The North Pole Flights
2003 will mark the 75th anniversary of both Sir Hubert Wilkins' and Carl Ben Eielson's extraordinary airplane flight across the polar rim from Alaska to Spitsbergen, and of Umberto Nobile's disastrous Italia airship flight over the North Pole. PolarFlight Research Group has already received inquiries about Nobile's North Pole flights. We hope this short summary will be helpful as well as providing sources for more information.
b. Lauro, Italy, 1885
d. Rome, Italy, 1978
Italian aeronautical engineer and aeronautical science professor; designer of semi-rigid airships including the Norge and Italia. Promoted from Colonel to General in the Italian air force following the Norge north pole flight, forced to resign following the Italia disaster. Spent five years in the USSR in the 1930s developing Soviet airship program; lived in the US for several years during WW II; returned to Italy in 1944 where he remained until his death in 1978 at age 92.
Italian airship designer and pilot Umberto Nobile took part in two flights over the North Pole, one in 1926 in the airship Norge and another in 1928 in the airship Italia.
The Norge [meaning Norway] flight took place on May 11-14, 1926, and was a joint Norwegian-American-Italian venture. The co-leaders were the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, and Italian Umberto Nobile, the airship's designer and pilot. The Norge departed Kings Bay [Ny Ålesund], Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago on May 11, 1926--just five days after American Richard Byrd's claimed (and highly questionable) attainment of the North Pole by airplane--and flew by way of the North Pole to Teller (near Nome), Alaska. The flight, which originated in Rome, had been touted as "Rome to Nome" but bad weather forced them to land at the small settlement of Teller just short of Nome. This was the first undisputed attainment of the North Pole by air and the first crossing of the polar sea from Europe to North America. Additionally it gave Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole (1911), the distinction of being the first person to travel to both poles of the earth.
After a safe landing in Teller in which the Norge was undamaged, the airship was deflated and dismantled. Originally plans called for the airship to be sold back to the Italian government after completion of the flight; however the Norge unfortunately fell prey to souvenir hunters from Teller and was more or less destroyed.
For more information: Amundsen, et al.'s book, First Crossing of the Polar Sea (Doran, 1927) is the best source of information on the Norge flight. In addition to accounts by expedition leaders Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth, the book contains sections by Norwegian polar aviation pioneer Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, second-in-command and navigator on the Norge, and Dr. Finn Malmgren, the Norge's Swedish meteorologist.
Following the Norge flight a bitter dispute--that was played out in the world press--broke out between Amundsen and Nobile over who should receive credit for leading the expedition. As a result Nobile returned to Kings Bay, Spitsbergen in 1928 as sole leader of his own expedition. However, the Italia flight ended in tragedy. The Italia departed Kings Bay on May 22, 1928 and flew over the North Pole but crashed on the ice northeast of Spitsbergen on its return flight to Kings Bay the following day. Nine crewmembers, including Nobile, were thrown out onto the ice and survived the crash. The Italia crash sparked a massive search and rescue operation, the first in the far north, to which six countries sent planes and ships. As a further tragedy Roald Amundsen lost his life traveling by air from Norway to Spitsbergen to take part in the rescue mission.
On June 23, 1928 a Swedish pilot removed Nobile to the mainland from the ice floe on which Italia survivors were stranded, but damaged his plane on the return for more survivors and had to be rescued himself. Ultimately, the Russian icebreaker Krassin reached the by-then badly disintegrating ice floe and rescued the remaining survivors on July 12, seven weeks after the Italia crashed.
For more information: you can read more about the Italia disaster at THE 1928 CRASH OF THE AIRSHIP ITALIA
One additional note: both the Norge and Italia flights flew over the North Pole but did not land. Well-publicized plans to land and leave a scientific team from the Italia at the North Pole were vague at best and failed to materialize. However, some publications incorrectly identify either or both flights, as well as Byrd's 1926 airplane flight, with having landed at the North Pole. It was not until 1937 that four 4-engine cargo planes from the Russian SP-1 expedition flew from Franz Josef Land and landed at the North Pole.
For additional information: Nobile's book My Polar Flights (Putnam, 1961) contains Nobile's reminiscences of the Norge and Italia flights written years afterwards. This book makes some questionable assertions and should be read with a bit of caution. A widely-viewed film The Red Tent is a highly imaginative, fictionalized version of the Italia disaster that while entertaining should not, by any means, be considered an accurate account of the Italia disaster. Factual inaccuracies and somewhat excessive adulation of Nobile mar the most recently published account of the Italia tragedy, Disaster at the Pole. On the other hand, the accounts of the Norge and Italia flights contained in the book Target Arctic: Men in the skies at the top of the world (Chilton, 1979) are highly recommended. Shorter accounts in the book Oceans, Poles and Airmen (Random House, 1971) also are recommended.
Confused about the difference between airplane, airship, aircraft? For a GLOSSARY OF AERONAUTICAL TERMS, click here.
Coming next issue: Wilkins' and Eielson's 1928 flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen.
If you have additional questions, please e-mail PolarFlight Research Group at polarflight@arcticmail.com
About the Author: Barbara Rhodes, author of this piece, is a founder and the Chairperson of PolarFlight Research Forum. She is a licensed airplane pilot and her specialty is polar aviation history. She lives on the coast in North Carolina in the US.