Getting to the North Pole
At the start of the 20th century, the Arctic Ocean was still relatively unexplored. No one knew whether the North Pole was on solid ground or out in the ocean. In 1906, 1907 and 1909, American explorer Walter Wellman made three attempts to reach the North Pole from Virgohamna bay in north-west Svalbard on an airship called "America", and made it 100 km (60 miles) north of the archipelago in 1909.
Amundsen has a try
After 1925, Roald Amundsen started trying to reach the North Pole by air. His friendship with American millionaire's son Lincoln Ellsworth secured the funding, and Amundsen, Ellsworth and four others set off from Svalbard in two seaplanes, the N-24 and N-25. They made an emergency landing at 87 degrees north, further than anyone had flown before them. One of the planes was badly damaged, so they had to move 600 tons of ice in order to create a runway. After 25 days on the ice, they were able to fly back to Ny-Ålesund.
The "Norge" airship
For his next attempt, Amundsen approached the pioneering airship community in Europe, led by Italy and top airship engineer Umberto Nobile. Amundsen needed help building his "Norge" airship. Amundsen, Nobile, Ellsworth and an international crew of 16 took off from Ny-Ålesund on 11 May, and by two o'clock the next morning they had already dropped the Italian, American and Norwegian flags over the pole. They arrived in Teller, Alaska, after a journey of three days, where the world's press went wild. Amundsen's portrait was on the front page of the New York Times, but the press showed much less interest in the part that the Italians had played.
The "Italia" airship
In 1928, Mussolini's Italy made yet another attempt to reach the North Pole. After leaving Ny-Ålesund on 23 May, the crew reached the North Pole again. However as they headed back to Svalbard, they encountered a strong headwind and difficult conditions, and the airship collided with the pack ice. Ten expedition members were thrown out of the airship, while six disappeared when the airship took off again and were blown away by the wind. No trace of them was ever discovered.
48 days of drama
Ten men, many of them injured, were now trapped at the crash site 100 km (60 miles) north of Nordaustlandet island. They sent out emergency signals, and rescue efforts were launched by plane, ice-breaker, ski and dog sled. These rescue teams were all independent, as there was no central rescue service in those days. On 18 June, Roald Amundsen and five others died at Bjørnøya, when their French aircraft crashed.
On 23 June, Swedish pilot Einar Lundborg arrived in a ski-plane, bringing Umberto Nobile with him. However, his plane crashed on its next landing, and now he was also trapped at the crash site. Finally, on 12 July, a total of seven survivors were rescued by the Russian "Krassin" icebreaker. It meant that 8 out of the 16 members of the exhibition never came back.
Mussolini's Italy distanced itself from the expedition, and Umberto Nobile lost all honour because of his alleged cowardice. Italy reinstated him to his former rank in 1945 but in Norway, even to this day, people have an extremely negative view of his efforts. It is only in recent years that his reputation has become more positive and balanced.
Svalbard Airship Museum
Spitsbergen Airship Museum in Longyearbyen tells the exciting history in text, pictures, films, newspaper clippings, stamps and other artefacts. Among the displays you will find the log book from the "Norge" airship, a gift from Lauro municipality near Naples, where Nobile was born. The authorities in Lauro also donated a painting to the museum when it opened. An airship mast that was used on both the "Norge" and the "Italia" is still available to see in Vadsø, and there is a large monument to the "Italia" expedition in Tromsø. The Polar Museum in Tromsø also deals with the story in a number of its exhibitions.
www.visitsvalbard.com is the website of the local Tourist Board, Svalbard Reiseliv.