Airship Italia

In April 1928 the Italia landed at Stolp en route to the pole

Airship Italia was a semi-rigid airship used by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile in his second series of flights around the North Pole. It crashed in 1928, with one confirmed fatality from the crash, one fatality from exposure while awaiting rescue, and the disappearance (and presumed death) of six crew members who were trapped in the still-airborne envelope.

Design and specifications

Italia was an N-class semi-rigid airship, designation N-4. In design it was almost identical to the N-1 Norge but slightly larger in gas capacity. Little is known of airship N-2. Airship N-3 was sold to Japan and became "Naval Airship No. 6". Nobile and some of his staff traveled to Japan in 1926 or 1927 to deliver this airship.[1] According to Italian sources, airship N-5 (which was larger and had three times the lifting capacity of N-1) was Nobile's preferred design for the Arctic expedition, but when funding was refused by the Italian government he built N-4 with the assistance of private backers and the City of Milan. In May 1928 the Italia set off for the Arctic Circle, stopping at a German airship hangar at Stolp, Pomerania, and the airship mast at Vadsø in Norway.

Milan to Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) flight

The Italia landed at Stolp in April 1928 before starting the polar flights. In this photograph Nobile is seen with his dog Titina.

At 01:15 on 15 April 1928, the Italia took off from its base at Milan for the Arctic. With 20 personnel on board, and a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, the journey to Stolp in Germany took 30 hours through a variety of bad weather conditions. Near Trieste a wind gust damaged one of the tail fins. Later in the Sudetes the ship faced severe hailstorms and narrowly escaped lightning strikes. On arrival at Stolp at 07:15 on 16 April 1928, inspection revealed hail damage to the propellers and envelope, and severe tail fin damage. All the ballast and most of the fuel had been used fighting the wind. Repairs took 10 days, and required parts and technicians to be sent from Italy.[1]

Takeoff from Stolp was further delayed by bad weather, but at 03:28 on 3 May 1928, Italia set off for Norway. Eight hours later, escorted by Swedish naval planes, Italia passed over Stockholm. Crewmember Finn Malmgren spotted his house from the air and the ship descended to drop a letter to his mother. Bad weather forced the ship east over Finland, and they passed over Rovaniemi at 01:49 on 4 May. Italia reached the mooring mast at Vadsø later that day.[1]

While the ship was moored without difficulty, blizzard conditions followed by heavy rain kept the crew in a state of constant anxiety and caused minor structural damage. As soon as weather permitted, Italia took off for Kings Bay at 20:34 on 5 May, and by 05:30 had passed the meteorological station on Bear Island, but ran into high winds shortly after, also suffering an engine failure. By 12:00 on 6 May the airship reached Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) and spotted their support ship. However, in a foretaste of events to come, Captain Romagna of the Città di Milano refused to release 50 men requested by Nobile to form a landing crew. The Norwegian authorities summoned 150 miners at short notice to help haul the ship down and walk her to the shed.[1]

Crew and expedition members

Polar flights

Nobile planned 5 flights for the expedition, each starting from and returning to Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) and exploring different areas of the Arctic.

After the necessary engine and structural repairs were completed, the first flight departed from Kings Bay on 11 May 1928. Italia was forced to turn back after only eight hours flight because of thick ice forming on the envelope, as well as fraying of the control cables due to the extreme conditions.[1]

The second flight left at 13:20 on 15 May and lasted 60 hours. In contrast, this time the weather conditions were excellent and visibility perfect. Valuable meteorological, magnetic and geographic data were gathered in a 2,500 mile (4,000 km) flight to the hitherto uncharted Nicholas II Land and back. Malmgren gathered weather and ice observations, while Pontremoli and Běhounek made measurements of magnetic phenomena and radioactivity. The ship returned safely to base on the morning of 18 May.[1]

The third flight started on 23 May 1928, and following a route along the Greenland coast, with the assistance of strong tailwinds, reached the North Pole 19 hours later at 00:24 on 24 May 1928. Nobile had prepared a winch, an inflatable raft, and survival packs (providentially as it turned out) with the intention of lowering some of the scientists onto the ice, but the wind made this impossible. Instead they circled the pole making observations and at 01:20 dropped the Italian and Milanese colours, as well as a wooden cross presented by the Pope and a religious medal from the citizens of Forlì onto the ice during a short ceremony. At 02:20 on 24 May, the Italia started back to base.[1]

