Airships in Amundsen’s slipstream

Arctic Airships: old technology, future solution

The Economist ran an article about the “exorbitant” cost of living in the remote high Canadian Arctic [editor: as all Canada to North Pole skiers know]. The Arctic depends on air freight, seasonal sea shipments and ice roads to deliver supplies, they wrote. “Building new infrastructure is even more expensive: […] Now, soaring above such unrealistic options, an old technology is being touted as a new solution: airships.”

Although airships/dirigibles are slower than planes, they have the advantages, stated the article: they consume much less fuel, cost about half as much to make, are easy to fly in dense, cold air, and can land anywhere on land or ice.

In Amundsen’s Slipstream

In 1911-12, Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first team to the Geographic South Pole, 90ºS. Back home he had a new dream, an airship flight across the Arctic, land to land passing the Geographic North Pole. This he organized with American adventurer and financier, Lincoln Ellsworth.

Amundsen involved the Aëro Club of Norway and Italian airship designer and pilot, Umberto Nobile, whom he hired as pilot.

On May 11, 1926, the semi-rigid airship, Norge, lifted off from Kings Bay / Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard to fly over the Arctic ice to Point Barrow in Alaska with a crew of 16 men. On May 12, they reached the North Pole. The next day they reached the Inuit village, Teller.

Obtaining the Norge

Amundsen told Nobile, an officer in the Italian Military Air Service and specialist on the Norge, he and Ellsworth consider buying the airship from the Italian Government. Nobile and the Italian Government offered it as a free gift, under the condition that it flew under the Italian flag.

This offer Amundsen instantly rejected, he wrote in his book, My Life as an Explorer. “I had not the slightest intention of permitting my dream of seventeen years to be fulfilled under any other flag than that of my native land.”

Eventually, Norge was bought for 15,000GBP. Nobile was offered the position as pilot, and 5 Italian mechanics were allowed on board. The rest were Norwegians. Amundsen was also “determined” to share the flight with Oscar Wisting, who was one of the 4 men with him at the South Pole, December 14, 1911. Another Norwegian, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, a qualified airship pilot, was appointed as navigator, and was 3rd in command, after Amundsen and Ellsworth. The airship was renamed from N1 to Norge (Norway).

Issues before the flight

According to what Amundsen wrote in his book, he had several issues with Nobile. Among them, Nobile wanted the Italian and Norwegian crews to take an oath of personal allegiance to him. Amundsen rejected this and “emphatically pointed out to Nobile that he was nothing but a hired pilot.”u2028

Nobile also wanted to have the authority to decide at the North Pole if they should carry on with the traverse or turn around if conditions were unfavorable. Amundsen explained again to him he is only the skipper and he, Amundsen, and Ellsworth are in command, although they would ask his, and Riiser-Larsen’s opinions before making a decision in unfavorable conditions. Amundsen emphasized that his objective is to continue to Point Barrow.

Amundsen and Ellsworth arranged with the Aëro Club of Norway to handle some matters for them. Later Amundsen said it appeared as if the Club’s management considered only the wishes of the Italians and think very little of the pride of Norway, and Ellsworth and his interests.


The Italians prepared the airship to be in top condition. Mussolini, the Italian Prime Minister, showed his interest, and Nobile flew it from Rome via England, Germany and Russia to Svalbard.

Meanwhile, Amundsen and Ellsworth raised money in America and were involved in preparations in Norway and Svalbard. They rented ground near Kings Bay, on the island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard Archipelago) from a coal company.

The Aëro Club had a crew of men working near the coal mine, erecting a three-sided hanger and mooring mast for the airship during the winter of 1925-26. Amundsen and Ellsworth arrived on Svalbard on April 13, 1926. Their first task was to clear the 6 to 9 feet snow from the quay to the hanger, he said.

When the airship arrived on May 7, fuel and provisions were taken on, and one of the motors had to be replaced. The work occupied them for 5 days.

The flight

On the evening of May 10, Norge was ready. Lift-off was planned for 1 am. The sun never sets at this time in the Arctic and would be at its lowest point on the horizon. Amundsen explained why that hour was chosen, “The air at that hour would consequently be at its coldest. The gas in the balloon attains its greatest lifting capacity at lowest temperature.”

The wind came up, and eventually, Norge took off at 10 am on May 11.

Amundsen had great praise for Riiser-Larsen’s navigation. “So skillfully did he chart our course that, after this prodigiously long flight – longer than the air route from New York to San Diego – over unbroken fields of unexplored ice, with not a single landmark for a guide, we sighted Point Barrow with a total deviation from our objective of not more than 10 miles.”

Norwegian, American and Italian flags were dropped over the North Pole (90ºN). Nobile produced a “really huge Italian flag”. They had difficulty getting it out of the window and then it got stuck on a gondola. Eventually, it could disengage about five miles beyond the Pole. Amundsen was upset because Nobile told them to travel as light as possible.

Flying southward above the ice, the Norge ran into heavy fog, which placed them in an extremely dangerous position, said Amundsen.

The fog cleared and when they approached the Alaskan coast, Amundsen could recognize familiar landmarks from his Gjoa expedition twenty years ago. Their flight through the fog took them to an unfamiliar deep inlet. With seven hours of fuel left, Amundsen decided to land there. The wind died off and they made a safe landing at the settlement named Teller, 90 miles northwest of Nome.

The distances from Svalbard to Point Barrow had been estimated about 2200 miles in a straight line, plus more than 1000 km to Teller. They were in the air for 72 hours.

Crew: Roald Amundsen, commander and expedition leader, Lincoln Ellsworth, commander and observing atmospheric electricity, Umberto Nobile, pilot, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen‚ navigator, 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, managing vertical control in the pilot house, Renato Alessandrini, rigger, Ettore Arduino, Atillio Caratti, Natale Cecioni, Vincenco Pomella, and Fredrik Ramm, journalist.

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