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Norge / Italia

The two most famous semi-rigid airships in history were the Norge and the Italia, both constructed by the Italian government and very similar. Italy's contribution to the interwar period centered on the achievements of Umberto Nobile who, with the Norwegian explorer Raould Amundsen, led a successful expedition to the North Pole aboard the Italian-built Norge. The semi-rigid airship is a variant of the non-rigid. In this model, a rigid keel runs from nose to tail. Its purpose was to eliminate the catenary curtain and evenly distribute the gondola's weight along the airship's entire length. Semi-rigid advocates believed the keel would help the airship retain its shape with less gas, saving weight; however, they found the keel's weight offset any weight savings - indeed, the semi-rigid weighed more than the non-rigid. Semi-rigids airships saw Limited use, although some designers worked with it more than others. The Italian designer Umberto Nobile was perhaps the best-known user of the semi-rigid design.

During the late 19th century, many Americans and Europeans romanticized distant and unexplored lands; the more exotic a place seemed, the more exciting it was. Africa and the Arctic consequently captured people's attention. Although many individuals had contemplated exploring the north polar region throughout history, it was not until the late 1800s -- after several scientific and technological advances had taken place -- that adventurers could mount serious expeditions into the area.

The first flight over the Arctic occurred in 1897 when Swedish engineer Solomon Andree tried to pilot a hydrogen-filled balloon from Spitsbergen, Norway, to the North Pole. Andree lifted off on July 11 and reached almost 83 N latitude before his balloon went down and he disappeared. It was not until 1930 that another team of explorers discovered his remains. Although Andree's expedition failed, it did start others thinking about using balloons to explore the polar region.

The first serious attempt to use airplanes in the Arctic occurred in 1923 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen--who in 1911 had been the first person to reach the South Pole--tried to fly from Wainwright, Alaska to Spitsbergen with fellow Norwegian Oscar Omdal. Unfortunately, Amundsen and Omdal's aircraft became damaged and they had to abandon their journey. Nevertheless, by May 1925, Amundsen was back at it again, this time with American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, and a small crew. On May 21, the group tried to reach the North Pole using two Dornier Wal "flying boats." After taking off from Kings Bay in Spitsbergen, they made it to approximately 88 N latitude before making an emergency landing due to mechanical problems. Stranded, they spent more than three weeks carving out a runway on the ice so that they could takeoff and return home. Although the expedition ultimately failed, it was the first attempt to fly an airplane to the pole.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett joined the ranks of those trying to reach the Pole via the skies. On May 9, 1926, the two men took off from Kings Bay in a trimotor Fokker aircraft and headed toward the top of the world. After 15 hours, 30 minutes (or 15 hours, 57 minutes, depending on the source), Byrd and Bennett returned to Spitsbergen and claimed to have circled the North Pole. Within the year, both men would receive the U.S. Medal of Honor. Controversy quickly marred their feat. Some aviators doubted that the men could have flown that far given the trip's short elapsed time and whether a trip that fast was within their plane's capabilities, given its usual average speed. There are several other reasons why some historians doubt whether Byrd and Bennett made it to the North Pole.

Even with the advent of controllable airships, Arctic exploration held terrible traps for those who tried to fly over the frozen wastes. Amundsen and Ellsworth began to plan another attempt, this time by airship, and approached the Italian government to request use of the 670,980 cubic foot semi-rigid N. 1 built by Colonel Umberto Nobile. In 1926 the N1, an Italian semi rigid airship with a central keel and a flexible envelope, was chartered by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his financial backer, the American James W. Ellsworth, for a flight to the North Pole. This arrangement was approved by Mussolini on two conditions: that Nobile was appointed as airship commander, with five other Italians forming part of the crew, and that Italy would repurchase the N. l if it survived the expedition in good condition.

Only a few days after Byrd and Bennett returned, Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth boarded the Italian dirigible Norge (meaning Norway) in Spitsbergen and headed for the Pole. They had wanted to be the first to fly over "the top," but after Byrd and Bennett's record setting journey, they could hope only to be the first to fly over the Pole in a dirigible. The ship carried a skeleton crew of six Italians, including the commander, Colonel Umberto Nobile. They set off on this great adventure on 10 April, when the Norge left Italy. On the 7th of May the dirigible moored in King's Bay (Spitzbergen) to make its final preparations and, four days later at 10 a.m., the airship took off. The Norge reached the Pole in 17 hours, where the crew dropped Norwegian, Italian, and American flags onto the ice. On May 12 (or 13, depending on which side of the globe and international date line one is on), the Norge, piloted by Italian Umberto Nobile, crossed the Pole en route to Alaska. The first part of the flight went well but the later stages were another story.

