Umberto Nobile (1885-1978)

Nobile was the constructor and pilot of the airships Norge and Italia.
Umberto Nobile (1885-1978)

Umberto Nobile was born in Lauro, Italy, near to Monte Vesuvio, on 21 January 1885. He did well at school and gained degrees in industrial and electrical engineering from the University of Naples. After this he was employed in 1906 by the Italian state railway in connection with the electrification of the railways. When an Italian-built airship was flown in 1908, Nobile became interested in aeronautical engineering and in 1911 he took a one-year course in the Army as an airship engineer.

He married Carlotta and they had one daughter, Maria. Carlotta died in July 1934 while Nobile was living in exile in Russia.


The development of airships

During the First World War Nobile applied three times to join the Army, but was each time rejected as being physically unfit. Instead he joined the Air Force in connection with the development of airships, which the Italian military had started to use for bombing and reconnaissance during the war against Turkey. Even though none of his airships were used during the war, Nobile gained his pilot’s licence in connection with test flights. In July 1918 he joined in partnership with three other engineers: Giuseppe Valle, Benedetto Croce and Celestino Usuelli, in a company they called Stabilimento di Costruzioni Aeronautiche di Roma (SCA) – for the construction of airships, which were sold to the Italian military and abroad. At the same time he taught at the University of Naples and he wrote the textbook “Elementi di Aerodinamica” on aerodynamic theory.

The political situation in Italy after the war was difficult, with increasing fascism, and the SCA was threatened with nationalisation. Nobile went to USA in 1922 as a consultant for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, but was back in Italy after one year to look after SCA. Benito Mussolini had taken over the power in Italy and Nobile gained powerful competitors within airship design from generals in the fascist party. He continued with the construction of his semi-rigid airship N-1 (N apparently stood for Nobile) which he meant was superior to the rigid zeppelin design.


The Norge expedition

It was Nobile’s N-1 that Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen chose for Roald Amundsen’s and Lincoln Ellsworth’s planned flight over the North Pole, and as pilot on his own airship Nobile’s name was added to the official name of the expedition: “The Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight”. Nobile himself flew the airship – now named Norge – the long way from Rome to Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard. On 11 May 1926 the Norge left Ny-Ålesund to fly over the North Pole to Teller, Alaska, where it landed on the 14th after a successful flight of 72 hours. This expedition was to have very negative consequences for the rest of Nobile’s life. A problem for him was Mussolini’s “eternal, unshakeable demand that Italy’s prestige should be promoted at any price”, and after the landing in Alaska Mussolini promoted Nobile from colonel to general and ordered him to travel round to the Italian colonies in the US and hold lectures on “the Italian achievement”, as he called the Norge expedition. Nobile willingly let himself be used and be celebrated, but saw later how he had been politically naive in letting himself be misused by the fascists in this way and at the cost of his relations with Norway.


The Italia expedition

The controversy over the Norge expedition and who had the most responsibility and honour for its success became very bitter. Nobile was now embraced by Mussolini and the fascist movement, at the same time as he had enemies amongst many prominent fascists. He sold his N-3 to Japan and spent half a year there in 1926-27 to help with the Navy’s airship programme. He then started planning for a new expedition by airship to the North Pole which he was to lead alone and which would be purely Italian. It was bad news for him when a new leadership took over the administration of air travel in Italy, and he became more and more rejected by leading circles in the country, including Mussolini. It could seem as though he was granted permission for the Italia expedition because someone saw it as an opportunity to be rid of him.

Nobile’s new expedition to the North Pole was to be in the name of the Italian geographical society, but it had to be privately financed, and finally the city of Milano paid. The government contributed the airship N-4, named Italia, and the old steamship Città di Milano as back-up vessel. From Rolf Thommessen of the Norwegian Aviation Society (Norsk Luftseiladsforening) Nobile was given permission to use the airship hangar and mast in Ny-Ålesund. This time scientific investigations would be important, and of the 16 men on board there were two non-Italians: the Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren and the Czech radiologist Frantizek Běhounek. The Italian physicist Aldo Pontremoli was the third scientist. Nobile had discussed with Fridtjof Nansen concerning oceanographic investigations and he sought advice about other scientific work from a number of well-known scientists. For advice concerning equipment for living and travelling on the ice, if this should prove necessary, he contacted Norwegian experts such as Otto Sverdrup and Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen. From the Pope he was given an oak cross which was to be dropped on the North Pole.

