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Wonders of World Aviation

The First Serious Attempt to Fly to the North Pole

Andree's balloon the Eagle

ANDRÉE’S BALLOON WAS TO BE STEERED with draglines and sails. The idea was that the draglines would reduce the speed of the balloon to less than that of the wind. Then, by suitably setting the sails, it should be possible to force the balloon along at an angle to the direction of the wind. Unfortunately, the balloon was allowed to rise into the air without the draglines.

SEVERAL successful flights have been made in recent years over the North Polar regions, some by airship and others by aeroplane. In 1925 Amundsen’s great aeroplane flight took place. Then in 1926 and again in 1928 flights were made by aeroplane and also by airship. Connected with these flights were such names, now famous, as Byrd and Wilkins.

There is another name, however - that of Andree - which cannot be omitted from among those of pioneers of Polar exploration by air. Andree’s flight was not a success; tragedy overtook him before its completion. But the attempt was of particular interest because, although the attempt took place in the nineties, the story was destined not to be completed until 1930.

Salomon August Andree, a Swedish engineer, became interested in aeronautics in 1876 when, during a trip to America, he read a series of lectures called “The Laws of the Winds”. He was specially fascinated by the behaviour of the trade winds, and expressed a strong opinion that there was a regular system of winds waiting for aerial vessels to make use of them. Such vessels would be giant balloons carrying cargo and passengers.

For several years he made an intensive study of balloons and aeronautics, and in 1893 he had become so well known that a Swedish institution granted him the money to buy a balloon. In this balloon, the Svea, he made nine ascents, of which detailed accounts were published in scientific journals.

Andree prepared every ascent with the minutest care and amassed a vast quantity of valuable data about balloons and their navigation. In 1894 Baron Nordenskiold, a well-known Polar explorer, sent for Andree - recognized by then as an outstanding expert on balloons - and discussed with him several matters relating to Polar exploration. Andree spoke of a plan he had conceived for making an expedition over the Polar ice in a free balloon, and Nordenskiold became enthusiastic at once. Thus it was that the evening of March 16, 1894, saw the birth of the Andree Polar Expedition.

Andree’s chief line of research at that time was concerned with the possibility of steering a free balloon with draglines and sails. The experiments gave good results and Andree, in a lecture to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, declared that a free balloon, with means for steering it, was a better vehicle than a sledge for crossing the pack ice and reaching the North Pole. Andree laid down the conditions that his balloon would have to fulfil, and made out a detailed plan which he proposed to follow.

The wealthy Alfred Nobel approached Andree and offered to finance the expedition, the calculated cost of which was about £7,000. The balloon was manufactured in Paris under the supervision of a Swedish engineer. The upper part of the balloon was covered with a strong net of Italian hemp which ended in forty-eight carrying lines attaching it to the carrying ring.

The gondola bore little resemblance to those used today for withstanding the effects of intense cold; it was merely a plaited affair of wicker and Spanish cane in the shape of a covered cylinder. A port by the edge of the roof gave admission to the interior, which formed a single room containing three berths.

This primitive car was slung from the carrying ring by six heavy ropes, and a rope ladder led up from the top of the car to the carrying ring. This ring was of extremely strong construction; in addition to taking the weight of the car, it had suspended from it several baskets and hanging pockets of cloth in which were stored some of the provisions. The draglines, also, were attached to it. Their total weight was 16 cwt, and the length of all of them together was 1,100 yards.

Flight of the Eagle

READY TO START FOR THE NORTH POLE on July 11, 1897. This photograph shows the scene before the balloon was cut loose, when Andrée and his two companions, Strindberg and Fraenkel, were standing in the car of the balloon. Strindberg was taking photographs up to the last minute. As the balloon rose into the air it was christened Ornen, which means Eagle.

TESTING FOR LEAKS IN THE BALLOON. This was done by means of strips of linen dipped in lead acetate. These strips were held against the seams in the balloon’s fabric, and the presence of a leak was shown by a black discoloration on the linen. The net over the upper part of the envelope was of strong Italian hemp, and ended in forty-eight carrying lines attached to a ring below the envelope. The wicker car was suspended from this ring.

The normal height at which the balloon was to fly was 480 feet, and in these conditions half a ton of draglines would be suspended in the air and 6 cwt would drag along the ice. Their task was not only to balance the balloon, but also to help with the steering. Andree’s plan, stripped of all unessential details, was to steer the balloon with sails and with these heavy draglines, whose function it was to prevent the balloon from moving as fast as the wind. A balloon moving at the same speed as the wind cannot be steered by sails, but if its speed is artificially decreased so that it is less than that of the wind, it should be possible to force the balloon along at an angle to the wind. So ran Andree’s argument. The sails were to be arranged in the desired position with the wind, not by moving the sails, but by rotating the whole balloon with lines and blocks, which moved the attachments of the draglines from one side of the central position to the other. In the final arrangement three sails were used - a central one in the space below the balloon and two lateral sails in the same plane, but outside the carrying lines. The sail area amounted to 818 square feet.

