No, this isn’t the title of a bad superhero movie, or an up and coming pay-preview wrestling match – it’s the race of two countries, and two aircraft, that ended before it even got off the ground (pun intended!).
Set the scene, we’re at Old Orchard Beach, Maine. The year is 1929. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 is four months away, Herbert Hoover is President, and the soda 7-Up was first introduced (and contained lithium citrate, main ingredient of today’s bi-polar drugs – since removed in 1950!). I digress. Back to the scene of Old Orchard Beach – the date is June 13, 1929. The Green Flash and Yellow Bird are preparing for takeoff on the beach runway. Their destination – Rome.
The Green Flash is a Bellanca J Model. It was crewed by Roger Q. Williams and Lewis Yancey.
Yellow Bird (L’Oiseau Canari) crew was Jean Assolant, Rene Lefevre, and Armando Lotti. The aircraft was a French Bernard 191 monoplane.
For days before the race begun the crew of the Yellow Bird and Green Flash prepared. They listened to weather reports from a stationary, ornate radio in the lobby of the Brunswick Hotel. Their airplanes were meticulously readied too. Crews tuned the engines, calculated fuel loads, and finally fueled the aircraft for their crossings.
Then on June 13, 1929, the beach full with thousands of spectators ready to cheer on the two transatlantic aircraft, the Green Flash crew climbed aboard. Its engine came to life and it sped down the hard-packed sand on the beach. However, as it gained speed it found a puddle of seawater and subsequently flipped in the soft sand near the water’s edge. Damage was found to its propeller blade, a wing strut was broken, the motor was damaged, and its wheel nearly completely sheared off in the wet sand. Consequently, this was not the first time that Roger Q. Williams had experienced problems on takeoff. A year earlier he had attempted a flight to Rome. However, he returned to the beach after engine problems and the flight attempt was eventually scrapped.
Next, the Yellow Bird started its takeoff roll down the beach and the crowd again cheered, and this time it took to the air and headed East. However, as they tookoff the plane drooped and appeared heavier than expected. Later during their flight across the Atlantic, the Yellow Bird crew discovered why – they were carrying an extra passenger! Portland, Maine resident Arthur Schreiber, 22, had managed to hide in the plane while it was being towed onto the beach by several dozen strong men. Unknowingly, Arthur Schreiber had just become the World’s First Airplane Stowaway!
Upon reaching European soil in Santander, Spain, the Yellow Bird crew was agitated with Schreiber because his extra weight had slowed down their transatlantic crossing time. But, the people of Europe heralded him as a hero. Schreiber was later returned to the United States. This time though his journey would be by boat – and the Westward journey would would take a lot longer than his Eastward journey!
The Yellow Bird still set records though with their flight. It was named the Longest Flight over the ocean, and the First French (and European) flight over the North Atlantic. In total, the plane flew 3,128 miles in 29 hours and 52 minutes.
A month later, and in a new aircraft, Williams and Yancey would complete the crossing. They, too, would land in Santander, Spain – flight time 31.5 hours! Due to their limited fuel loads, winds, and in the Yellow Bird’s case the extra weight of a stowaway, neither the Green Flash and the Yellow Bird had made it to their original destinations of Rome!
Interestingly enough, the flight of Yellow Bird across the North Atlantic had been banned by the French Government in early 1929. All transatlantic flights had been discontinued due to the risk of death to the flight crews. So, the crew had to illegally flew to Southampton, UK and then disassembled and shipped the Yellow Bird to the United States.
Old Orchard Beach is full of aviation history and more information can be found at their Historical Society. In addition, there is a marker near the Beach commemorating the aviators who crossed the North Atlantic, and attempted the crossing. The top right corner of the photo below shows the flights of the Green Flash and the Yellow Bird.
Contained on the marker:
June 13, 1929
Roger Q. Williams
‘Crashed on Take Off’
June 13, 1929
Jean Assolant, Rene Lefevre
Armand Lotti, Jr.
Note: Another account of the Yellow Bird sites the trip covered 2,410 miles in 22 hours. However, this distances would not have seen the plane making landfall in Europe. Google calculates the distance between Old Orchard Beach and Santander, Spain as 3,240 miles.
Video of the Crash of Green Flash from 1929 https://www.britishpathe.com/video/hard-luck/query/Orchard
Book: Sky High: The Story of Aviation by Eric Hodgins and F. Alexander Magoun.