The same tail wind that had helped Italia to the Pole now impeded their progress. Nobile calculated the return journey would take 40 hours, and had discussed their options with Dr Malmgren in the hours before their arrival at the Pole. Nobile considered a trans-polar route to Mackenzie Bay in Canada. According to Nobile, Malmgren advised a return to Kings Bay, predicting lessening winds on their return trip. On the other hand, Malmgren predicted a head wind all the way if the Canadian route was attempted. No doubt the prospect of a forced landing in the Canadian wilderness was unpalatable to both men, as it would mean the end of the expedition.[1]

Heading directly south on a heading for Kings Bay, after 24 hours of increasing head winds and thick mist the Italia was only halfway back to base. The airship struggled to gain ground and break through to the zone of calmer winds which expedition meteorologist Finn Malmgren predicted was just ahead. Ice formed on the propellers and shot off into the envelope, necessitating running repairs. Engine speed was increased but with little effect, except for a doubling of fuel consumption. Dr Běhounek, in charge of the compass, started reporting variations in course of up to 30 degrees, and the elevator man Cecioni had similar problems maintaining control. By 07:30 on 25 May, Nobile, who had been awake for over 48 hours, knew that the situation was critical and Giuseppe Biagi, the wireless operator, sent out the message: "If I don't answer, I have good reason". By dead reckoning, Nobile estimated his position as 250 miles (400 km) northeast from Moffin Island. This estimate was 350 miles (560 km) off.[1]

At 9:25am on 25 May the first critical incident occurred, when the elevator control jammed in the downward position while the ship was travelling at less than 1000 feet (300 metres) altitude. All engines were stopped and the airship began to rise again after it had dropped to within 300 feet (90 metres) of the jagged ice pack. The airship was allowed to continue rising to 3000 feet (900 metres) and above the cloud layer into bright sunlight for 30 minutes. After two engines were restarted the ship descended to 1000 feet (300 metres) with no apparent ill effect, with the headwind appearing to decrease slightly allowing an airspeed of 30 mph. Malmgren took the helm with Zappi supervising him. Cecioni continued to operate the elevators.[1]

At 10:25 the ship was noticed to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of 2 feet per second (0.6 m/s). Nobile ordered full elevators and emergency power, but although the nose rose to an upward angle of 21 degrees, the descent continued. Nobile ordered foreman rigger Renato Alessandrini to the tail of the envelope to check the automatic gas valves. A short time later, seeing a crash was unavoidable, Nobile ordered full stop and the cutting of electrical power to prevent a fire on impact. The port engine engineer failed to notice the order and the ship began to bank. At the same time Nobile ordered Cecioni to dump the ballast chain, but was unable to carry out the order in time owing to the steep angle of the floor and the secure way the chain was lashed.[1]

Seconds afterwards the airship's control cabin hit the jagged ice and smashed open. Suddenly relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship, with a gaping tear in the keel and part of one cabin wall still attached, began to rise again.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left on the ice, and six more crew were trapped in the still drifting airship envelope. The envelope and the crew members aboard it have never been found. The position of the crash was close to 81°14′N 28°14′E / 81.233°N 28.233°E / 81.233; 28.233, about 120 km (75 mi) northeast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. The drifting sea ice later took the survivors towards Foyn and Broch islands.[1]

Causes of the crash

The causes of the crash remain controversial even today.[1] The severe Arctic climate and decision to head back to base in the teeth of a worsening gale, rather than continue across the Pole to attempt a landing in Canada, was the main cause. This fact drove meteorologist Finn Malmgren to attempt suicide twice soon after the crash.

Another factor is the decision to let the airship rise above the cloud layer, causing heating and then expansion of the hydrogen, which triggered automatic valving of the gas. Once the engines were restarted, the ship dived through the cloud into freezing air again and, either because the automatic valves were jammed open, or because the ship had already lost too much gas above the clouds, it could no longer stay aloft.[1] Although Umberto Nobile was the victim of a smear campaign after the crash, one criticism of him, from the master airship pilot Hugo Eckener is perhaps justified — that Nobile should never have climbed above the cloud layer in the first place.[3]

Another possibility is a rupture of one of the gas cells, although it is difficult to understand why this would not have been immediately noticed by any of the crew on duty. The most recent theory suggests that the outer shell of the airship was damaged during the pre-flight ice removal, when a group of men wearing ice cleats hacked at the airship with pickaxes.

