Polar Expeditions


In 1925 Roald Amundsen attempted to fly to the North Pole with five others in two aircrafts, the N24 and the N25. They started from Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, on 21 May 1925 and flew side by side to 87°43' N, where they landed on leads in the drift ice after more than eight hours in the air. N24 had been damaged on take-off and it was now obvious that the plane could not be flown again. The six men struggled for 3½ weeks to create a take-off strip on the drift ice. On 15 June Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen managed to get N25 into the air with all six men on board. They landed off the north coast of Svalbard and were able to hitch a ride back to Ny-Ålesund with a small ship which was in the area by chance. There were huge celebrations when the men returned to the capital.

Roald Amundsen gained early on an interest in flying. He was greatly interested in the very first flights with motorised aircraft that the Wright brothers carried out in the first years of the 1900s, and Louis Blériot’s flight in 1909 over the English Channel. All this inspired Amundsen to write that “And now – suddenly all in one go – it will all maybe be changed. Cold and darkness will be exchanged for light and warmth, the long, laborious wanderings for a quick flight. No rationing, no hunger or thirst – only a short flight. In truth – the possibilities are great”. Already while the Fram was in Colón in 1913 waiting to sail through the Panama Canal, he wrote to Christian Doxrud, who at that time was the captain on board, concerning the planned North Pole expedition: “The expedition will have two hydro-aeroplanes, and the Swedish aviator Cederstrøm will come along”.

In autumn 1913 Amundsen was in the USA on a lecture tour. He was given a plane ride in San Francisco by Norwegian-American Johnsen, and the experience gave him an even stronger belief in this transport method of the future. He even ordered two “Christofferson Flying Boats” while he was there, but it turned out to be too expensive to transport them to Norway and the order was cancelled.

Back in Norway again he flew several times from Kjeller, outside Oslo, with Norway’s first aviation pioneer Einar Sem-Jacobsen. Sem-Jacobsen had established the Norwegian Aviation Society (Norsk Luftseiladsforening) in 1909, and that same year he had suggested to Amundsen that he should use a kite to lift the ice pilot above the Fram so that he could look for leads in the ice during the drift over the Arctic Ocean. Amundsen took kites on board, but they were not used since the expedition went to the Antarctic instead.

Sem-Jacobsen naturally became the head of the technical division when the Army Flying Corps was established in 1913. Amundsen applied to the Ministry of Defence for permission to take flying lessons at the Army Flying School at Kjeller, and in March 1914 he took lessons with Sem-Jacobsen at Kjeller and Gardermoen. On 11 June 1914 Amundsen passed the flying test at Kjeller airfield, even though he crashed the Army’s Farman plane in the attempt. In September 1915 he was presented with civil flying certificate number 1 in Norway. With Sem-Jacobsen’s help he ordered his own Farman plane from France in 1914, but gave it to the military when the war broke out.

The first attempts at polar flying
When the Maud expedition in 1918-21 had still not managed to enter the current over the Arctic Ocean, Amundsen left the ship. The First World War had resulted in great technical advancements for aircraft and Amundsen was convinced that planes were the new means of carrying out exploration in the polar areas.

Early in 1922 he was in the USA where he decided to buy a Curtiss Oriole plane. Luckily in view of his negative economic situation he was given a plane by the Curtiss owner, Glenn H. Curtiss. The plane was named “Kristine” after Amundsen’s lady friend Kristine Elisabeth (Kiss) Bennet and it was taken on the Maud for the last part of the expedition 1922-25. With Odd Dahl as pilot and Wisting as observer two flights were made from the Maud in the drift ice, but the plane crashed on the second landing. These were the first flights from a ship.

In May 1922 Amundsen also bought in the USA a Junkers plane which could take longer flights than the Curtiss. Oscar Omdal was asked to fly the plane from New York to Seattle, but it crashed in Pennsylvania on the way. Nothing daunted, Amundsen bought a new one and had it delivered by train to Seattle. This plane was named “Elisabeth”, also after Kiss Bennett. Both planes were loaded on to the Maud and Amundsen, Omdal and the Junkers were put ashore by Wainwright on Alaska’s north coast. The plan was to fly from Wainwright to Svalbard. However, the plane crashed during the first test flight in 1923, and Amundsen’s economic situation became even worse.

Ellsworth steps in
In 1924 the economic situation was untenable. There was just no more capital to equip an aircraft expedition to make the first transpolar flight over the North Pole. The whole project was planned in order to ascertain whether or not there was land in the inner Arctic Ocean.

Amundsen was now convinced that flying boats (planes with a boat-shaped hull instead of an undercarriage) would be the best for flying to the North Pole. He ordered two Dornier Wal flying boats, but did not have the funds to pay for them. In September 1924 he contacted the Norwegian Aviation Society and its chairman Rolf Thommessen in order to suggest cooperation to finance the expedition. He returned to the USA to try to make some money lecturing about the Maud expedition, but did not feel the situation to be particularly uplifting. However, when it all seemed darkest, the great breakthrough came.

One evening at the hotel the telephone rang and a man presented himself as Lincoln Ellsworth. Ellsworth had his own dreams of polar expeditions and had trained as a surveyor and carried out physical training and natural history studies with that in mind. His father owned coal mines and was a millionaire, and Ellsworth offered Amundsen economic assistance in exchange for a place on Amundsen’s next expedition. His father had to be persuaded, but finally agreed to give the necessary funds for the purchase of the two German Dornier Wal machines, registered as N24 and N25. Together with the Aviation Society an administering company was formed with the name “Norsk Luftseiladsforening A/S for Amundsen-Ellsworths Polflyvning 1925” (The Norwegian Aviation Society Ltd for Amundsen-Ellsworth’s Polar Flight 1925).

