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On Front Street, in front of City Hall, a bronze bust of Nome’s most famous guest, explorer Roald Engelbrecht Gravning Amundsen, greets tourists and other adventurers at the finish line of the Iditarod dogsled race. Old Solon looks a little green, and the seagulls aren’t always nice to him. He deserves better.
Amundsen set foot in this city for the last time at 5 a.m. on May 16, 1926, accompanied by four men who were brought ashore in the lifeboat Pippin. Five days ago, he left the Norwegian town of Ny-Ålesund, on the western tip of Spitsbergen, aboard the semi-rigid airship Norge, with 15 other people on their way to the North Pole. The Norge, named after Amundsen’s homeland, left Rome on March 29 and was bound for the Norwegian islands of Spitsbergen via London and Leningrad. The silver cigar-shaped fuselage, as dark as the clouds that darken the sun, was designed by Colonel Umberto Nobile, an Italian aeronautical engineer and officer from the time of World War I, whose stature corresponded to his family name. With its 347-foot-long rubber membrane attached to the front and back of a metal frame and filled with 670,000 cubic feet of pressurized hydrogen, the equivalent of more than seven Olympic swimming pools, the Norge was not only an airship, but a manatee. The airship could reach a speed of 62 km/h, half the top speed of the fastest racing cars of the time.
With Nobile as pilot, Amundsen as expedition leader and Lincoln Ellsworth, a sponsored American athlete and son of a millionaire, the Norge departed on the 11th. May at 8:55 and made history.
Roald Amundsen, flanked in the entrance to the control cabin of the Norge, meets the press before the historic flight. (National Library of Norway)
At an altitude of 3,000 feet, everything went smoothly. Deep black water opened up into the pack ice below. The polar bears, startled by the monstrous phenomenon, dived into the sea, the belugas hid among the swimmers. Near the magnetic pole, Norge’s compass shook nervously.
This scene transported Amundsen to 1906, when he and his six-man crew sailed the sloop Gjoa through the long-awaited northwest passage between Greenland and Alaska. Trapped in the ice and longing to reach the telegraph and send messages to the world, he traveled by sled from Herschel Island to Eagle, Alaska, 700 miles there and back. In 1911, he led the first group to the South Pole.
At 18.00 hours the left engine of the Norge stalled. The switch to the right third engine – temporarily switched off to save fuel and serve as a reserve – went smoothly. It took off with a roar, and the mechanic who had been servicing the dead car for hours cursing found the fault: Ice was blocking the fuel line.
At midnight, Ellsworth turned 46. Ninety minutes later, on May 12, 16 hours after departure from Nu-Olesund, Norge’s shadow fell on the pole, confirming the sextant measurements. The crew threw three heavy flags out the window: A Norwegian indigo cross with a white border on a red field; an Italian tricolor; and Old Glory, a reference to Ellsworth, which funded the project. They enjoyed their only hot meal: Meatballs from a thermos floating in fat. Their hydrogen gas and motor fuel made cooking and smoking too risky.
Norge, seeking safety, turned his silent muzzle south to Alaska.
Unfortunately, conditions have deteriorated both inside and out. The relationship between Amundsen and Nobile, already strained in the cramped, cold and noisy cabin, deteriorated when the Norwegian noticed that the Italian flag flying on the pole was larger than the other two.
The Norge’s closed keel provides space for a variety of ship’s and emergency equipment. (National Library of Norway)
From then on, the ice covered the Norge’s outer guidewires. The vibrations threw up shrapnel, and the propellers hurled it at the monster’s tissues, where it tore wounds like gunshots. The sleep deprived team got a few rubber bites. In a state of mental tension, snowed in, as in a disaster movie where everything gradually collapses, they imagined themselves on the continent.
The first land appeared west of Barrow at 6:45 a.m. on the 13th. Shortly afterwards, the Norge passed the whaling village of Wainwright. Amundsen and his engineer Oskar Omdahl recognized the hut where they had stayed during their Maud expedition of 1922-23. Through the snowy windows they saw figures on the roof of a small house waving at them.
Not far from Teller, Norge walked along a ravine, amidst the milky monotony of the landscape. Without warning, a gust of wind blew the airship up the hill beside it. The windows are fogged up, so Nobile, taking the wheel, orders the navigator to stick his head out. The warning of the approaching disaster came almost too late. Nobile, who was in the process of climbing a steep hill, managed to avoid the hill, but feared he had lost the basket containing the bike. The mechanic in the basket swore he could have hit the rock ledge.
The sun expelled the hydrogen and lifted Norge into the air like a Mylar balloon for a child. The growing pressure threatens to burst the Amundsen bubble. Nobile opened the flaps to let the air out of the envelope. But the airship was rising faster than it had time to relinquish gas. They moved quickly to the bow and made the crew sway on the sloping keel, upsetting their balance. The nose of the Norge sagged, completing a deadly climb seconds before the gas bag burst.
At 3:30pm on the 14th. May reached the Norge Teller, an Eskimo Inupiaq settlement on the coast, 63 miles northwest of Nome. Residents who saw the airship from their windows first thought it was a strange whale-shaped cloud. Amundsen decided to end his flight here, 3,393 miles from Ny-Ålesund. They more or less stayed awake for three days, fortified by coffee and sandwiches, although in sub-zero temperatures the coffee was cold and the sandwiches crumbly.