In his book Dr. Eng. Felice Trojani, one of the airship engineers reported that in the years after crash, he examined 11 different possible causes in detail without coming to any real solution.[4]

Aftermath of the crash

Cecioni was hurled out the ruptured cabin and into a mound of ice injuring both his legs. As he looked up he saw the envelope drifting above him, and Ciocca halfway out of the starboard engine car staring down in horror. Lago, Dr Pontremoli, and Alessandrini were also visible, in the torn opening where the companion way had been. Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino, with remarkable presence of mind, started throwing anything he could lay his hands on down to the men on the ice as he drifted slowly away with the envelope. These supplies, and the packs intended for the descent to the ice helped keep the survivors alive for their long ordeal on the ice.[1] Arduino perished with the drifting airship envelope.

Troiani, at the engine control signals fared better, being hurled into soft snow and rolling before immediately jumping to his feet and cleaning the snow off his glasses, which had survived the crash unscathed. Viglieri and Mariano, standing next to the chart table, briefly saw the rear engine car about to strike the ice hard and then found themselves prostrate but unharmed in a mass of debris. Biagi, with no time to send out an SOS grabbed the portable emergency radio and wrapped his arms around it trying to save it from damage. The impact on the ice winded him but left him inside the wreck of the cabin. Nobile lay unconscious with a head wound, with Malmgren and Zappi nearby.[1]

Mariano, Běhounek, Trojani, and Viglieri were on their feet first and began to examine the others for injuries. Nobile gradually regained consciousness - he had a broken leg, right arm, and cracked rib in addition to the wound on his head. Cecioni had two badly broken legs. Malmgren had an injured shoulder (possibly broken or dislocated), and much later was suspected to have internal injuries to his kidney. Zappi had severe chest pains from suspected broken ribs.[1]

Almost immediately the survivors were buoyed by the discovery of a waterproof bag containing chocolate, pemmican, a Colt revolver, ammunition and a flaregun. Biagi's radio was intact and he began searching for material to construct a radio mast. Biagi soon discovered the rear engine car smashed on the ice, and the body of Pomella, who had apparently survived the impact and sat down on a block of ice, but died minutes afterwards from a head injury. Despite this shock Biagi erected an antenna and within a few hours began to send the first SOS from the stricken survivors. Nobile and Cecioni were placed together in a sleeping bag for warmth and spent the next few hours in semi-consciousness while the others gathered what they could from the wreck. According to Nobile, Malmgren, in pain, and suffering from guilt about his role in the crash announced he would drown himself and began walking away from the crash site, only stopping when sharply ordered to return by the General. Later the same day, Mariano had to disarm Malmgren after he started to walk away from the crash site with the loaded Colt revolver. Meanwhile, the uninjured men surveyed the ice pack, collecting supplies and chose a stable patch of ice to erect a 2.4 x 2.4 metre (8 ft x 8 ft) silk tent they recovered which was to be their only shelter during the coming ordeal.[1]

The day after the crash was spent looking for more supplies amongst the wreckage. Navigational instruments and charts were recovered allowing the position of the crash site to be calculated. The quantity of rations per man was also calculated. This was a scant 300 grams (11 oz) of food per day, mainly pemmican and chocolate, calculated for a 25-day stay on the ice. Eventually 129 kg (284 pounds) of food were recovered extending this supply to 45 days. Finally the crowded tent was dyed red for improved visibility from the air, with dye marker bombs that had been aboard the airship. Biagi continued to signal for help with his radio; the survivors quickly became exasperated at the stream of mundane personal messages pouring out of the Citta di Milano interspersed with occasional messages for the Italia. After several days cold began to take its toll. The fliers had been equipped with many layers of woollen clothes and lambskin flight suits, but not all of them were fully dressed at the time of the crash and none had proper Arctic survival clothing. On 28 May land was sighted in the distance, breaking the despondency of the survivors. Discussions began as to whether the survivors should attempt a trek towards land and eventually it was decided that Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano should be sent to try to summon help. On 29 May Malmgren shot a Polar bear which approached the crash site, augmenting the food supply with about 189 kg (400 pounds) of fresh meat.[1]

