The First Airship to Cross the North Pole

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On May 12th, 1926 a cylindrical shadow crept over the face of the Arctic toward the destination of many failed adventures, the North Pole. In the cold sky above the Pole was a semi-rigid Italian-built airship, the Norge.

Norge Airship

The expedition was the brainchild of polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, the airship’s designer and pilot Umberto Nobile and American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, who along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.

norge_kingsbayOn April 15th, 1926, the Norge left the mooring mast at Ekeberg in Oslo for Gatchina near Leningrad; after a 17-hour flight it arrived at 7:30PM, delayed by dense fog along the way. Following the arrival at Gatchina, Nobile announced that the Norge would remain in the airship shed for a week for overhaul and maintenance; this included the addition of collapsible rubber boats for emergency use. 

The airship finally left Gatchina at on May 5th, 1926 to proceed to Vadsø in northern Norway, where the airship mast is still standing today. The expedition then crossed the Barents Sea to reach King’s Bay at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. There Nobile met Richard Evelyn Byrd preparing his Fokker for his North Pole attempt. Nobile explained the Norge trip was to observe the uncharted sea between the Pole and Alaska where some thought land was; at the time he believed Robert Edwin Peary had already reached the pole. This would be the last stop before crossing the pole. The airship left Ny-Ålesund for the final stretch across the polar ice on May 11th.

Norge 3The 16-man expedition included Amundsen, the expedition leader and navigator; Umberto Nobile the airship’s designer and pilot; polar explorer and expedition sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth; as well as polar explorer Oscar Wisting who served as helmsman. Other crew members were 1st Lt. Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, navigator; 1st Lt. Emil Horgen, elevatorman; Capt. Birger Gottwaldt, radio expert, Dr Finn Malmgren of Uppsala University, meteorologist; Fredrik Ramm, journalist; Frithjof Storm-Johnsen, radioman; Flying Lt. Oscar Omdal, flight engineer; Natale Cecioni, chief mechanic; Renato Alessandrini, rigger; Ettore Arduino, Attilio Caratti and Vincenzo Pomella, mechanics. Nobile’s dog, Titina, also came aboard as mascot.

Norge DownOn May 12th, 1926, at 01.25 (GMT) they reached the North Pole, at which point the Norwegian, American and Italian flags were dropped from the airship onto the ice. Relations between Amundsen and Nobile, which had been strained in the freezing, cramped and noisy conditions became even worse when Amundsen saw that the Italian flag dropped was larger than either of the others. Amundsen later recalled with scorn that under Nobile, the airship had become “a circus wagon in the sky.”

After crossing the pole, ice encrustations kept growing on the airship to such an extent that pieces breaking off would be blown by the propellers and strike the fabric hull. On May 14th, the Norge reached the Eskimo village of Teller, Alaska where in view of worsening weather, the decision was made to land rather than continue to Nome. The airship was reportedly damaged during the landing and was dismantled and shipped back to Italy.


 

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