Tuesday, September 8, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: The Crash of the Airship Norge, 1928

"Adventure is just bad planning." Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen

At the beginning of the 20th century, the polar regions represented foreboding, alien environments waiting to be explored by man.  Much as the skies captivated the world in the 1930s and the race to space and the Moon captured the imagination of those in the 1960s, it was polar exploration that owned the first part of the 20th century. The efforts of the great Arctic adventurers captured the imagination of the western public, and no man was more of a hero in the annals of polar exploration than Norwegian sailor Roald Engelbert Gravning Amundsen. 

At age 25, Amundsen was first mate on the Belgica, which transported the Belgian Antarctic expedition of 1897-99.  This expedition, the first-ever winter expedition to the southern continent, was very nearly a tragedy.  The lessons learned by Amundsen, especially from the heroic effort of the expedition’s physician Frederick Cook, would inform his subsequent, successful career as a polar explorer. His 1903 expedition to the Northwest Passage exposed him to the survival skills and practices of the Netsilik and Inuit peoples.  All these lessons were applied in his successful 1910-12 expedition to the South Pole, reached by Amundsen using dogsled teams and Eskimo parkas.  By 1925 Amundsen turned to aircraft, flying north in a plane to a latitude of 87 degrees, 44 minutes, and in 1926 he flew across the Arctic aboard Umberto Nobile’s airship Norge. 

Amundsen’s good fortune failed him under the worst and most noble possible circumstances – a voyage of good intentions to save a rival.  Subsequent to the Norge expedition Nobile and Amundsen had fallen out. On May 23, 1928, Umberto Nobile departed on the N-Class airship Italia on another polar expedition.  The Italia reached the pole on the 24th, and turned to return south on the 25th when it encountered stormy weather north of Spitsbergen.  The craft crashed, and ten of sixteen crewmen fell onto the ice and died.  The remaining six men survived the crash including an injured Nobile, but the Italia blew away unmanned, leaving the crew stranded with some supplies and a radio transmitter.

An international rescue effort was initiated, and Amundsen threw in with the rescuers.  He joined pilots Leif Dietrichson and Rene Guilbaud in a fixed wing craft, a French Latham 47 seaplane, to join the search. The rescue team was assembled on June 6, and on June 18 they departed north in search of Nobile.  The craft and crew were never heard from again.  The craft evidently crashed in severe weather, though all hands were not initially lost – a pontoon from the plane was found, rigged as a lifeboat at the end of August that same year. 

                  A Swedish Fokker ski plane piloted by Finnish pilot Lieutenant Einar Lundborg found the marooned Italia survivors, and evacuated Nobile.  He would live into his 90s, dying in 1978 some fifty years after the demise of his rival and would-be rescuer Amundsen.