The Norge flight (1926)
Roald Amundsen wrote in his book about the Norge expedition that the plan to use an airship to fly over the Arctic Ocean was laid in Ny-Ålesund in May 1925 during the preparations for the flight with the N24 and N25.
Lincoln Ellsworth, Leif Dietrichson, Amundsen and Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen had discussed the advantages of airships compared to planes, for example that planes had to make an emergency landing if a serious fault occurred in an engine, while an airship could have an engine repaired in the air, or that an emergency landing by plane through thick fog was “certain death”. In addition, airships could carry a heavier load than planes and could stay in the air longer.
The airship is acquired
Riiser-Larsen had already taken a course in England for flying airships and he recommended the Italian airship N1, constructed by Umberto Nobile, as the best choice for the planned flight.
Lincoln Ellsworth contributed with 100 000 American dollars to the expedition. With Amundsen as expedition leader, Ellsworth as an important sponsor and Nobile as the airship’s constructor and pilot, the name for the planned flight became “The Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight”.
The Norwegian Aviation Society (Den norske Luftseiladsforening) was to be the formal owner of the airship and would cover all expenses over and above Ellsworth’s contributions. This included the cost of transporting materials to Ny-Ålesund and erecting the large hangar and the mooring mast.
Riiser-Larsen was sent to Rome in 1925 to discuss the purchase of the airship N1. The Italian government agreed to sell the airship to the expedition for 75 000 dollars and to buy it back again afterwards for 46 000, provided it was still in good condition. It was agreed that some modifications would be done before the transfer of ownership. The original gondola (cabin) was large and extravagant, with a pilot cabin, bedroom and lounge with armchairs. Before the flight over the Arctic Ocean as much weight as possible had to be saved and the replacement gondola was of a smaller and simpler sort.
The ownership transfer on 29 March 1926 took place in a large, formal ceremony in the huge hangar at Ciampino airfield outside Rome. Present were, amongst many others, Amundsen, Riiser-Larsen, the other Norwegian participants on the planned flight, Ellsworth, Rolf Thommesen from the Aviation Society, Nobile and his Italian crew, Johannes Irgens who was Norway’s ambassador in Rome and, not least, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s prime minister. It was unfortunate for the later cooperation between Nobile and Amundsen that Mussolini regarded the expedition as good publicity for his fascist state. During the ceremony the airship’s name was changed from N1 to Norge.
The Norge was 106 m long, 19 m wide and 24 m high. It was built of strengthened aluminium covered with a rubber material. Inside there was a balloon filled with 19 500 m3 of hydrogen, and under the gas balloon there was an open keel where the crew could walk from the gondola to the engines for maintenance. The gondola and the three engines were fixed at the sides and under the keel. The airship could manage a speed of 80 km/h.
The flight to Svalbard
The flight to the North Pole and over the Arctic Ocean was to start from Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard as the N24 and N25 had done. However, first the Norge had to be flown there from Italy. This could not be accomplished non-stop, and it was therefore necessary to have mooring masts at strategic places on the way. There were few of these in Europe, but those that existed and were suitable were in Pulham by London and Gatchina outside Leningrad. As this was not enough, masts were erected at Ekeberg in Oslo and in Vadsø in northern Norway. The Ekeberg mast was taken down during the Second World War and a small memorial plaque marks the spot. The Vadsø mast still stands, as an historical monument.
In Ny-Ålesund during the winter 1925-26 a mooring mast and a large temporary hangar were erected. This was an enormous job, not least considering the dark, cold and snowy winter. The hangar measured 110 x 34 m and was 30 m high and covered an area of 3 500 m² (a little under 1 acre). 600 m² of wood and 50 tons of iron were transported up by ship before the winter ice stopped the sailing. Altogether about 200 m3 concrete was used for the foundations of the mast and the hangar. The hangar was covered with 10 000 m² of canvas. The mooring mast arrived from Italy on 9 March. It was 35 m high and weighed 14 tons. In March, 4 800 cylinders of hydrogen arrived in two ships.
Amundsen and Ellsworth also arrived in the second ship to organise the last preparations before the Norge arrived.
The mast in Ny-Ålesund is still standing, while the hangar collapsed in the early 1930s. The wood was used in the coal mines and other activities there. The foundation blocks can still be seen.
The flight from Ciampino went via Pulham, Oslo, Leningrad, Vadsø to Ny-Ålesund, which was an achievement in its own right. The Norge arrived in Ny-Ålesund on 7 May, piloted by Nobile and with, amongst others on board, Oscar Wisting, Oskar Omdal, Gennadij Olonkin and Riiser-Larsen from Amundsen’s previous expeditions.