Andree visited Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in 1896 to investigate conditions, and a trial balloon, christened Sverige, was released. The expedition’s balloon was unpacked and examined, but for many days the weather conditions were unfavourable for the flight, and Andree returned to Sweden.

In 1897 he made his second journey to Svalbard in a Swedish gunboat, which carried the balloon and its equipment and all the hydrogen gas apparatus. Andree’s companions on this voyage were Nils Strindberg, who had much experience of balloon ascents, and Knut Fraenkel, a young sportsman.

A balloon house had been built in the previous year, and it had not been seriously damaged during the winter. By June 14, 1897, the balloon was installed in this house, which was situated where strong wind pressure could not be encountered. The balloon was inflated by a hydrogen gas plant laid out at a lower altitude, and then came a long period of waiting for favourable conditions.

On July 11 it was finally decided to start; the weather was beautiful and the wind south-south-west. Andree, Strindberg and Fraenkel, seemingly unconcerned - Strindberg was taking photographs until the last moment - entered the car. Three knives cut the ropes holding fast the carrying ring, and the balloon rose from its house to the accompaniment of cheers from the ground staff. It was at that moment christened Ornen (Eagle). The three balloonists, in their specially designed balloon, hoped to take advantage of the prevailing winds and to drift over the North Pole. Their only means of communication with the outside world was to be by carrier pigeon.

The balloon travelled somewhat erratically in a north-easterly direction, and then began to sink towards the surface of the sea. Hundreds of pounds of valuable ballast were thrown out almost at once, and the Eagle rose at 1.43 p.m.

A SPECIAL BALLOON HOUSE was built to protect the EagleSoon after this the sailors on shore made the alarming discovery that the draglines had been left lying on the ground. They had been made in sections which screwed into one another, and evidently, when the balloon first rose, they had twisted and had unscrewed themselves. The loss of these draglines altered the entire aspect of the flight, for the travellers were now in a free balloon, compelled to follow the direction of the wind. Messages arrived by pigeon from the balloonists for two days after their departure. After that, no word was received. For some time the fate of Andree and his companions was almost as general a topic of conversation as the mystery of the Mary Celeste.

A SPECIAL BALLOON HOUSE was built to protect the balloon while it was being filled with gas, and as a precaution against bad weather while the expedition was waiting for favourable conditions before starting. The house was designed so that it could be partly dismantled to permit the balloon to leave rapidly and without damage. In this picture the balloon is seen leaving the house after the necessary dismantling had been done.

Two years later a buoy from Andree’s balloon was found on the shores of King Karl Island, east of Svalbard (see map below), and caused much speculation over the course the balloon had taken. Another buoy was found a year after this by a woman looking for wreckage on the Norwegian coast. Neither the buoy nor the message it contained had been damaged. The message gave information of the course of the balloon, stated that four carrier pigeons had been released, and concluded “weather magnificent; in best of humours. Above the clouds since 7.45 G.M.T.”

A third buoy reached its intended destination, Stockholm, after having been found on the coast of Iceland. Its message gave the bearing of the balloon, and concluded, “Floating at a height of 600 metres. All well.”

After the finding of these three buoys no link with Andree and his companions was found until 1930 - thirty-three years after the attempt to balloon over the North Pole.

In August 1930 a Norwegian expedition on board the Bratvaag of Aalesund, on its way to Franz Josef Land, made a stop at White Island. Members of the expedition, which was equipped for scientific investigation and for sealing, went on shore on the southwestern point of the island. Here they discovered two bodies and the remains of a camp. In the camp, perfectly preserved, were several of the instruments used by Andree and his companions, and there also, but not in so good a state of preservation, were the complete diaries kept by Andree during his ill-fated journey.

Hopeless Drift North-East

The whole journey was reconstructed by scientists, writers and photographic experts, and the explorers were honoured and treated as the heroes that they were. Their state funeral was the last fitting act of homage.

Andree’s diary contains little information about the start - he was apparently far too busily occupied with problems of navigation. The laconic entry “guide rope lost” is the only reference to the one item that undoubtedly made all the difference between success and failure.

Less than an hour after the start, however, the three occupants of the diminutive car were hard at work attempting to splice the ballast ropes on to what remained of the guide lines. The balloon rose rapidly to a height of about 1,600 feet, at which the course became more northerly than before. Three hours after the start the pack ice became visible to the north and north-west, although the balloon was drifting in a light fog. By 6 p.m. the Eagle was floating at a good speed in a north-easterly direction.

An entry made at 9.43 p.m. states that the balloon was sinking and had touched the upper edge of the cloudbank over which it had been passing. The danger of losing the sunshine and therefore falling still lower because of the drop in temperature induced Andree to throw a buoy and a quantity of ballast overboard.


