Dirigibile Italia a Ciampino, 1926


Umberto Nobile, aeronautical engineer and manufacturer, participated as a commander in two expeditions to the North Pole, during his second expedition airship “Italia” crashed on the pack.

On 21st January 1885 he was born in Lauro, in the vicinity of Naples. He belonged to a noble Bourbon family, the grandfather was chamberlain of King Francesco II, the father Vincenzo Nobile delle Piane, remained faithful to the Bourbons after 1860, was stripped of the noble titles; he retained only the name Nobile to mark the patrician origin of his family.

Umberto studied in Naples, attended high school and graduated in mechanical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Naples in 1908 with honors; he completed his studies at the Military Engineering Aeronautics in Rome where he specialized in the construction of aircraft.

In 1919 he was appointed plant manager of Aeronautical Constructions Military where he designed new types of airships with semi-rigid scaffolding. He was called to the US to collaborate in the construction of the airship N1, where he met the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. For his merits in 1925 he was appointed lieutenant colonel of Aeronautical Engineers.

April 10th, 1926 Umberto Nobile left Rome to command the airship Norge for the first expedition to the North Pole. Crossing Europe made a stop in Pulham in England, Oslo, Leningrad, arriving on May 7th the Svalbard Islands, King’s Bay (Ny Alesund), which had been set up a landing station.

Svalbard embarked Norwegian explorer Amundsen, who had sponsored the expedition through funding from the Norwegian Aviation Club, and the American Lincoln Ellsworth of Chicago.
Roald Amundsen was born in Borge in Norway on July 16th, 1872, he had already reached the South Pole in 1911-1912, which had been blocked by ice throughout the winter, also opened the first northwest passage starting in 1905-1906 from Baffin Bay and reaching the Bering Strait on the ship Gjøa.
Lincoln Ellsworth, wealthy industrialist, had participated in the first expedition of Amundsen to the North Pole aboard two seaplanes. The expedition had failed due to a fault in one of the two planes; All participants returned so adventurous at the base at Svalbard aboard a single aircraft.

On May 11th, the airship Norge took flight toward the Polo carrying Nobile, Amundsen, Ellsworth and a crew of five Italians, seven Norwegian and a Swede. On 12th May 1926 at 1:30 am (Greenwich time) flew over the North Pole. After a brief stop on the sky of the pole it went to Alaska on May 14th touched down in Teller.

There were controversies between Amundsen and Nobile for who should take credit for the shipping. The funds were all Norwegians and Americans, obtained for the interest of the Norwegian, Nobile was to have the command of the expedition, reserving the role of passengers to Amundsen and Ellsworth. Upon returning from the Arctic Nobile he was promoted Major General.

Given the success of the first expedition, in 1928 the Italian government, eager to deed fascist Italy a further success, sponsored a new scientific expedition to explore the North Pole.

The semi-rigid airship Italia was set up for the enterprise, Umberto Nobile was posed to the command. The crew of 13 people, including the commander, was formed from all Italian, which was then joined by three scientists: Finn Malmgren (meteorologist), Francis Behounek (magnetic fields), Aldo Pontremoli (physical); Two journalists were part of the expedition, Francesco Tomaselli and Ugo Lago, the first was landed at King’s Bay, also on board the dog of Nobile, Titina.

April 15th, 1928 the airship Italy with its crew took off from Milan to reach the base on Svalbard, stopping at Stolp, now the Polish city facing the Baltic Sea, and Vadso, far north of Norway; It landed at the base of Ny Alesund (King’s Bay) on May 6th. In support of the expedition the military support ship Città di Milano, under Captain Giuseppe Romagna Manoja, had been sent to Svalbard, carrying a group of Alpine troops led by Captain Gennaro Sora.

On May 23rd, the airship Italia, with 16 people on board, including 12 crew: Nobile, Zappi, Mariano, Viglieri, Biagi, Cecioni, Trojani, Pomella, Arduino, Ciocca, Alessandrini, Caratti, the three scientists, the journalist Lago and dog Titina, set off to reach the North Pole, a stop on the pack to allow data recordings by the three researchers and return to Svalbard or go to Alaska, depending on weather conditions.

The next day, May 24th, 1928 at 1:30 am (Greenwich Time), the airship Italy touched the North Pole; because of a storm approaching it was not possible to make the scheduled stop on the ice, after two hours, the airship took the way back.

The bad weather continued and strong winds made it difficult to fly back to King’s Bay. Near the end of navigation, in sight of the mountains of Svalbard, because of the storm and technical problems arose along the way, the airship lost altitude going down dangerously; At 10.30 of 25th May airship Italia impacted violently on the ice.