His nephew Gustav S. Amundsen was also on board and he wrote the chapter in the book about the Norge expedition that covered the flight from Rome to Ny-Ålesund. Gustav was most disappointed when it was decided that there was not room for him to continue on with the flight over the Arctic Ocean.
Richard Byrd in Ny-Ålesund
On 29 April the American steamship Chantier arrived at Ny-Ålesund with Richard Byrd’s expedition which also planned to fly to the North Pole. Amundsen, however, emphasised that there was no question of a competition. Byrd’s objective was to fly to the North Pole - which both Cook and Peary claimed to have reached first – while his expedition aimed to fly over the entire Arctic Ocean to look for any land that might be in the so-far uncharted area. Byrd had a Fokker plane named Josephine Ford after the daughter of the expedition sponsor, Edsel Ford.
At 1.50 in the morning of 9 May Byrd left Ny-Ålesund for the North Pole together with Floyd Bennett. They apparently arrived there just after 9 am and were back in Ny-Ålesund at about 5 pm. This gave an average speed of c. 100 mph (160 km/h) for the1 500 mile flight (2 400 km).
Strong doubts have later been raised as to whether they in fact flew all the way to the Pole. It would thus seem as though the Norge expedition was the first to arrive at the Pole.
The Norge over the Arctic Ocean
The Norge started from Ny-Ålesund on 11 May at 9.55 am. There was limited space in the airship, but 16 men were on board. These were:
Roald Amundsen, expedition leader
Lincoln Ellsworth, navigator
Umberto Nobile, pilot
Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen‚ pilot
Birger Gottwaldt, head of the radio telegraph
Emil Andreas Horgen, pilot, side rudder operator
Finn Malmgren, meteorologist
Oskar Omdal, mechanic
Fridtjof Storm-Johnsen, telegraph operator
Oscar Wisting, rudder operator
Renato Alessandrini, rigger
Fredrik Ramm, journalist
Nobile took along his little dog Titina.
They were over the North Pole at 1.25 am Greenwich time on 12 May. Amundsen and Wisting were thereby the first to reach both poles. The Norwegian, American and Italian flags were dropped on to the ice and the flight continued towards Alaska. This was now unknown territory and Amundsen sat at the front of the cabin to look for any land. Unfortunately they came into thick fog at 8.30 am which made it impossible to see down on either ice or land. The fog stuck to the airship as a layer of ice and lumps of ice were thrown from the propellers and into the balloon skin, with the resulting danger of puncture. Running repairs were made as far as possible from the keel space.
At 6.45 am (GMT) on 13 May they saw land below and passed a little later over Wainwright, which Amundsen and Omdal recognised from their stay there in 1922-23. They could even look down on the small house they had built and see the new inhabitants waving from the roof.
Even though they had managed the goal of the expedition, which was to fly over the entire Arctic Ocean and the North Pole, the expedition was not over before they had landed, and the most difficult part of the flight now began. A gale blew up and they were carried westwards over the Bering Strait. They were probably not far from Cape Serdze Kamen on the Siberian coast at 6 pm on 13 May. At 11 pm they were back off the Alaskan coast. The weather grew worse, with storm winds that caused sideways drift of the large airship. They passed Cape Prince of Wales at 3.30 am, being buffeted and driven backwards and forward by the strong wind.
On the ground in Alaska
Even though they did not know exactly where they were, they decided to land as soon as possible. They chose an ice-covered bay beside the small settlement of Teller, about 150 km northwest of Nome and landed without problems. They had been in the air for 72 hours and it was 14 May.
They were transported on to Nome where Amundsen did not feel that the reception was as hearty as it had been in 1906, when he had arrived in the Gjøa after sailing through the Northwest Passage. Despite celebrations on the way back to Norway, the aftermath of the flight was not especially positive. Amundsen had not reckoned on the fact that the airship and Italian colonel Nobile would receive so much attention, and this caused dissension between the two. However, despite this, the expedition had been a success and the participants returned to their own countries as heroes.
The plan was now that the airship would be packed and returned to Italy, but this did not happen. Pieces of the balloon envelope have turned up in many places since. A chair and a fuel tank are in the Aviation Museum in Anchorage. Other parts have most likely been given new uses in various places.
The airship flight across the Arctic Ocean laid the foundation of what was to come. Riiser-Larsen wrote in his account: “And when that time comes that I can no longer be written to, people will not set off on voyages of discovery in the arctic regions any more. Then, air routes will follow the great circles, unaffected by the Arctic.”