all four men attended banquets and celebrations. Since Schreiber had no place to stay, Lotti’s father put him up, free-of-charge, in his hotel. On Thursday, June 20th, Arthur Schreiber boarded the S.S. Leviathan – the same liner that had brought the Yellow Bird to the United States – and set sail for home. A newspaper syndicate paid him $2,500 (over $35,000 today) for his story and he used his advance to pay for his ticket home. As agreed, the remainder of the money was split with the crew of the Yellow Bird.
Back home in the United States, Arthur was made out to be a hero, while the French press wasn’t as kind. Supposedly the word “imbecile” was printed most frequently. Schreiber responded to this criticism by stating, “Well. perhaps they are right. I did not consider the seriousness of the situation. I only went for the thrill. I do not regard myself as a hero and never made such an absurd statement that my ambition was to be the second Lindbergh. I only did what I think the average American boy would have done if he had had the opportunity.”
On July 15th, it was announced in Billboard magazine that Arthur Schreiber had been signed by Bert Jones in New York to manage his career in Vaudeville. It was never to be. On September 23rd, Arthur was critically injured in Newburyport, Massachusetts while traveling as a passenger in a car owned by his father but driven by 25-year-old Maurice Dress. Schreiber recovered, only to crash his car into another on December 29th in Providence, Rhode Island. He was charged with driving in a reckless manner and had his driver’s license temporarily suspended.
Fast-forward to Thursday, June 11, 1959, Schreiber received a surprise phone call from Rene LeFevre, who was now an executive at Air France. With the 30th anniversary of the Yellow Bird’s historic flight just a couple of days away, Air France decided to give Arthur a four-day, all-expense paid trip to Paris to celebrate. Oddly, Schreiber was being honored not for being the first-ever airplane stowaway, but as the world’s first paid transatlantic airplane passenger. He was assured that co-pilot Lotti would also be there. Sadly, pilot Jean Assolant had died when his plane was shot down by enemy aircraft on May 7, 1942.
After his 15 minutes of fame subsided, Arthur moved around a bit, married twice, and ultimately became a dog warden in California. He retired from the California National Guard on February 10, 1967, after 41 years of military service. He died in Oxnard, California on February 10, 1997, which just happened to be his 90th birthday.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.