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Yellow Bird and a flight of fancy

Transatlantic bid by French aviators was almost doomed by a mysterious stowaway. A documentary travels back in time to a Spanish beach in 1929

Nobody had foreseen that the first transatlantic flight between the United States and France would in fact end in Spain. It was only a random chance that forced Yellow Bird (L'Oiseau Canari, in its original French name) to make an emergency landing at Oyambre beach in Cantabria on June 14, 1929, at 8.40pm. The plane didn't have a drop of fuel left in its tank, but it carried four people on board (including one stowaway, the first in recorded history). They had been flying for nearly 30 hours knowing that something had gone wrong and that they would not be reaching their destination: Paris. It was a singular event that most people have forgotten, but which turned this beautiful, mountainous area in northern Spain into the world's center of attention for a few days.

The memory of that adventure was kept alive in France, and to a lesser extent in Spain, where there are barely any eyewitnesses left and only a discreet stone monument in Oyambre provides testimony of the feat. A new documentary by Juan Molina, El pájaro amarillo (Yellow Bird), reconstructs that first European flight across the Atlantic and its fortuitous stop in Spain.

"I wasn't yet seven years old when it happened," says Manuel Gómez, who, at 87, is probably the only living eyewitness of the emergency landing. "It was a momentous event. The first day I went there with my grandfather, who took us to the beach in a horse-drawn carriage. The next day we returned with the schoolmasters. The spectacle at the beach was unlike anything we'd seen. I can't remember whether I ate beans or not this week, but I will never forget those days."

Juan Molina says the idea of recovering the story of Yellow Bird had been turning around in his head and that of actor Antonio Resines (who produced the film) for some time. "We've been friends since our school days. Antonio has a house across from Oyambre and every time we went down to the beach we left our towels hanging on some stones. They were the monument to Yellow Bird."

Between 1920 and 1927, over 100 men died in the quest to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. In 1927, Lindbergh managed it in a solo flight inside the minuscule Spirit of St Louis. That feat encouraged dozens of other pilots to try to conquer the clouds. One of these was the man behind the Yellow Bird adventure, Armand Lotti.

Lotti put his family's money and his aviator's soul into the planning of the flight and the construction of the plane. He would have liked to have flown it himself, but a hunting accident had left him blind in one eye and he could not legally do so. Instead he hired Jean Assollant as the first pilot and René Lefèvre as second pilot and flight navigator.

But the high mortality rate prompted the French government to prohibit the planned flight to America. It was then that Lotti made the decision to make the inverse trip: they traveled illegally to England, took the plane apart and sailed with it to New York. Lefèvre was in charge of finding the right beach for takeoff. Old Orchard, in Maine, was not a bad option: it was two kilometers long, had good orientation and good, firm sand. The flight became quite an event even before takeoff, and Lindbergh himself offered to help the adventurers with any questions they might have regarding the journey.

On the day of takeoff, a crowd gathered at Old Orchard. There is a shadow among the group of people in the old photographs. It was Arthur Schreiber, a 25-year-old with no known profession (some say he was a journalist), who hid in the plane's fuselage without anybody noticing, despite the security cordon. Obsession over weight had led the crew to measure every gram and take only the bare minimum amount of fuel to cover the journey. At the last minute, Lotti decided to pour out 100 liters of fuel to reduce their weight by 90 kilograms. When the plane finally took off, neither one of the three men could understand why the aircraft was unable to lift its tail off the ground.

When they had reached enough altitude, Schreiber came out of his hiding place. What happened from that moment on is more of a human than a technological adventure. The crew knew that with this extra man on board they would never reach their destination, and that they could not turn back because their current weight would mean a certain death if they attempted to land. Their first impulse was to throw him overboard, hide the crime and carry on with their quest. But mercy is as human as hate, and neither one of the three aviators was ready to stain his hands with blood.

Schreiber flew inside the Yellow Bird after signing a document committing to never speak in public about his experiences on the plane. He would remain a shadow all his life. His presence forced the emergency landing in Spain. After a terrible storm and hours of muted panic, they saw the Spanish coast (they didn't even have a map of the area) and knew this was their final destination. At least, they'd crossed the Atlantic.

What then ensued - before Madrid sent over enough fuel to complete the flight to Paris - was a series of celebrations including music and overjoyed men, women and children. "They even played them the Marseillaise to pasodoble music," recalls Molina.