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The first aeroplane and airship flights to pass directly over the North Pole

THE ITALIA LEAVING KING'S BAY, Svalbard, on May 23, 1928

THE ITALIA LEAVING KING'S BAY, Svalbard, on May 23, 1928, for her flight over the North Pole, which she successfully reached at 2.20 a.m. on May 24. On the return journey the airship crashed against the ice. She left her gondola behind and then drifted off with six men on board. These men were lost, but those in the gondola were later rescued.

INACCESSIBLE to man until Peary’s success in 1909, the North Pole was twice reached by airship and once by aeroplane within twenty years of its conquest. Amundsen and Nobile flew in the airship Norge over the Pole in a voyage from Svalbard (Spitsbergen) to Alaska in 1926. Nobile, in the airship Italia, reached the Pole in 1928, but met with disaster afterwards. The aeroplane flight was made by Commander (later Rear-Admiral) R. E. Byrd in a Fokker monoplane in 1926.

Roald Amundsen, the first leader of an expedition to visit both the North and the South Poles, had made a trial flight in Alaska in a Junkers monoplane in 1923. In September 1924 Lincoln Ellsworth bought two flying boats for a joint expedition with Amundsen to the North Pole. On April 15, 1925, these flying boats were landed at King’s Bay, Svalbard. The flight began on May 21 and lat. 87° 43' N. was reached. One of the machines was wrecked. The fliers had great difficulty in taking off in the other machine, but eventually returned to Svalbard (see the chapter “Norway’s Airways”). This flight provided a lesson which was learnt in two different ways by two well-known aviators.

Commander Byrd was encouraged by its success to plan a flight in an aeroplane to the North Pole. Amundsen was so much impressed by the perils attending heavier-than-air flight in the Arctic that he decided to use an airship for his next attempt, which was to be a flight across the North Pole to Alaska. The two great dangers to aeroplane flight over the ice were the prevalence of fog and the absence of suitable alighting places. An airship can float in a fog indefinitely; an aeroplane cannot. If an engine fails in an airship, it may be possible to repair it in mid-air. If an aeroplane engine fails, a forced landing may be necessary, and a forced landing on Polar ice is generally fatal to an aeroplane.

When Amundsen had made up his mind to use an airship, he had to decide on the most suitable type. His choice fell on the semi-rigid type exemplified in the Italian N-1. This airship had been built to the designs of General (then Colonel) Umberto Nobile. The Italian Government was willing to sell the N-1 and Amundsen and his colleague Riiser-Larsen went to Rome to sign the contract. It was arranged that the airship, after having undergone some alterations, should be ready at the beginning of 1926, and that the Norwegian crew should go to Rome and obtain practice, under the guidance of Nobile, in manoeuvring the vessel. Ellsworth contributed the equivalent of about £25,000 towards the cost of the airship. Nobile was asked to command her.

The N-1 had her first trial trip on February 27, 1926, and further trials in March. On March 26 Amundsen and Ellsworth arrived in Rome. Three days later the airship was handed over to the Norwegians and renamed Norge. After the taking-over and christening ceremony the Norwegians were presented to Signor Mussolini. Later the same day Amundsen and Ellsworth went north to join the Norge at Svalbard. On April 10 the weather was calm and bright, and on that day the airship left on her long voyage across Europe to Svalbard. She flew across the Mediterranean and reached the French coast at six in the evening. Ten o’clock found her over Bordeaux. Flying through the night on two of her three engines at a speed of 50 miles an hour, she crossed France without incident.

At 7 o’clock the next morning the Norge left the French coast near Caen, in Normandy, and crossed the English Channel. At 3 p.m. she was over Pulham, in Norfolk, but atmospheric disturbances made it inadvisable to land before five. The Norge was manoeuvred into the hangar at Pulham and the crew were glad of a night’s sleep after thirty-two hours in the air. They had looked forward to a week’s stay in England, but the weather reports were so good that it was decided to leave Pulham on April 13. The Norge’s companion in the hangar was the British airship R-33. The Norwegians and Italians were sorry to have to say good-bye so soon to their new friends among the British airship’s crew.