The journey through Europe went this time from Milano to Stolp in eastern Germany, then on to Vadsø and Ny-Ålesund. The main aim of the expedition was exploration of the still-unknown areas of the Arctic Ocean, not just to reach the North Pole. The first flight was to go towards Nicholas II Land (now Severnaya Zemlya), but they had to turn back over northwest Spitsbergen when some of the wires to the rudder wore through, at the same time at the weather conditions worsened. On 15 May they tried again and flew towards Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya. They explored huge areas of the ocean on a 69-hour flight before returning to Ny-Ålesund. On 23 May they set off again on the third flight, this time towards the North Pole. They reached the Pole at midnight and threw down the Italian flag and the Pope’s cross.


Crash on the ice

On 24 May at 02.20 am they started southwards again. A strong head wind prevented them from advancing more than 15 km in eight hours. After 24 hours the wind and ice particles had caused quite some damage to the airship, and in addition the fuel level was getting dangerously low. In the morning of 25 May they finally crashed on to the drift ice northeast of Nordaustlandet in Svalbard. The gondola was torn off with the result that the rest of the airship rose again and flew off with six men still on board. They were never seen again. Of the ten now spread on the ice, one was dead and several others were badly injured. Nobile himself had broken an arm, a leg and a rib and had hit his head badly. Luckily some food and equipment, including a tent and a radio, had fallen on to the ice with them.

An enormous apparatus was started up to find and save the men once it became clear that they must have crashed. A total of 23 aircraft, 20 ships and two dog sledge teams from Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union and Italy joined in. For some time no one knew what had happened or where the men were. On 6 June the men on the ice at last received a message that their signals had been picked up – in Russia, and the search parties could now concentrate on a defined area. In the meantime Roald Amundsen, Leif Dietrichson and a crew of four Frenchmen had disappeared into the sea near to Bjørnøya (Bear Island) during their flight northwards in a Latham plane to join in the search. This was yet another matter that Norwegians were to hold against Nobile.


Without honour

The final rescue of most of the men on the ice was dramatic and Nobile was declared a coward without honour for allowing himself to be rescued first. The last of the men were rescued after 48 days at the crash spot. Nobile was cheered by crowds when he arrived back in Italy on 31 July, but was soon given all the blame for the crash and the loss of life (and loss of face for Italy), and he applied for and was granted release from the Air Force in March 1929. The media in several European countries also condemned Nobile and his expedition, not least because two Norwegians, four Frenchmen and a Swede (Malmgren) had died, in addition to seven Italians from the airship and three from a search plane which had crashed in France on the way back to Italy. The negative publicity also made it difficult for Nobile to collect, analyse and publish the scientific material from the three Italia flights.


Four years in the Soviet Union and a restless life

Now that he was more or less a persona non grata in Italy and several other European countries, Nobile accepted an invitation from the Soviet Union to help them with their ambitious airship programme. In 1931 he was invited on an expedition with the icebreaker Malyghin to Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya, where he hoped to find some evidence of the rest of the Italia that had disappeared with the six men on board. No evidence was found, but Nobile met Lincoln Ellsworth again for the first time since the Norge expedition. Ellsworth had been invited as an arctic expert on the German Graf Zeppelin airship expedition to Taymyr, Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land which met the Malyghin at Franz Josef Land.

In autumn 1931 Nobile was permitted by Mussolini to move to the Soviet Union for a period to help with their programme for developing semi-rigid airships. He went in 1932 and stayed there until 1936. He learned Russian, had five airships built, and experienced the years in Moscow as one of the happiest periods of his life. He returned to Italy in 1936 at the request of his daughter Maria. He had a professorship at the University of Naples, but his reputation made it difficult for him to get many students, and his financial situation was bad. With help from the Pope he got a position at Lewis Aeronautics School in Illinois, USA, where he went in 1939. In 1942 he was back in Italy, again at the request of his daughter, but he soon moved on to Spain, where he stayed until Italy surrendered to the Allies in July 1943.


Cleared of guilt

There was now a new administration in Italy and Nobile was cleared of charges against him in connection with the Italia crash. He was given back his position in the Air Force, and was promoted to major-general. He had clear sympathies with the Soviet Union after his time there, and he stood as an independent candidate for the Italian communist party during the election in 1946. He was elected, but left politics in 1948 when his communist sympathies led to more negative feelings against him. He returned to teaching at Naples University and used a large part of the rest of his life in writing and other ways to totally clear his name in connection with both the Norge and the Italia expeditions.

In Vigna di Valle, just north of Rome, the Air Force established a documentation centre in Nobile’s name at the Documentazione del Museo Storico Aeronautica Militare. In 1960 he married German Gertrude Stolp, whom he had met in Spain. He was 75 years old and she was 30 years younger. She then also used much of her time in work to clear her husband’s name. Umberto Nobile died in Rome 30 July 1978, 93 years old. The Italian Air Force museum at Vigna di Valle has a permanent exhibition about Nobile and his achievements.





Steinar Aas: Tragedien Umberto Nobile. Det Norske Samlaget, Oslo 2002.