To Ny-Ålesund
The two planes were tested from the factory at Pisa in Italy before they were dismantled and sent by ship to Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen and Leif Dietrichson were to fly the planes and Oscar Omdal and German Karl Feucht were engaged as mechanics. Ellsworth and Amundsen were to be the navigators.

Kings Bay (Ny-Ålesund) was an active coal-mining settlement at this time, and when Hobby arrived on 13 April with the two flying boats on board, there were plenty of hands to help with unloading and putting the planes together again. This time Amundsen had a photographer with him, Paul Berge, and two journalists, Fredrik Ramm and Wharton, and the expedition aroused great media interest now that journalists for the first time could follow on the spot an important part of an Amundsen expedition. Sail maker Martin Rønne, who had been on Amundsen’s last two expeditions, was also in place. While they were in Ny-Ålesund he sewed equipment for the flight, including shoes, trousers, tents and sail-cloth boats.

In addition to getting the equipment ready, the expedition also had to wait for the right weather conditions. In the course of the more than five weeks they were in Ny-Ålesund, Amundsen stayed in the house of the coal company’s director. This building was restored in 2010-11 back to its appearance in Amundsen’s time and it is today an important and significant cultural heritage monument in Ny-Ålesund.

The flight
The departure from Kings Bay finally took place on 21 May 1925. Originally the flying boats were supposed to take off from water, but they were heavily loaded over the stipulated maximum as it was necessary to include equipment for a possible return trek over the ice. So it was decided they would take off from the ice on the fjord, with Riiser-Larsen, Amundsen and Feucht in N25 and Omdal, Ellsworth and Dietrichson in N24.

At 5.10 pm they started up over the ice and soon they were on their way northwards together past the north coast of Spitsbergen. Below them was now only ice and leads. Amundsen remarked that “I have never seen anything more desolate and deserted. A bear from time to time I would have thought, which could break the monotony a little. But no – absolutely nothing living”.

Almost four weeks in the ice
After more than eight hours in the air Amundsen decided that they should land in suitable leads in the ice. Half the fuel was used up and they were not entirely sure of their position. It would be easier to fix the position once they had landed. On the way down one of N25’s engines began to play up, but the planes were landed safely at 87°43' N. They had, however, landed so far from each other that more than 24 hours passed before they glimpsed each other, and nearly five days before the three from N24 could reach the others. They could then report that part of the bottom of N24 had been damaged during take-off so that water had entered when they landed. It was obvious that N24 would not be taking off with them again and they had to rely on just one plane.

For 3½ weeks the six men lived squashed together in the N25, with minimum food rations while they worked as hard as they could with primitive tools to make a starting strip in the uneven drift ice. Several times the movement of the ice meant that they had to start again. They fetched fuel from the N24, and they emptied the N25 for absolutely everything regarded as unnecessary. Finally on 15 June they all crowded into the plane and crossed their fingers while Riiser-Larsen revved the engines, started down the minimal strip and only just managed to get the plane into the air. They had fuel for about eight hours flying. Eight hours later they landed safely off the coast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard.

A triumphant return
It could have been another great challenge to trek overland to Ny-Ålesund. However, shortly after they had at last got firm ground under their feet, a small hunting ship appeared by chance. It was the Sjøliv of Balsfjord that thus gained the honour of transporting the men for the last stage back to their starting point. The N25 was moored in Brennevinsbukta on Nordaustlandet and was fetched on 20-21 June. The whole expedition, including the N25, was transported south to Horten by the Oslo Fjord by Kings Bay’s coal ship.

Roald Amundsen had not reached his goals this time either. He had not got to the North Pole, and neither had he carried out the transpolar flight. But the men had returned from the icy wastes and congratulatory telegrams flowed in from near and far. On 5 July the men flew N25 in to the capital and landed between rows of flag-flying boats. They were taken in triumph through Oslo’s streets to the palace, where there was a reception and dinner in their honour. There were said to have been 50 000 people gathered in the streets of Oslo to acclaim the returned heroes.

The fate of the N25
The N25 was anchored in Bunnefjorden, by Amundsen’s home outside Oslo. The Australian-British polar explorer Hubert Wilkins came to inspect it that autumn to see whether he would buy it for his planned flight over the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to Svalbard. However, nothing came of the sale.

In March 1927 the N25 was used to test a new route from Oslo to Harwich, via Kristiansand and Amsterdam. The plane was then sold to an Irish pilot, Frank Courtney, who wanted to use it on a flight over the Atlantic to New York and back to Europe. New Napier Lion motors were installed, but an engine fire meant that Courtney had to make an emergency landing 600 km before Newfoundland on 26 June 1928. Together with his crew he was rescued after 24 hours at sea by the S/S Minnewaska. The plane had to be left, but five days later it was hoisted on board the Italian cargo ship Valprato, which had also heard the SOS, and it was transported to Italy.

The plane was then sold to Germany and reregistered again. The new owner, Wolfgang von Gronau, used the plane for pilot training at his flying school DVS (Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule) on the island of Sylt in the Baltic. In 1930 he crossed the Atlantic with the flying boat and landed in New York on 26 August 1930 as the first plane from Europe. The flying boat was transported by ship back to Germany and used as a school plane until 1932, when it was transferred to the Deutsches Museum and flown to Munich. During a bombing raid against the city in 1944 the historic N25 was totally destroyed.

"Victory awaits him, who has everything in order - luck we call it.  Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions - bad luck we call it"

Roald Amundsen

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