At 11 p.m. on April 13 the Norge was on her way to Oslo. The weather was hazy over the North Sea, but all went well. Towards morning the airship was over Denmark, south of Lim Fjord, and course was altered northwards for Norway. Fog now set in.

A little before 9 on the morning of April 14 the fog cleared and the fliers were off Arendal, in the south of Norway. The ship circled over the town and steered north-east and then along Oslo Fjord to Oslo. At 3 p.m. she was moored to the mast at Oslo.

The crew were hoping for leave until the next morning but, in the words of Gustav Amundsen, nephew of Roald and a member of the crew on the voyage from Rome to Svalbard, “the Meteorological Institute had conjured up a little cyclone at some place or other over England which chased us away the same evening”. So the same evening — or rather, at 1.20 the following morning — they let go from the mast.

From Leningrad to Svalbard

The intention had been to fly over Stockholm and Helsinki on the way to Leningrad, the next stop; but fog again troubled the crew. They flew south of Stockholm and Helsinki. At 10 a.m. land was sighted — swamps, a few clusters of trees and, here and there, a lonely little farm. This was in south Finland. After nearly twelve hours more the Norge landed at Gatchina, near Leningrad. The Norwegians were impressed by the announcement that they were going to stay at the former Imperial Palace at Gatchina. They were disappointed when they found that their quarters were in a former hunting lodge which had been built in the park by a tsar of Spartan tastes.

The interest of the Russians in the Norge was immense. More than ten thousand people were said to have passed through the airship hangar on the first Sunday that the crew spent in Leningrad.

About three weeks were spent in Russia, and on May 5 began the perilous voyage to Svalbard. The airship flew over Lake Ladoga — Europe’s largest lake — and then over Lake Onega, where course was altered. The Murman Railway was now followed towards the White Sea. At 4 a.m. on May 6 the fliers passed over Kirkenes and at 5.30 the airship was moored to the mast at Vadso, in the extreme north of Norway. Here, despite the early hour, the whole town was astir and flags were flying everywhere.

Little over six hours later the airship resumed her northward flight. The weather that night was hazy, but the Norwegians were able to show their midnight sun to the Italians. A glimpse was obtained of Bjornoen (Bear Island), in the Barents Sea, and then course was set direct for the South Cape, the southern extremity of Svalbard. At 2 a.m. on May 7 the fliers passed the South Cape, which appeared out of the mist, lit by the brilliant sun. At this point one of the engines temporarily failed, but it was repaired in midair and the airship flew along the west coast of Svalbard. She rounded Cape Mintra and made towards King’s Bay, which had been selected as the base in the island of Svalbard. The time was 6 a.m. on May 7 and the crew were anxious to know if King’s Bay was ready for the Norge.

ROUTE OF THE FIRST AIRSHIP TO CROSS THE NORTH POLEROUTE OF THE FIRST AIRSHIP TO CROSS THE NORTH POLE. The flight was made by the Norge with Amundsen and Ellsworth on board, and with Nobile in command of the airship. After flags had been dropped at the North Pole the fliers went on to Alaska. Rough weather drove the airship off her course after Cape Lisburne had been passed, but a safe landing was made at the village of Teller.

The first thing they saw was the hangar which had been built to receive the airship. Evidently, therefore, the King’s Bay party was prepared. Then the fliers saw two ships, the Chantier, Commander Byrd’s tender, and the Heimdal, which was the floating base of Amundsen’s expedition. Next were seen Byrd’s two aeroplanes, one of which was to fly to the Pole and back. Finally the Norge was above the landing-place which had been prepared for her, with the landing parties drawn up in wedge formation awaiting her below. The airship was guided into her hangar at 7 a.m., and the first 4,750 miles of the flight had been safely covered.

