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The North Pole Expedition of Umberto Nobile and the Airship Italia

By Max Pinucci, Head of Design at OceanSky Cruises. Illustration by Hun in the Sun

94 years have passed since that distant 25th of May 1928, the year in which one of the greatest successes of Italian technology and exploration turned into tragedy and nightmare in the space of a few hours. The airship Italia crashed on the ice: for the survivors, for the rescuers and for their families a drama began, still considered one of the greatest tragedies of the air. Ninety difficult years for the figure of Umberto Nobile and for history, which was sewn throughout this expedition, disagreements, controversies, conflicts. But it has an epic side to it: the first great international search and rescue operation.

In this short story, I would like to keep away from the technical, historical and political diatribes that still plague the reading of the Italian designer and his second, unfortunate polar expedition. I would like to remember the man, a restless dreamer but pragmatic and analytical, on one side Dante’s Ulysses, on the other side, designer and professor. I am fascinated by the life of a man born in the Mediterranean warmth, tied to the great north, to the Arctic lands, to extreme explorations.

I would like to narrate the eagerness for conquest, adventure, and challenge that man and the airplane brought to the extreme points of the world, that geographical pole of which little was known and much was imagined. What was up there? Perhaps the active volcano that Jules Verne imagines among the ice in his Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras? Or mountain ranges, islands, continents, habitable lands surrounded by warm currents?

Umberto speaks outside of an airship in Ciampino, Italy

Umberto speaks outside of an airship in Ciampino, Italy. Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket

It is not easy today, in the age of satellites, GPS, and Google Maps, to realise that only ninety years ago little or nothing was known about the morphology, climate, and appearance of the Arctic. The romantic urge to venture into the unknown has given way to an ordinary habituation, which is fulfilled between online surfing and thousands of contrails crowding the sky. 

Even today, we still don’t know exactly who first stepped on the geographic North Pole: Cook in 1908? Peary in 1909? Kuznetsov or Gordiyenko in 1948? Fletcher in 1952? Not to mention the expeditions of Parry, De Long, Nansen, Andrée and many others, who tried with ships, hot air balloons and airplanes.

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (who was the first to open the mythical Northwest Passage in 1906 and reached the South Pole in 1911) and the American tycoon Lincoln Ellsworth, for example, purchased a couple of Dornier Wal aircraft (manufactured by CMASA in Marina di Pisa) in Italy in 1925. They reached 87°44′ N before an accident forced them to return fortunately.

Today it seems to be certain that it was not the American Fokker F.VIIa of Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett to fly above the North Pole on May 9, 1926; too many controversies are still aroused by this flight. It is instead proved that the Amundsen-Nobile-Ellsworth expedition with the airship, N1 Norge, starting from Rome and then from Kings Bay, reached the Pole at 1:30 am on May 12, 1926, then continued to Alaska to land at Teller.

After the risky failure with the airplanes in ’25, Amundsen had seen in the airship the means of an airplane able to safely perform the polar flight. Having purchased the N1 Norge through the Aero Club Norway from the Stabilimento Costruzioni Aeronautiche in Rome, involving the designer and pilot Umberto Nobile, and gathering an international crew of great technical ability, Amundsen once again challenged the North Pole.

The success of the Italian airship, a semi-rigid of 106 meters long, 18.6 meters wide for a volume of 18,000 m3 (small and compact by the standards of contemporary rigid airships) convinced the world of the validity of the formula. The Norge was not the first, nor would it be the last airship designed for polar flight. In 1906, the American explorer, Walter Wellman had Godard in France build a blimp, christened America, with the intention of reaching the roof of the world.

He tried in 1906, then again in 1907 and finally in 1909, with a series of failures, fortunately without consequences. The British will also think about it, while the United States will officially commit; on November 20, 1923, President Coolidge approved the US Navy’s project to send the rigid airship ZR-1 USS Shenandoah to the North Pole. The ZR-1 (derived from the German Zeppelins of the Great War, 226.5m long and the first airship to use helium gas) was to fly to Alaska, in Nome.

From here it was supposed to fly over the North Pole, and then return or, in case of bad weather, head towards Svalbard. But doubts about the costs, the risk and the huge logistic needs, together with an accident that forced the airship to repair works, made the ambitious project fail.

Norge flying
The Norge was the first airship to overfly the North Pole in 1926 Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket
Roald Amundsen

The Arctic explorer and Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket

In the meantime, after the success of the Norge in ’26, Umberto Nobile’s studies concentrated on a larger and more robust semi-rigid airship, the N5 of 55,000 m3. Unfortunately, the project was not carried out. When he decided to undertake a new mission to the North Pole, this time all Italian, he had to fall back on the N4 I-SAAF, twin of the Norge, which was adapted to the needs of the Arctic expedition on the basis of the experience gained in the flight two years earlier and christened Italia.

