Flight of the Norge (Part II)
Norge in flight over the Arctic.
From Part I: In May
of 1926 a group of sixteen fearless adventurers boarded a small
dirigible to fly over the North Pole. The audacious journey would
be the first ever flight from the European continent to the American
continent over the Arctic ice cap. The tiny lighter-than-air craft
they piloted was named the Norge. The group successfully crossed
the pole, but on the way to Alaska found themselves taken off
course by the taunting vision mountains on the horizon. After
changing course to investigate these hills, the mysterious mountains
suddenly disappeared - just a trick of the air. Could the Norge
find its way back on course safely?
Soon the crew had a lot more to worry about than
just a mirage. The fog returned and the ship was forced to climb
to 3,500 feet. Even worse, the clouds above began to drop and
soon the two met. The Norge was now surrounded by an impenetrable
white mist. Blinded, Nobile decided to take the ship down to see
if the air was clear just above the pack. It wasn't. They were
still flying visionless through a thick blanket of white.
With the sun no longer visible, they couldn't be
sure in what direction they were flying. They were navigating
totally on instinct alone. Worse, the longer they stayed in the
fog, the more the tiny water particles in the mist would start
to freeze on the ship's exterior. In a few minutes this coating
of ice was over an inch thick. If the airship was forced to stay
in the fog long enough, the ice would grow so heavy on the exterior
it would weigh the ship down, enough to send it crashing onto
the forbidding wilderness of the pack.
An even more immediate danger, however, was the
ice clinging to the ship's exterior guide wires. As these vibrated
in the wind, pieces of ice would break off and hit the spinning
propellers. The propellers, in turn, would shoot these like bullets
through the hull of the Norge making a sound like a gunshot. With
each new "Bang!" the crew would scramble to put a rubber patch
looks out of the Norge's control cab window.
The ice also covered the ship's aerial and the windmill
that powered the generator was frozen solid. With no power the
radio was completlely out. If the aircraft was forced down onto
the ice there would be no way to let rescuers know their position.
Finally, early on the morning of May 13th, the crew
of the ship caught a break. The sun broke through the clouds long
enough for Riiser-Larsen to fix their position. Amazingly, they
were still very close to their projected course. At this rate
they could expect to see land sometime between six and eight A.M..
At 6:30 the navigator spotted what he thought was
land off the port bow. At first he held his tongue, fearing it
might be just another Arctic mirage. Soon, however, it was apparent
to everybody they were crossing over the coastline of Alaska near
Point Barrow. After 46 hours and 20 minutes, they had made it
over the North Pole, crossing from the Old World to the New.
With the weather clearing and land below, the crews'
spirits soared. They had considered setting down at the small
settlement at Wainwright near the coast, but decided to push on
to their announced goal: Nome.
This would turn out to be a mistake.
Miss with a Mountain
Several hours later a violent storm rushed in from
the north and drove the airship out to sea. They were almost over
Russian Siberia before they could finally turn back, cross the
Bering Strait, and again approach Alaska. As they closed in on
American soil, however, the fog appeared again. Fearing a crash
into the mountainous coast of Alaska, the crew sought a bit of
clear air. After an hour it finally appeared. Nobile ordered the
airship to follow the course of a ravine whose rugged edges jutted
out of the fog below them. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gale force
wind appeared driving the Norge toward one of the hills that lined
the ravine. The windows suddenly fogged up and Nobile took the
wheel himself, ordering the navigator to stick his head out of
the window to watch for the top of the ridge.
Norge, in this picture, easily negotiates a few hills. During
foggy weather, while on the famous polar flight, however,
it was a different story.
His warning nearly came too late, however, as a
black wall of rock suddenly appeared in front of them. Nobile
pulled the ship into a sharp climb. The top of the hill was so
close that Noble thought for a moment that he might have lost
an engine gondola on the rocks. A quick check by intercom with
the engineers at each motor, however, reassured him that the ship
was still intact. One of them named Pomella, however, said that
his gondola came so close to the hill he could have reached out
and touched its stony surface.
Lost back up in the fog, Nobile was forced to again
lose altitude so that he could make out the ravine in order to
follow it. This resulted in more close calls with hilltops, however.