Preparations at King’s Bay had been extensive. Great care had been taken in the selection of a landing-place and in the building of the hangar and mooring mast. This task had been entrusted to First Lieut. J. Hover, who had gone to Svalbard in the autumn of 1925 to begin the work. About 16| miles of beams were required for the framework of the hangar and about 12,000 square yards of canvas to cover its sides and gables. The walls consisted of twenty-two gigantic patches of this canvas. The mooring mast also was on a titanic scale. All the materials had to be imported and work was often carried out with the temperature at 4° below zero Fahrenheit. The work was carried out by artificial light during the long Polar night. In all, nearly 2,000 tons of cargo were conveyed in connexion with the expedition.

On April 25, while the Norge was in Russia, the Heimdal arrived in King’s Bay and berthed at the quay. Four days later the Chantier arrived, with members of the Byrd expedition. As there was not room at the quay for both vessels, the American steamer had to moor in the bay. Byrd was determined to take one of his aeroplanes, the Josephine Ford, ashore through the drift ice, which now lay round the Chantier. This hazardous operation was successful.

After the Norge’s arrival on May 7, Nobile was asked by Amundsen when he would be ready for the transpolar flight. He said that he would be ready in three days. Meanwhile the Americans were hard at work, and by the evening of May 8 they were ready. At 1.50 a.m. on May 9 the Norwegians and Italians were awakened by the noise of an engine. They rose, just in time to see the Josephine Ford off on her flight to the North Pole. The whole of that day Amundsen and Nobile were preparing for their own flight, but they were constantly wondering about Byrd’s progress. At 5 p.m. the Norwegians and Italians had just sat down to their dinner when an Italian workman rushed in shouting that he could hear a motor. The mess was empty in an instant. High

above the mountains to the north was seen a black speck. It was Byrd returning. The aviators landed safely after having completed the fastest Polar exploration on record.

On May 11 the Norge set out on her voyage across the top of the world, with sixteen men on board. The leaders of the expedition were Amundsen and Ellsworth. The captain of the airship was Nobile. Second in command was Riiser-Larsen. First Lieutenant Emil Horgen, of the Norwegian Navy, served at the side rudder. The main rudder was given to Oscar Wisting, chief gunner in the Norwegian Navy. Captain Birger Gottwaldt, Norwegian Navy, was radio expert. Finn Malmgren was meteorologist. Fredrik Ramm, a journalist, was detailed to keep the world informed of the expedition’s fortunes. Frithjof Storm-Johnsen was appointed radiotelegraphist. Nobile was accompanied by five Italian mechanics and by Lieutenant Oscar Omdal, of the Norwegian Naval Air Force.

COMMANDER BYRD ON THE JOSEPHINE FORD, the aeroplane in which he made the first flight over the North Pole

COMMANDER BYRD ON THE JOSEPHINE FORD, the aeroplane in which he made the first flight over the North Pole. He left King’s Bay in this Fokker monoplane at 1.50 a.m. on May 9, 1926, and returned to the same point at 5 p.m. that day, having completed the fastest Polar exploration on record. On May 11, 1926, Byrd, in the Josephine Ford, accompanied the airship Norge part of the way on her flight to the North Pole.

At 9.55 a.m. the order “Let go!” was given and the Norge rose gracefully into the clear air. The temperature was 24° Fahr. Soon after the Norge had left King’s Bay, Byrd’s Fokker flew past her. Byrd accompanied the airship for an hour and then turned back. All went well as the airship flew north. As she passed lat. 81° 30' N., Amundsen received a radio message of good wishes from a friend in Melbourne, Australia. At 7 p.m. he listened in to the time signal from Stavanger. As the ship passed lat. 87° 43' N., the farthest point north reached by Amundsen’s aeroplane trip of the year before, Amundsen looked at the humpy ice-field with a feeling of relief that he was above instead of on it.