By the standards of the time, its transfer flight from Milan to the Bay of Kings, Spitzbergen (today Ny-Ålesund), was a tough and challenging journey. Departing from Baggio on the night of April 15, the N4 Italia flew over Ljubljana, Vienna, Brno, Poznań to arrive the following day in Stolp (today’s Polish Słupsk). Here he stopped for seventeen days to repair the damage inflicted by the bad weather.

He left on May 3, flying over Stockholm to allow the crew’s meteorologist to drop a letter intended for his mother, between filial affection and superstition of the voyager, Malmgren would not in fact have survived the expedition. A brief stop at the anchorage pylon of the Norwegian city of Vadsø, which had hosted the N1 Norge two years earlier, and then off, northwest, to reach the support ship Città di Milano in Kings Bay, its mast and hangar, built by engineer Felice Trojani for the ’26 expedition.

94 years have passed since that distant 25th of May 1928, the year in which one of the greatest successes of Italian technology and exploration turned into tragedy and nightmare in the space of a few hours. The Airship Italia crashed on the ice.

The scientific mission begins on May 11, but the flight, troubled by problems, is aborted after eight hours. A few days later, on 15 May, another flight. This time it is a success; they fly over the archipelago of the Land of Franz Joseph and the Land of Nicholas II (today Severnaja Zemlja), 4,000 km in three days of flight. At 4:28 am on May 23, the fateful hour is struck, and the Italia leaves Kings Bay to reach, after just under 20 hours, the geographical North Pole.

There is no way to descend on the ice; the Italian flag, the banner of Milan and the cross donated by Pope Pius XI are dropped on the Arctic frozen wastes. They return home singing. Here the story becomes painful; navigation is increasingly difficult, the storm is inclement, the euphoria becomes discomfort, then anxiety, and finally terror. The collision. Men, equipment and wreckage that scatter on the ice, the vessel that disappears in the storm carrying six men. Ten remain on the ground, one of them forever. 

Airship Italia
The Italia was a semi-rigid airship belonging to the Italian Air Force. It was designed by Italian engineer and General Umberto Nobile. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum
Umberto Nobile, born in Lauro in 1885, was an Italian aviator, aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer

But man is an amazing creature. Biagi’s obstinacy, Cecioni’s lamentations, Malmgren’s fatalism, Mariano and Zappi’s insubordination, Nobile’s suffering, Behounek’s toughness, Trojani’s tenacity and the fortuitous shelter, stained with aniline, that will become history as la Tenda Rossa, the Red Tent. The radio calls went unheard by the support ship but intercepted by the radio amateur Schmidt, the race of solidarity that, for prestige or brotherhood, is unleashed to find the castaways of the air. If, until then, only a few expeditions had followed one another in those lands, the Arctic is suddenly crowded.

The Norwegian ships, Tordenskjold, Hobby, Braganza, Veslekari, Heimland, Michael Sars, Svalbard, the Danish Gustav Holm, the Swedish Quest and Tanja, the French Strasbourg, Durance, Quentin Roosevelt, Pourquoi Pas?. The Soviet Union, superbly equipped, sends three of its Arctic icebreakers: the Malygin, the Sedov and the Krassin, the latter led by Professor Rudolf Samoylovich, Arctic explorer and personal friend of Nobile.

Half of the 16 crew members of the airship Italia survived, plus Nobile’s dog

Norway sends four aircraft: two Hansa-Brandenburg W.33 seaplanes and two Sopwith Babys. A Junker F 13 arrives from Finland. From Italy, came the Savoia-Marchetti S.55, the Santa Maria that, piloted by Maddalena, will locate the survivors on the ice, and two Dornier Wals. Sweden sends two Svenska S5s, a Junkers G 24 with floats, a Klemm-Daimler L.20, a de Havilland 60 Moth and two Fokker CVs equipped with skis. It will be one of the Fokkers, piloted by the officer Lundborg, to land at the camp of the survivors and to take in flight with him Umberto Nobile and the dog Titina, condemning him with this gesture to infamy, commander who leaves his men, which would have persecuted him for the next fifty years, until his death.

The Soviet Union has its Junkers carried on icebreakers: the G 23 Red Bear of Krassin, the F 13 of Malygin, the F 13 of Sedov. And it is a hydro Latham 47 that departs from France with a crew of four. In Bergen it boards Amundsen, a fading star, who, perhaps out of ambition, perhaps out of friendship, leaves in search of his old companion. They will not arrive even at the Bay of Kings: after a stop in Tromsø to embark Dietrichson, disappear into thin air; of them only a float and two tanks will be found, August 31 in the Barents Sea.

It will be, as we all know, the Krassin, that, despite a propeller failure, will reach the survivors on July 12, and always the Krassin that will stop the search for the airship’s envelope on September 22.