The 100 villagers flocked to the ice floe, including 14-year-old Elizabeth Betty Pinson, who lost both her legs to frostbite at age six when the 1918 flu pandemic killed her grandparents, whom she visited in their igloo on the lawn. The children around Betty clung to each other, to their mothers, or slapped their palms on their ears to drown out the noise. Some hid in closets and thought the end of the world was near. Most of the collected Inupiaqs knew the cars only from pictures.
A voice from above – Amundsen’s voice amplified by a megaphone – announced the approaching descent, upon which one of the traders grabbed a bowline and steered the Norge against the wind. The airship lifted several people to their feet, swaying, not intending to complete its journey.
The two people who emerged from Norge’s womb couldn’t have been less alike. Nobile, in full uniform, medals, polished boots, slender, with dark eyes, clean-shaven, rode with his terrier Titina, an adopted orphan who hated flying and shivered despite her wool coat. Amundsen landed perhaps first, in a tattered old coat and ushanka hat, miserable as ever, the iris of his eyes above his grey rowing moustache as blue as the ice he had seen so often. To coordinate the anchoring, mechanic Ettore Arduino had already jumped in by parachute and mistook Betty for a falling door. His two superiors no longer spoke to each other and lived separately with their teams in the dormitories of two local stores.
The Norge crew reunites after a transpolar flight. In the foreground, from left to right, Lars Riiser-Larsen, Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and Humberto Nobile with his terrier Titina. (National Library of Norway)
Still, Amundsen probably felt like the three lucky Swedes who discovered the gold rush at Nome (one of whom was actually Norwegian).
Nobile ordered the Norge gas bag to be vented immediately by pulling on the pull cables to prevent damage. The gust of wind made the airship spin, which made Betty think of a million cans rattling inside.
The team handed out cookies, candy and Italian oranges. It was like Christmas all over again, Betty remembers. Amundsen, who did not have to cover the 700 miles of the journey this time, reported a safe landing in Nome via a small radio in the village.
For the next few weeks, Teller buzzed with information about beautiful European strangers who became friends and romantic partners. And it seemed that every woman in town wore a blouse or dress made of airship silk.
The reception in Nome was different from the one Amundsen had received on Gioa two decades earlier. Then he rode through town in a horse-drawn carriage, was greeted by the citizens and noisy miners, and toasted at the Golden Gate Hotel. This time he let her down. Bunting was sidelined, frustration openly expressed. The Admissions Committee has been disbanded. According to her, it was Teller who took the credit, not Stormwind.
After landing in Teller, Alaska, the crew deflated the Norge and stored the remaining usable parts in a crate. Many Inupiaq people in Teller used pieces of silk from the airship’s hull to make clothing. (National Library of Norway)
The parts of the Norge, which had been disassembled by the Italians, were packed and stored at Teller in a two-story wooden building until they were shipped to Seattle. The warehouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still exists today.
Nobile became a general and praised for his conquests as a hero of Benito Mussolini’s fascist state. In 1928, two years after landing at Teller, for the sole purpose of glorifying himself and his country, he attempted to ground the sister ship Norge Italia northeast of Svalbard, throwing the Titina and nine surviving crew members onto the ice.
Amundsen put aside old grudges and left with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson and four Frenchmen in a Latham 47 seaplane for a rescue mission from Tromsø, Norway….. and never returned. Apart from a float on the wing and a fuel tank near Norway, no trace of people or seaplanes was ever found. It will take 48 days to rescue all survivors of the Italia crash.
In a discussion of airships in 1926, Ellsworth and Amundsen agreed that airships had other advantages besides being able to carry heavier loads and stay in the air longer. Airplanes had to land if their engines failed; airship crews could repair the engine in the air. And a plane landing in the fog, on the ice, means certain death.
Perhaps Amundsen felt he had used up his whole life. If you only knew how beautiful it is there, he told a reporter in 1928. This is where I want to die.
Nobile, who was heavily criticized in Italy for his flights and fell out of favor in his homeland, continued to work with airships in the Soviet Union.
Amundsen moored the Norge in Svalbard, just two days after Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett had returned from a polar flight in Josephine Ford’s three-engine Fokker F.VIIa/3m aircraft. Byrd’s claim, like that of Frederick Cook (1908) and Robert Peary (1909), has been disputed. The achievement of Norge – the first polar transit between Europe and America – is undeniable.
Michael Engelhard writes from Fairbanks, Alaska, and is the author of The Ice Bear: The cultural history of the Arctic icon. He was surprised to learn that the blue-eyed Elizabeth Pinson, the main source of information about Norge’s stay in Teller, was the daughter of an Inupiaq mother and a shipwrecked German sailor who had become a merchant in that city. Further reading: The girl from Alaska: Memoirs of an Early Twentieth Century Eskimo, Elizabeth Pinson; The First Crossing of the Polar Sea, Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth; My Polar Flights: An account of the voyages of the airships Italia and Norge, by Umberto Nobile.
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Aviation History magazine. To subscribe, click here !
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