The cockpit broke away from the airship, which, lightened, continued his run resuming share; board airship were six men: Arduino, Ciocca, Alessandrini, Caratti, the journalist Lago and the scientist Pontremoli. These men are scattered, and nothing has been found since today, it assumes that went submerged in the Barents Sea.

They found themselves in nine on the ice: Nobile, seriously injured with fractures to the legs and one arm, Zappi, Mariano, Viglieri, the radio operator Biagi who had brought the emergency radio with him hugging its tightly, Trojani, Cecioni with a broken leg, scientists Malmgren and Behounek, the tenth, Pomella, was found dead not far away, the dog Titina was found alive on the ice.

Arduino, remained in the airship which was recovering altitude, realizing that the airship was not manageable and could not return back, immediately threw out everything that could serve to the companions on the pack.

The fit men on the ice found the little support radio intact, an emergency bag with a colt and a hundred ammunition, a flare gun, a sleeping bag and various other things, and  they also found the tent that should have been used to stop at the Pole, sized to accommodate four people.

The fractures of two injured men were immobilized with the wreckage found on the pack and placed both in the only sleeping bag. The small tent was erected and the two injured with the other were hospitalized at night, the tent was painted red with bottles of aniline found in the wreckage to make it more visible; the radio was equipped with an aerial built with the remains of the cabin of the airship and was able to transmit. Throughout the afternoon of the 25th they sent SOS messages the wavelength of the ship Romagna, with the hope that they were captured.

The messages sent by the radio Ondina 33 in the days following were picked up by the Città di Milano, but were not taken into account because the captain Romagna not judged them to be reliable, convinced of the death of all the members of the expedition; in this emergency situation there was an absolute inaction of the Italian ship and its commander, which was delayed several days for help.

On May 29th, a polar bear approached the camp, it was shot to death by Malmgren with the Colt that so procured abundant food to the survivors. The following day the drift of the ice led Nobile and the crew in view of an island north of Svalbard; Mariano, Zappi and Malmgren decided, in accordance with Nobile, to walk to the mainland, Malmgren died during the march.

Only on June 3rd an Russian radio ham of Arcangelo city caught radio signals launched by the red curtain and alerted the international community by radio; the relief snapped by the many Arctic explorers: Norwegian, with Amundsen at the forefront, Finnish, Swedish, French and Russian. The famous Italian pilot Umberto Maddalena participated in the research with a seaplane Savoia-Marchetti S.55 following a fundraising of Milan Autoclub to finance the expedition; even the pilot Pier Luigi Penzo participated in research with a Dornier Wal Marina 2.

On June 18th, during a reconnaissance flight, Roald Amundsen and five men of crew were sunk in the Arctic sea with the French air Latham 47. On the same day the captain of the alpine Gennaro Sora, who was on the ship Città di Milano, decided to organize a research expedition with slides to the northern part of Svalbard along with the explorers Varming and Van Dogen, were rescued by a Swedish air on July 14th.

On June 22nd, the two Italian seaplanes with Maddalena and Penzo plus two Swedish aircraft, identified the survivors, dropped food and supplies; the day after the Swedish pilot Lundborg was able to land near the red tent. Despite the denials of Nobile who wanted that Cecioni, in need of care, was shipped immediately, Lundborg was unshakeable to carry first commander, possibly due to request of the insurance company that had signed a life insurance policy of huge amount with Nobile. Nobile and the dog Titina transferred at King’s Bay, Lundborg flew away to go to help Cecioni, while landing on the pack seaplane overturned and the pilot got stuck with the others.

Meanwhile the Soviet icebreaker Krassin, which had sailed from Leningrad on June 16th, approached the scene of the disaster, July 12th  sighted and taken on board Mariano and Zappi, the same day at 8 pm sighted survivors of the red tent taking them on board , Lundborg had already been rescue on July 6th by a De Havilland Moth piloted by Schyberg that failed to make any further relief.

The return home of Nobile was full of controversy, due to the fact that he was the first to rescue, he resigned from the air force. One of the major opponents of Nobile was Cesare Balbo, who aspired to succeed Mussolini, but the reputation of Nobile, obscuring his figure, made it more difficult its political purposes.

In 1930 Umberto Nobile went to the Soviet Union where he participated in the local program of construction of airships, then moved to the United States. At the end of World War II he returned to Italy where he was reinstated and appointed General in the Air Force, also was elected to the Constituent Assembly for the Communist Party.

General Nobile retired to private life devoting himself to writing several books in which he told his version of the two expeditions to the North Pole in which he had participated. He died in Rome July 30, 1978.

(Photo at the top: Dirigibile Italia a Ciampino, 1926)