The yellow bird and the first aerial stowaway in history

On the evening of June 14 1929, on the beach of Oyambre, four men got off the plane with which they had just made an emergency landing. They were the crew of a French airplane, coming from the United States, and that had tried to arrive at Paris in a non-stop flight. Due to its colour, this plane will be known as the yellow bird.

Although two years had passed since Charles Lindbergh managed to cross the Atlantic alone – for which there was no longer a grand prize for the flight – it continued the passion of many adventurers for new modalities of passage. To the extent that more than a hundred pilots had perished and the French Government banned those flights from its territory. That did not stop the French millionaire Armand Lotti from dismantling his airplane Bernard and transferring it to England, and from there to the United States. Since Lotti was one-eyed, and had been banned from piloting, he hired two experienced pilots – Assollant and Lefevre – him traveling as a passenger. Lotti was an optimist; proof of this is that he decided to paint his aircraft in yellow to be more easily identifiable in the event of a landing (as if there were to be ships nearby to pick them up on time). And for this reason he called his plane L’Oiseau Canari (The Canary or The Yellow Bird).

After many calculations on the relationship between the weight of the plane and the fuel, hours before take-off they unloaded one hundred litres of fuel to lighten the airplane by 90 kilos and increase the chances of arriving in Paris. But during the long farewell ceremony, long awaited reporters and friends did not realise that an individual was riding on the plane and hiding in the back of the cockpit. It was Arthur Schreiber, a 25-year-old unemployed American. After a few hours of flying, the stowaway showed up to the other three with the simple phrase “here I am”. He explained his action by the desire to fulfill his dream of emulating Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic; and since he had no money, he had mounted Lotti’s plane. Once recovered from the surprise, Lotti decided that they would not return to the take-off point; to secure the exclusive writing of the story, he threatened Schreiber with throwing him off the airplane if he did not sign the letter of resignation to explain to the press what may happen during the flight.

El pájaro amarillo en Oyambre con el avión de reabastecimiento aterrizando

The truth is that, after 29 hours and a flight of 5,300 kilometers, where the yellow bird arrived was not Paris, but it was Cantabria; to the beach of Oyambre. There they were received by the vacationers, who telephoned the authorities and welcomed them into their homes. The next day, Spanish, American and French journalists arrived in Comillas to interview the airmen.

After two days of entertaining and with the aviation fuel that had been brought by an airplane from Madrid, the already famous yellow bird – which is how it was baptised by the locals and has been in the history of Spain – flew from the beach of Oyambre until Mimizan (French department of the Landes) which became the “official arrival”. They did not report the stowaway, so he returned by boat to the United States with a ticket paid by Lotti. Schreiber fulfilled throughout his life the commitment not to profit from the story of the trip so that Lotti took over all the protagonism and pocketed the amount of exclusive stories about the yellow bird.

Los pilotos, el pasajero y el polizón del pájaro amarillo

El 16 de junio de 1979, el anciano Lotti (propietario del lujoso Hotel Lotti de París) celebró el cincuentenario del vuelo del pájaro amarillo en el aeropuerto parisino de Le Bourget, declarando oficialmente a Schreiber “el primer polizón aéreo de la historia”. Diez años después Lotti conmemoró por partida doble —en Mimizan y en Old Orchard Beach— el sesenta aniversario del vuelo del pájaro amarillo, promoviendo el hermanamiento entre esas dos localidades. En ninguna ocasión Lotti mencionó el aterrizaje del pájaro amarillo en España, por lo que en la mayor parte de los relatos franceses y norteamericanos del viaje no se menciona que donde aterrizó primero fue en este país. Nada se conmemoró por parte de Lotti en Oyambre. Sin embargo, el ayuntamiento de San Vicente de la Barquera había erigido un monolito de piedra frente al lugar del aterrizaje del pájaro amarillo; aunque éste desapareció a causa de las galernas, por lo que ha sido la propia naturaleza la que ha puesto a los protagonistas en el sitio que le corresponde por su falta de ética, mentiras y ausencia de agradecimiento de un señorito que trató de entrar en la historia pagando a otros para que lo llevaran de pasajero. La realidad es que la historia del pájaro amarillo es tan ridícula como la de su promotor.

Texto de Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga e ilustraciones de Ximena Maier.

About the author