The Norge was a semi-rigid Italian-built airship that carried out what many consider the first verified overflight of – and the first verified trip of any kind to – the North Pole on 12 May 1926. It was also the first aircraft to fly over the polar ice cap between Europe and America. 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.
Design & development
Norge was the first N class semi-rigid airship designed by Umberto Nobile and its construction started in 1923. As part of the selling contract [as the Norge] it was rebuilt for Arctic conditions. The pressurised envelope was reinforced by metal frames at the nose and tail, with a flexible tubular metal keel connecting the two. This was covered by fabric and used as storage and crew space. Three engine gondolas and the separate control cabin were attached to the bottom of the keel. Norge was the first Italian semi-rigid to be fitted with the cruciform tail fins first developed by the Schütte-Lanz company.
In 1925, Amundsen telegrammed Nobile asking to meet him at Oslo, where he proposed an airship trip across the Arctic. With a contract in place Nobile modified the N-1 for cold conditions. As the expedition was being financed by the Aero Club of Norway the modified N-1 was given the name Norge (English: Norway).
On 29 March 1926 at a ceremony at Ciampino aerodrome the Norge was handed over to the Aero Club of Norway. The flight north was due to leave Rome on 6 April but was delayed due to strong winds and departed at 09:25 on 10 April. The ship arrived at RNAS Pulham Airship Station in England at 15:20; because of the bad weather it was not hangared until 18:30. Delayed again by weather, the Norge left Pulham for Oslo at 11:45 on 12 April.
On 15 April at 01:00 the Norge left the mooring mast at Ekeberg in Oslo for Gatchina near Leningrad; after a 17-hour flight it arrived at 19:30, 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. Although expected to leave Gatchina as soon as the weather allowed after the 24 April, the departure was delayed a week as the mast at King’s Bay, Spitzbergen, was not ready. Although Nobile was keen to get to Spitsbergen even if the mast and shed were not completed as he was concerned about the weather and the departure for Gatchina was postponed again.
The airship finally left Gatchina at 09:40 on 5 May to proceeded 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 11 at 9:55.
The 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.
On 12 May 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.
The ice forming on the propellors as we went through the fog, and hurled against the underside of the bag, had pretty well scarred up the fabric covering the keel, though it had not opened up the gas bags or caused any hydrogen loss. We had used up all our cement in repairing the fabric…”
On 14 May the airship 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 three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge)—are all disputed as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. Some of those disputing these earlier claims therefore consider the crew of the Norge to be the first verified explorers to have reached the North Pole.