Umberto Nobile and his Airships

Umberto Nobile during the Norge expedition, 1926

On January 21, 1885, Italian aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer Umberto Nobile was born. He was a developer and promoter of semi-rigid airships during the Golden Age of Aviation. Nobile is primarily remembered for designing and piloting the airship Norge, which may have been the first aircraft to reach the North Pole.

Umberto Nobile graduated from the University of Naples with a degree in engineering and began working on the electrification of the rail system shortly after. However, the engineer soon increased his interest in aeronautics and took classes offered by the Italian Army. Nobile was inspired by Ferdinand von Zeppelin. He started designing aircraft for the Italian Army, which was known to be quite ahead of many others and already used airships during the Italo-Turkish War for bombing and reconnaissance. In the following years, Umberto Nobile co-founded a company called the Aeronautical Construction Factory. Their first project was the construction of an aircraft designed for trans-Atlantic crossings. The airship was then sold to the Italian military.

The famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen planned his expedition to the North Pole in 1925, which he already attempted previously. Unfortunately, the planes they used were forced to land and put the crew on high dangers. This time, Amundsen turned to Nobile, who made the N-1 aircraft available for the expedition in spring of 1926. Nobile himself was supposed to be its pilot and Amundsen named the plane Norge. On April 14, the crew left and managed to fly over the Pole in May. They landed in Alaska thinking that their competitor Richard Byrd reached the Pole first. However, later on it was found that Byrd’s flight diary which showed that navigational data in his official report was fraudulent.

Airship Italia
Image by German Federal Archives

After the successful mission, Umberto Nobile started planning another expedition under Italian control. Meanwhile, the competition increased rapidly and Nobile’s staff was often subjected to intimidation. When his new expedition plans were announced, Italo Balbo is said to have commented: “Let him go, for he cannot possibly come back to bother us anymore“. The airship Italia was flown by Umberto Nobile himself, who was also the expedition’s leader. Unfortunately, the ship ran into a storm after reaching the North Pole and crashed into pack ice on May 25, 1928. Ten of the 16 crew members were throuwn out of the plane. Nobile himself suffered from several broken bones, others managed to salvage some equipment including s radio transceiver and food. A polar air and sea rescue effort was launched, in which Roald Amundsen also participated and disappeared during the mission.

Lieutenant Einar Lundborg was the first to reach the crash site with his plane but refused to take anyone but Umberto Nobile with him. After the explorer and engineer was rescued, Lundborg returned to pick up more survivors. Unfortunately, his plane crashed during the landing as well and Lundborg was trapped with the other five crew members. After his rescue, Nobile offered his help in order to find his crew but instead he was arrested and it was wrongly reported in Fascist Italian newspapers that his own evacuation was an obvious sign of cowardice. The last five men of his crew were rescued by the Soviet icebreaker Krasin after almost 50 days on the ice. In later years, Umberto Nobile worked in the Soviet Union, as well as in the United States and Spain. In the 1940s, he returned to Rome and was reinstalled in his former rank as major general, but promoted him to lieutenant general. Umberto Nobile passed away on July 30, 1978 in Rome.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the video lecture ‘Scott, Amundsen and Science‘ by science historian Edward Larson. He reexamines Roald Amundsen’s and Robert Scott’s so-called Race to the Pole in light of their objectives. Larson will retell the story of these expeditions in context and contrast it with the conventional wisdom about them.

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