As the Pole was approached the work of the navigator became more and more concentrated. Suddenly Riiser-Larsen called “We’re there!” First the Norwegian flag was dropped. It made a splendid descent and fixed itself in the ice. A light breeze unfurled the Norwegian colours. Amundsen, without a word, grasped the hand of Wisting. These two men had planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Then the United States flag was dropped, and finally the Italian flag. The time was 1.25 Greenwich Mean Time on May 12, 1926.

The fliers had been lucky with the weather at the Pole, as it had been foggy just before they had reached it. The ice was much broken up and numbers of small icefloes were visible. Few traces of animal life were seen. Two bears, at the sight of the airship, dived into holes in the ice. There were no signs of bird life and no seals or walruses were observed.

From now on the route was over a part of the world that had never before been explored. At 8.30 a.m. the fliers ran into a thick belt of fog, from which they were not clear until 6 p.m. The damp fog settled in the form of ice on the external metal parts of the airship. The ice became detached from time to time. It was sucked into the propellers and was then hurled against the envelope, so that repairs had constantly to be effected.

At 6.45 G.M.T. on May 13 land was sighted on the port bow. The great flight was all but accomplished. The journey from Svalbard to the Pole had taken about fifteen hours at a speed of approximately fifty miles an hour. Another twenty-nine hours had been spent in reaching the Alaskan coast. The fliers calculated that they had reached the coast some miles west of Point Barrow, but they could not see it. Soon they were over Wainwright, which Amundsen had known in 1922-23. At Cape Lisburne the airship ran into fog and soon afterwards met a furious gale, which drove her out of her course. To add to their troubles, the fliers were close to high mountains on the Seward Peninsula. The airship wandered in circles over Bering Strait, now near Siberia, now close to Alaska. Amundsen had hoped to land at Nome. Finally, at 7 a.m. on May 14, the Norge reached an unfamiliar Alaskan village called Teller, fifty miles from Nome. The airship had been nearly seventy hours in the air. Thus ended, without a casualty, the first flight from continent to continent across the North Pole.

The second transpolar airship flight fared differently. Soon after Nobile had landed from the Norge he planned a second flight across the North Pole. The first flight had been primarily exploratory; Nobile wanted to make his venture mainly scientific. To that end he worked out a device for lowering men down on to the ice-pack, on which much of his work was to be done.

Nobile’s scheme was approved by Signor Mussolini in October 1927. Nobile obtained from the Italian Air Ministry the airship Italia, a sister ship of the Norge. The Air Ministry supplied the crew also. The Italian Geographical Society undertook responsibility for the scientific work and the city of Milan financed the expedition. Three scientists accompanied Nobile; their chief was Finn Malmgren, who had been meteorologist in the Norge. The expedition’s floating base was the steamship City of Milan. King’s Bay, Svalbard, was again chosen as the starting point.


THE ITALIAN-BUILT AIRSHIP NORGE, a sister ship to the Italia, leaving King’s Bay on May 11, 1926, for her successful flight over the North Pole. The airship was bought from the Italian Government for the purpose of this expedition, and was flown to King’s Bay by stages from Italy. Amundsen chose an airship for the flight because he had previously been unsuccessful in an attempt to take an aeroplane expedition over the North Pole.

Three flights in all were made from King’s Bay. The first was made on May 11, 1928, with thirteen men. The weather became unfavourable and the Italia turned back from the north coast of the island. Four days later the airship set out again. From the North Cape an easterly course was set; then fog supervened. The weather became clearer as the ship passed the north coast of Franz Josef Land. Severnaya Zemlya was reached; but banks of low-lying cloud forced Nobile to turn back after he had reached lat. 70° 16 N., long. 91° 49 E.

The last flight of the Italia began on May 23. At 4.51 a.m. the airship flew north in long. 11° E. Progress was hampered by a contrary wind. A course was set to Cape Bridgman, in northeast Greenland. The ice-pack soon appeared. At 2.45 p.m. Greenland was sighted. The initial speed of the airship had been 50 miles an hour; by now it had dropped to 37 miles an hour.