By 4 PM the crew was so tired of dodging rocks that the airship
was taken up to 3,000 feet to see if they could climb out of the
fog and get a reading on their location.
They finally did rise above the clouds. The sun,
however, was too high in the sky to get a reading from inside
the control cabin. The gas bag above put everything below it in
shade. Riiser-Larsen had to climb up the keel to the bow of the
ship. He then had to scamper up a ladder on the outside of the
vessel in the subfreezing air until he was on top of the gas bag.
From there he could finally see the sun and get a position.
While he was doing this the sun had an unfortunate
effect on the gas inside the dirigible. The warmth caused the
hydrogen to expand rapidly. This quickly increased the craft's
lift and the airship's altitude. With less pressure further up
in the air, the gas bag expanded even more. Within moments the
envelope was in danger of being torn apart by the pressure. Nobile
tried to open valves to vent the excess hydrogen, but it would
not come out fast enough to counter the airship's deadly climb.
Yelling "run fast to the bow" he ordered some of the crew forward
up the keel to the front of the ship to bring the nose down and
at the same time he commanded all the engines full ahead. This
drove the airship downward and out of danger just seconds before
the gas bag would have split open, sending them all to their deaths
on the ice pack below.
Hours went by with only slow progress toward the
south. Amundsen told humorous stories in an attempt to relieve
the tension. Finally, at 1:30 in the morning, the radio operator
picked up a signal from Nome. He was unable to reply, but not
long afterward the crew spotted the Serpentine River below. All
they needed to do was to follow it to the town.
By 4:30 they had spotted Sledge Island, just a half
hour west of the city. They never made it to Nome, however. Within
a few minutes signs of a bad storm appeared. Rather than risk
the ship any further the decision was made to land the Norge at
a nearby village. Tossing landing lines out, the crew received
help from the Eskimos and fur traders below to bring the ship
down. Nobile ordered the gasbag deflated immediately on landing
before the incoming storm could blow the ship across the landscape.
Ellsworth and Amundsen shook hands with Nobile,
thanking him for bringing them safely through the historic 72
hour, 3,400 mile (5471km) voyage. The Norge's radio was out, but
they found a small transceiver in the village with which to report
Soon word was flashed around the world that the
expedition, which had been thought to be lost, was safe at the
tiny Alaskan village of Teller, population 55. Ellsworth and Amundsen
would eventually tell their story in a book entitled The First
Flight Across the Polar Sea. Nobile related his part of the
tale in an article in the National Geographic.
Crash of the Italia
The danger of the Norge's voyage became apparent
when Nobile decided to command another Arctic expedition two years
later in 1928. He had built another airship similar to the Norge,
but with improvements to make it more airworthy in the polar regions.
The vessel, named the Italia, would also fly to the pole,
but was equipped to make better scientific observations along
the way than could have been done on the original flight.
The Italia made it to the North Pole, but on the
return trip crashed on the ice. Nobile, his leg broken, spent
nearly a month and a half on the frozen pack. Of the sixteen men
who left for the pole, seven were killed in the crash and one
died going for help. The rest, kept sane by Nobile's leadership,
survived and were rescued.
stands in the door of the Italia, the Norge's ill-fated
sister ship. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-05737
Despite a falling out between Nobile and Amundsen
after the Norge's historic flight, the Norwegian, on hearing of
the Italia's loss, headed north to help with the rescue efforts.
A plane searching for the Italia he was aboard went missing along
with its French pilot and crew. The aircraft was never found.
Nearly a century later few remember the story about
the Norge and its brave crew. It was one of the last great ventures
of the era of artic exploration. It was a time when men braved
the icy-cold in a flimsy flying machine, and dared to pit their
quest for adventure against the unfeeling forces of nature.
Back to Part I.
A Partial Bibliography
The Great Dirigibles - Their Triumphs & Disasters,
by John Tolan, Dover Books, 1972.
Navigating the Norge from Rome to the North Pole and Beyond,
by General Umberto Nobile, National Geographic Magazine,
North to 88 and the First Crossing of the Polar Sea, by
Lincoln Ellsworth, Natural History Magazine, Inc, May-June 1927.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2013. All Rights Reserved.