Flying to the North Pole in an Airship Was Easy. Returning Wouldn’t Be So Easy

It would take an international icon to toss aside a bitter rivalry to help a crew in need

The airship Italia(Wikimedia Commons)
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In the Arctic summer, the sun shines even at midnight. So it was bright as the airship Italia approached the geographic North Pole, motoring at 3,000 feet above the endless pack ice. Below the ship, a thick bank of fog obscured the frozen Arctic Ocean, but up here the sky was blue, cloudless. A pair of officers used a sextant and the sun to measure the Italia’s position as they covered the final miles, and when they’d reached 90 degrees north, where the planet’s longitude lines converge at the pole, the helmsman began a slow, lazy circle around their goal. General Umberto Nobile, the airship’s commander, gave the order to dive under the fog, and soon the airmen could see the blank ice, fewer than 500 feet below them. They had made it.

Nobile radioed back to his base ship: “The flag of Italy again flies above the ice at the Pole.” It was 1:20 a.m. on May 24, 1928. The Italia was just the second vessel ever to reach the North Pole; another Italian-built, Norwegian-owned airship, the Norge, had made the trip two years earlier, also under Nobile’s care. But that expedition had been led by the legendary Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his American partner and financier, Lincoln Ellsworth. This time, the glory of reaching the pole would be Italy’s—and Nobile’s—alone.                                       

The golden age of polar exploration was waning now, but the nations of Europe still jostled to claim prizes and glory in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Racing each other across the ice to the poles was one more way to stir up public sentiment, and nationalist fervor was on the rise. Two years earlier, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator had personally handed an Italian flag to Nobile and the crew of the Norge, to be dropped at the pole. Il Duce already understood how powerful symbols could be.

The airship went on circling slowly while its crew—fourteen Italians, one Czech, and one Swede, plus Nobile’s small dog, Titina—prepared for a simple ceremony. Nobile had hoped to make a landing at the pole, but the winds were too strong, so instead he settled for marking his presence from the air. First, he dropped a large Italian flag from the window of the airship’s cabin. Next, the flag of the city of Milan fluttered down, and then a small medal depicting the Virgin of the Fire, a gift to Nobile from the citizens of Forli, a small northern city. Last went a large oak cross, entrusted to the Italia’s crew by Pope Pius XI before they left Rome. Its upper section had been hollowed out, and a parchment placed inside. In Latin, the parchment announced that the cross was “to be dropped by the leader of the expedition, flying for the second time over the Pole; thus to consecrate the summit of the world.”

(“Like all crosses,” His Holiness had warned them, “this one will be heavy to carry.”)

The cross plunged to the ice below. With the official ceremony complete, the crew celebrated briefly in the airship’s cabin. One officer shouted “Viva Nobile!” Someone cranked up a tiny gramophone, and out came the sounds of a popular Italian song, “The Bell of San Giusto.”

There’ll be kisses, flowers, and roses from the navy;

the bell will lose a sad meaning.

In San Giusto we’ll see at the party

the waving tricolor flag.

The girls of Trieste,

all singing with ardor:

“Oh Italy, oh Italy of my heart,

you come to set us free!”

When their moment of victory had been sufficiently savored, the crew turned the airship south. They had reached their goal, true, but they still had to make the return trip across hundreds of miles of frozen ocean, back to their base in the Svalbard archipelago, in far northern Norway.

They had already been afloat for 22 hours.

Mountaineers often say that the descent from a mountain summit is the most dangerous part of the journey, when exhaustion and elation can lead to deadly errors—no less true on a voyage to the summit of the world.

For 24 hours, the Italia sailed through fog and snow flurries, fighting a headwind that sometimes reached thirty miles per hour. The airship’s engines churned; its ground speed slowed. Nobile began to worry about their fuel supply, and the strain on the ship, as they continued to force their way south. “Wind and fog. Fog and wind. Incessantly,” he wrote later. A crust of ice began to form on the airship’s giant balloon.

By 10:00 a.m. on May 25, more than 32 hours after they’d left the pole, the crew of the Italia still had not sighted the islands or high mountains of Spitsbergen, their island destination. And then, at 10:30 a.m., the airship began a sudden, steep, inexplicable plunge out of the sky.

“We are heavy!” one of the crewmen shouted. Nobile ordered a burst of speed from the engines, in hopes of driving the airship’s nose back up toward the clouds. When that failed, he ordered a full halt to all engines—a crash was now inevitable, he realized, and all he could do was reduce the risk of fire. He stared out the porthole of the cabin as the ice pack seemed to rush upward toward him. He locked eyes with the meteorologist, Malmgren, just before impact. There was a massive crash, and chaos in the cabin: instruments and gear flying everywhere. Something smashed into Nobile’s skull, and as he closed his eyes he felt the bones in his right leg and his right arm snap. “It’s all over,” he thought.

When he opened his eyes again, he was lying on the ice. Half his men were scattered nearby, with the debris of the smashed airship cabin around them. The others were still trapped in the airship’s floating balloon as it, freed from the weight of its cabin, receded in the distance, adrift on the wind.

Nobile’s chest felt crushed; every breath was a struggle. He would die soon, he thought—he must have some critical internal injuries. Looking around at his men, he felt selfishly glad for a moment. A quick death from a hemorrhage would be better than a long, slow death on the ice.

**********

Roald Amundsen was just sitting down to eat at a banquet in Oslo, intended to honor two other pioneering Arctic aviators, when a message arrived from Spitsbergen: the crew of the Italia was in distress. There had been no word from the airship’s wireless transmitter since Friday, May 25, and now, on Saturday night, preparations for a rescue were under way.

A second message to the banquet-goers soon followed the first. The Norwegian government was appealing to Amundsen to lead a relief expedition. Now 55 years old, he had made history in 1906 when he captained the first ship ever to make a complete transit of the fabled Northwest Passage. In 1911, Amundsen cemented his legacy, leading the first-ever successful expedition to the South Pole. After the Norge expedition of 1926, which marked the first complete crossing of the Arctic Ocean (and, according to some, the first true achievement of the North Pole), he declared his retirement from exploration. He had also written a scathing memoir about his partnership with Umberto Nobile, describing the Italian as lazy, incompetent, pompous, and greedy for glory and credit that he hadn’t earned.

A silence fell on the banquet hall as the Norwegian government’s request was read aloud. The Amundsen-Nobile feud had been bitter and public, and no one was certain how the explorer would react.

Amundsen spoke into the lingering silence. “Tell them at once,” he said, “that I am ready to start instantly.”

This is an excerpt from Eva Holland’s “Mussolini’s Arctic Airship,” a Kindle Single.

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