At 5.29 p.m., near Cape Bridgman, the course was set to the North Pole in long. 27° W. Nobile now had a following wind and the sun shone brightly. An unexplored region lay below him. At 2.20 a.m. on May 24, the North Pole was reached. Here Nobile had intended to lower some of the crew on to the pack, to take scientific observations, but the wind prevented the proposed descent. Instead, therefore, the airship slowly circled over the spot while the Pope’s Cross and the Italian flag were dropped from a height of 500 feet. Seven members of the crew who had been in the Norge had the unique experience of a second visit to the Pole by air.

Nobile now turned south in long. 25° E., at a height of 3,000 feet. The airship encountered clouds until shortly after 10 a.m. The ship descended to 700 feet and speed was found to be only

26 miles an hour. Snowstorms and ice added to the fliers’ difficulties.

All this time only two of the three engines had been in use. As little headway was being made, the third engine was started. Even so, at 3.25 a.m. on May 25, the speed was only 43 miles an hour. The combination of fog and gale depressed the spirits of all on board. The expected land did not appear.

Saved by Emergency Radio

At 9.25 a.m. on this fatal day the elevator wheel jammed. To prevent the airship from striking the pack, Nobile stopped the engines. The Italia rose to 3,000 feet while repairs were being effected. At five minutes to ten two of the engines were started and the airship descended to 1,000 feet. At 10.30, when the airship was 45 miles N.E. of the Ross Islands and 180 miles N.E. of King’s Bay, there was a strong list towards the stern and the ship fell rapidly. Nothing now could avert disaster; but Nobile, to lessen the force of the impact, stopped the engines.

With great violence, the gondola crashed against the ice. The Italia, nose in the air and without the gondola, drifted away into annihilation with six men still on board.

Provisions had fallen on the ice, as well as the emergency radio set. An SOS was sent every hour to the City of Milan, but that ship was apparently not listening for messages. The pack drifted twenty-eight miles south-east in two days and on May 28 Charles XII Island came into view. Malmgren and two others — Mariano and Zappi — were detailed to walk to land in the hope of rescue. SOS messages were continually sent out and, at last, on June 6, the station at Archangel replied.

A large number of relief expeditions was planned, Amundsen obtained a seaplane from France and set off with the French aviator Guilbaud from Tromso on June 18. They were never seen again. Three days earlier the icebreaker Krassin, under the command of Samoilovitch, had sailed from Leningrad to follow the west coast of Svalbard. Another vessel, the Malyguin, followed the east coast of North-East Land. Riiser-Larsen set out in a seaplane and three Swedish aeroplanes cooperated.

On June 20 an Italian seaplane dropped food for twenty days at Nobile’s camp. The Swedish aviator Lundborg landed at the camp, with orders to take Nobile back before the others, despite Nobile’s desire to be the last. When Lundborg returned to the camp to make further rescues his machine overturned and he had to wait until the Krassin arrived.

Meanwhile, the Krassin ploughed through the ice. On July 6 a Junkers monoplane was manoeuvred on to the ice by means of a sloping stage from the ship. The Russian pilot of this machine saw Mariano and Zappi, the survivors of Malmgren’s party, near Charles XII Island, and was able to rescue them. Finally the Krassin reached and saved the remainder.

AIRSHIP HANGAR AT KING'S BAY, built to house the Norge

AIRSHIP HANGAR AT KING'S BAY, built to house the Norge. A mooring mast was also erected for use if the weather proved rough when the airship arrived. The stone shown to the right of the photograph was erected to commemorate the point from which Amundsen took off for his unsuccessful aeroplane flight to the North Pole in 1925

You can read more on “Norway’s Airways”, “Soviet Arctic Aviation” and “Winter Flying in Canada” on this website.

Triumph and Tragedy in the Arctic