The next leg, from the Pole to Nome, was not easily accomplished. Ice formed on the airship cover and the propellers and carried away their radio aerials. Their sun compass with which they navigated [the magnetic compasses were useless because of the closeness of the magnetic Pole] became covered with ice and was, for long time, unusable. They ran into fog. Somehow Nobile managed to keep going toward Alaskas. Eventually they recognized the coastline below and piloted the airship by dead reckoning toward Nome. When they came upon a small settlement, they decided to land on 14 May at Teller, Alaska, some 60 miles northwest of Nome. Their flight had taken about 72 hours and had covered 3,290 miles.

The flight marked both the first dirigible journey over the Pole and also the first crossing of the entire Polar Sea. It also enabled Amundsen to become the first person to have visited both the North and South Poles. But the ensuing publicity caused sharp differences of opinion between Nobile and Amundsen, who each accused the other of incompetence.

Then there was the disastrous follow-up flight of the 'Italia'. As a result of intense personal rivalry following the success of the Norge expedition, General Umberto Nobile arranged as all-Italian flight over the Pole in an improved airship, the 'Italia'. Neither the ship nor the crew were equal to the task and a terrible series of disasters occurred. Nobile returned to Italy in disgrace. The Polar flight began at on 23 May, with the Italia flying northwest to pick up the Greenland coast, cruising on two of its three engines. Helped by a brisk tailwind, it reached the Pole at 12.20 am on 24 May. Once again, flags were dropped, including the standard of the City of Milan, which had helped back the expedition, a small medallion of the Virgin Mary, and a wooden cross given to Nobile by Pope Pius XI before the expedition left Italy for the Arctic.

After an hour over the Pole the weather began to worsen, so it was decided to turn back for King's Bay. Unfortunately, the tailwind was now against them, and ice was building up on the outer skin of the airship. With the airship becoming heavier, and the wind becoming ferocious, the signs were set for disaster. At 6 am on 25 May, and again at 10, distress signals were received from the Italia, followed by total silence.

When Nobile's Italia crashed on the ice, Amundsen was quick to offer his help. With his fellow Norwegian Lief Dietrichsen, he joined the three-man crew of a French Latdcobre flying boat. They took off to join the air search, and were never seen again. A man who had survived years of exploration in the toughest of Polar conditions had died in going to the rescue of his sharpest critic and deadliest rival.

Half an hour after the sending of the second signal, the sinking airship struck the ice so violently that one of the engine cars and the main control gondola were torn off the structure. Freed of their weight, the airship, with seven crew members still aboard, rose into the storm and was never seen again. One mechanic died in the crash, but the other 10 survivors, including Nobile with a broken arm and leg, were forced to shelter in a tent, where they sent out desperate calls for help on an emergency radio transmitter salvaged from the wreck. Although an international team of would-be rescuers began an extensive search for them, it did not find their camp until late in June. Not until nearly mid-July, however, were all the survivors finally rescued by a Russian icebreaker. By that time one of Nobile's party had perished trying to walk for help. The ltalia disaster cost the lives of twelve crew members and would-be rescuers and was a primary reason for the subsequent demise of airship development in Italy.

Following his disastrous second polar expedition, Nobile left Italy in disgrace, taking service with the Soviet government, where he reportedly built several semi-rigid airships. Thus far, little is known of the Soviet program.

Length: 348 ft
(106 m)
341 ft, 4 inches
(104 m)
Diameter: 64 ft
(19,5 m)
60 ft, 8 inches
(18.5 m)
Volume: 670,980 cu ft
(19.000 cu m)
653,300 cu ft
(18.500 cu m)
Powerplant: 3 Maybach-engines
(245 h.p. each)
3 Maybach-engines
(250 h.p. each)
Max. Speed: 60 knots
(113 km/h)
71 mph
(115 km/h)
Range: 3,300 miles
( 5,300 km)
3,100 miles
( 5,000 km)

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:42 ZULU