THE EXTENT OF THE FLIGHT of the Eagle is indicated in this map The balloon drifted backwards and forwards for some time shortly before the landing on the ice was made. The explorers’ long trek over the ice in a generally southwards direction to White Island is shown by the broken line. It was on White Island that the remains of the expedition were found in 1930, thirty-three years after Andree’s attempt to fly over the North Pole.

After midnight the balloon appears to have sunk rapidly when the warming rays of the sun no longer reached it. It continued to travel at some six miles an hour and at heights varying between 60 and 300 feet. Its course, under the influence of the improvised guide ropes, was now due east. At 1.26 a.m., however, it had come to a standstill because of a calm. Before long the wind cast round and began to carry the balloon due west. The faulty arrangement of ropes now caused the car to move backwards, and made the sails press the balloon down instead of raising it up.

By midday on July 12 the spirits, of the explorers had sunk. The balloon was making little headway, and below was an icefield from which nearly all the snow had disappeared, leaving pools of water on the surface. A fine drizzle was falling, and the temperature was about 32° Fahr. Every attempt was made to lighten the balloon; bags of sand, heavy knives and an iron anchor were thrown out, followed later by several instruments that were to have been used for taking “earth-samples”.

Despite all these efforts to make it rise, the balloon continued to drive along at such a low height that there seemed to be a danger of smashing the car on the ice. Eventually the large “Polar buoy”, which was to have been dropped at the Pole, was cast overboard without any message inside.

The parting with this seems to indicate that the explorers no longer had the slightest hope of reaching their objective. This Polar buoy was the one found two years later on the shore of King Karl Island.

The next entries in the diaries have a note of hopelessness. Although the wind might possibly have carried the balloon towards Greenland if the explorers had thrown out all the remaining ballast, they determined to be content with standing still. None of the three had had any sleep, and the repeated bumpings on the ice were trying them severely. The entry continues: “It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea. To be the first that have floated here in a balloon. How soon, I wonder, shall we have success or? . . . We think we can well face death, having done what we have done . . .”

At 10.55 a.m. on July 13 the balloon suddenly made itself free after having rested for thirteen hours in the same spot, and it was discovered that one of the guide ropes had laid itself behind and below a block of ice and had fastened itself securely. The balloon now drove onward in an east-north-easterly direction. This fastening of the guide rope during the night was a tragedy, for had the balloon not been so anchored the wind which had sprung up during the night would have blown it back to Svalbard. The hopeless journey towards the north-east continued, and before many hours had elapsed the car began to strike the ice again. A fine drizzle fell and formed hoarfrost on the ropes. The balloon became extremely heavy, and after the sun disappeared in a fog the balloon merely dragged the car across the ice. More buoys and a medicine box were thrown over the side. Later, at 8 p.m., a last despairing effort was made - six small buoys and 440 lb of provisions were jettisoned. This caused the Eagle to rise high enough to allow the sails to carry well, and the speed increased considerably. Andree wrote, “It is quite splendid!”

Short-Lived Triumph

Triumph, however, was short-lived, and by 10.30 p.m. the car again struck the ice violently. Just before midnight the one long guide rope broke. No land or living creature was in sight - nothing but a vast expanse of ice with its large open channels of water.

The final entry in the diary of the flight reads: “6.20 a.m. the balloon rose high, but we opened both valves and were down again at 6.29. At 8.11 a.m. we jumped out of the balloon”. The balloon, on descending, was apparently heavily weighed down with ice formed from the fine drizzle. Andree and his companions were worn out and famished when they landed on the icefloe on July 14, 1897. The rest of their story is the all too familiar tragedy of struggling onwards across the Arctic wastes. On October 5 they landed on White Island, a mere sixty miles east of Svalbard, and until October 7 they pressed onwards. The story was destined to end, however, in tragedy, and the last entry in the diaries is dated October 17.

The camp, discovered on White Island in 1930, was “excavated” with the care normally given to archaeological remains. A surprising variety of articles, all in a fairly good state of preservation, was found. Strindberg, apparently the first to perish, had been buried, but the remains of Andree and Fraenkel were found.

It is easy in the light of modern knowledge to look on Andree’s attempt as foolhardy. But Andree had not the benefit of modern knowledge. In essaying such a flight the balloonists showed great courage and the true spirit of the pioneer. The flight was by no means without value. The diaries contained much detailed information about the weather conditions encountered on the journey, and all the data have since been correlated by scientists. Certain it is that the name of Andree will not be forgotten in the annals of exploration by air.


AFTER THE LANDING ON THE ICE on July 14, 1897. The balloon was heavy with ice which formed on it after Andrea and his companions had passed through a fine drizzle. This picture is from one of the films found with the remains of the expedition. Some difficulty was experienced in developing the negatives after their thirty-three years on White Island.

[From Part 8 & Part 9, published 26 April & 3 May 1938]

You can read more on “Into the Stratosphere”, “Soviet Arctic Aviation” and “Triumph and Tragedy in the Arctic” on this website.

Flight of the “Eagle”