Rescue effort

An international rescue effort followed, but was bedevilled by official apathy and political interference on the part of the Italians. Romagna, the commander of the base ship, seemed to be paralysed with indecision when the Italia went missing. Lengthy telegrams asking for instructions were sent to Rome, but there was no effort to move the ship closer to the presumed crash site or otherwise begin a search. The Citta di Milano was admittedly old and unsuited to the Arctic, but considering the season could easily have taken up station further north and west of Kings Bay without any danger to itself. No attempt was made to keep a radio watch, and Guglielmo Marconi, who monitored the messages from the base ship later said:

"No wonder that on the Citta di Milano the SOS of the survivors could not be picked up by radio operators. They simply were not paying attention to her signals."[1]

Pedretti, the alternate radio operator left behind by the Italia; and Amedeo Nobile, Umberto's brother were the most concerned about the radio silence from the airship. Amedeo Nobile was the first to visit the Norwegian ship Hobby to try to get Norwegian help for a search. Word also reached Amundsen in Oslo, who immediately volunteered to start on a search mission. When the Norwegian government officially approached the Italian government proposing Amundsen as expedition leader, they were rebuffed and Lieutenant Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen was appointed instead. Almost every Arctic explorer of note offered assistance or money for the search, including the American Lincoln Ellsworth.

In Italy, Arturo Mercanti, former air force chief and friend of Nobile requested that air force planes be sent to the Arctic to begin a search. Repeatedly frustrated by official inaction he attempted to hire private aircraft himself and threatened to publicise the government's inaction in the international press. As a result, two sea planes were sent from Italy, a Dornier Wal piloted by Luigi Penzo and a state-of-the-art Savoia-Marchetti S.55 piloted by Ten. Col. Umberto Maddalena who was the first rescuer to spot the "Red Tent" survivors on 20 June. Mercanti himself went to Kings Bay where his frustration continued.

Cpt. Gennaro Sora (of the Italian Army Alpini ski detachment) did run a heroic over-ice sled attempt from the Città di Milano support ship, while Matteoda and Albertini of the SUCAI (the University Section of the Italian Alpine Club) did the same from the Italian-hired ship Braganza. Both attempts were made in the face of opposition (some sources state direct orders) from the base-ship commander, Romagna.

The lack of co-ordination meant that it took more than 49 days before all the crash survivors (and stranded would-be rescuers) were retrieved. Roald Amundsen was lost, presumed dead, flying to Spitsbergen in a French Latham sea plane piloted by René Guilbaud to take part in the operation. Two hundred thousand cheering Italians met Nobile and his crew on arrival in Rome on 31 July. This show of popularity was unexpected by Nobile's detractors, who had allegedly been seeding the foreign and domestic press with sensational accusations against him.

Chronology of the rescue operations:[5]

List of the participating rescue teams

Soviet Union


The Soviet 1928 documentary film Heroic Deed Among the Ice by Georgi Vasilyev and Sergei Vasilyev describes the rescue mission of Krasin.

The story was made into a film in 1969 titled The Red Tent.

Midnight Sun is a 2007 graphic novel by Ben Towle which tells a semi-fictionalized account of the rescue of the Italia.

The Spitsbergen Airship Museum in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, features many objects from the Italia, and attempts to portray the events of the expedition and subsequent rescue efforts in a neutral tone.

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Wilbur Cross, Disaster at the Pole, 2002 ISBN 1-58574-496-4
  2. Ventry and Kolesnik, Jane's Pocket Book of Airships, Collier, 1977
  3. Hugo Eckener, My Zeppeins, Putnam, 1958
  4. Felice Trojani, La coda di Minosse: La verità sulla spedizione Nobile, 2007 ISBN 978-88-425-3104-3
  5. AERONAUTICS: Dead, Missing. TIME, Monday, Jul. 23, 1928
  6. The role of radio in rescuing the survivors of the airship Italia; Harvey M. Solomon & Philip Cala-Lazar; Polar Research, Volume 27, Issue 1, 2008. Pages: 73–74


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