Farewell, darlings, General Nobile's sailing in his airship to a glittering death... whoever knows the journey's end as he sets out is there already, wafted on his wing-stubs; farewell, doubters - smiles on your lips like the imprints of horse-bits: 'he'll never get there this way' - 'get there' - as if 'there' were some place; in one day you can only manage a day's journey...
1) Winged Fever
2) Wing stubs
3) Riding a dream
5) The personal history of an old man
6) Distant drums
7) Farewell, darlings
Tot. time 44'04"
Nobile's movie ( 3.5 MB )
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Disaster at the Top of the World
By Eric Niderost for Aviation History Magazine
On May 6, 1928, the dirigible Italia appeared over Kings Bay at Spitsbergen, one of a group of islands owned by Norway and known to Norwegians as Svalbard. About 700 miles from the geographic North Pole, Spitsbergen was a favorite jumping-off point for Arctic explorers, and the approaching airship was part of an Italian expedition headed by General Umberto Nobile, an Arctic veteran whose exploits two years earlier had captured the worlds imagination-and set off an acrimonious debate.
The Arctic was truly one of the worlds last frontiers, where myth and supposition took the place of hard scientific data. In an expedition whose results are now disputed, a land trek under Robert E. Peary is said to have reached the North Pole in 1909. But Pearys accomplishment was, in a sense, almost the tip of the iceberg. Many hundreds of thousands of square miles were still unexplored in the Arctic in 1909, terra incognita subject to all sorts of tales and wild speculation.
During the trips, Peary claimed to have seen land in the far distance from Ellesmere Island. Was Crocker Land, as he christened it, an illusion? A mirage? A figment of Pearys imagination? No one could tell. Other tales deepened the mysteries. A whaling captain claimed he had seen land rising beyond the polar ice pack, and his discovery was labeled Keenan Island. Some of the stories werent new. In 1707, for example, a Dutch sea captain named Cornelius Giles (or Gilles) had glimpsed what was dubbed Gillis Land.
Apart from these chimeras, there was persistent speculation that land-perhaps a continent or subcontinent-existed in the Arctic. Anomalies in currents and tides flowing through the Bering Strait puzzled scientists from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Some of that tidal movement seemed to suggest the presence of land farther north. Hedging its bets, the Hydrologic Office of the U.S. Navy indicated Crocker Land and Keenan Island on official maps, though they underscored their uncertainty with dotted lines and question marks.
In 1926, a joint American-Norwegian-Italian expedition set out to explore the unknown aboard a semirigid dirigible, Norge (Norway). The American Lincoln Ellsworth partly bankrolled the expedition, while famed explorer Roald Amundsen lent his formidable experience. Nobile, then a colonel, had designed Norge and would also serve as the airships commander.
During the course of the expedition, Norge successfully navigated the roof of the world, in the process exploring and charting some 50,000 square miles of territory between the North Pole and the northern coasts of Alaska-an area known to geographers as the blind spot. In its journey from Spitsbergen to Alaska, the airship chalked up 3,180 miles in 70 hours and 40 minutes.
But Nobile was not one to rest on his laurels. Only three days after Norge landed at Teller, in the territory of Alaska, Nobile was planning for his next venture. While at Teller supervising the deflating and dismantling of Norge, Nobile became fascinated with a small globe he had found. The little world fired his imagination, and he used his spare time to trace future expeditions on its surface.
Norges flight brought Nobile worldwide fame, but it also generated controversy. Throughout much of Norges historic journey, there was friction between Amundsen and Nobile, a situation that was exacerbated by national rivalries. Amundsen, who had been first to the South Pole in 1912, felt that Nobile was a grandstanding interloper. The Norwegian regarded the Italian aeronautical engineer as a mere pilot.
Nobile defended himself against Amundsens barbs, but, in fact, his mind was already on the next expedition. The new effort would be under the auspices of the Italian Royal Geographical Society, paid for by private subscription of the citizens of Milan. The Fascist government of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave the project its lukewarm blessing by providing the airship, but stipulated that the Italian government must be reimbursed for not only the airship but also the salaries of the crew, many of whom would come from the Italian navy.
For his achievements on the Norge flight, Nobile was promoted to general and made an honorary member of the ruling Fascist party. Apolitical and perhaps politically naive, Nobile didnt seem to grasp at first that he had powerful enemies at home as well as abroad. Mussolini seemed amiable, but Italo Balbo, Il Duces undersecretary for the air, was actively hostile. Balbo resented Nobiles world fame-moreover, airplanes, not dirigibles, were among the undersecretarys pet projects.
Italia, the dirigible intended for the new expedition, was almost a duplicate sister ship of Norge. Like her predecessor, she was a semirigid dirigible with a breastbone of latticed steel and a stiffened prow and stern. A forward control car nestled against the keel, and power was provided by three Maybach engines.
Nobile may have been naive when it came to politics, but he was a clear-headed realist when it came to Arctic dangers. He ordered modifications to Italia that reflected not only his Norge experience but also that of other expeditions. The airships envelope was reinforced with rubberized fabric, and her keel was protected by two extra layers of cloth, to guard against the ice bullets that had plagued the Norge flight. Ice had been sucked into the propellers, then spit out with the force of speeding projectiles.
Other improvements included observation cupolas, enabling the navigator to take readings protected from frigid blasts of Arctic air. A chain of bronze balls reinforced with a steel cable served as the dirigibles anchor. It could be used at sea or on pack ice, but Nobile really hoped he could anchor at the North Pole and descend via a two-man pneumatic basket to the surface. Altogether, Italia was 2,866 pounds lighter than Norge.
Although the Norge flight had added significantly to geographical knowledge, Nobile realized that it had fallen far short of scientific expectations. It had been a hard trip, and constant vigilance had been required to avert disaster. Survival, not science, had been the primary concern. By Nobiles own admission, scientifically the Norge expedition had not done much.
Nobile knew that, although Norge had covered 50,000 square miles of unexplored territory, there still remained 1,500,000 square miles that had never been seen. Was the area essentially just the Arctic Ocean covered by a thick scum of ice? Or did undiscovered islands, or maybe even a continent, dot its frozen landscape? Much work also had to be done to gather data on terrestrial magcomism, gravity and a host of other research fields. Nobile intended, as far as he was able, to fill in those blanks.
Nobile wanted to fly through the Arctic regions along the northern fringes of Canada and Greenland, as well as the Russian island of Severnaya Zemlya, known before the Russian Revolution as Czar Nicholas II Land. And last, but not least, Nobile hoped to make a surface visit to the North Pole.
Preparations went forward, and Nobile selected his crew. Four of Norges original crew-Ettore Ardino, Attilo Caratti, Vincenzo Pomella and Renato Alessandrini-eagerly volunteered for this second adventure. These were the mechanics and riggers, and they were joined by newcomer Calisto Ciocca.
Nobile also needed two navigation officers, a helmsman for the steering wheel, a helmsman for the elevator, and two radiomen. The general selected Commander Adalberto Mariano and Commander Filippo Zappi as the two navigating officers, young men who had some previous experience in airships. Two other officers, Alfredo Viglieri and Felice Trojani, were also added to the crew complement. Communications were essential, literally a matter of life and death, so radiomen Ettore Pedretti and Guiseppe Biagi were included to handle the wireless.
Journalists Francesco Tomaselli and Ugo Lago were coming along to record the expeditions progress. Since science was at the heart of the effort, Nobile chose a trio of top scientists to accompany him. Meteorologist Finn Malmgren, a Swede from the University of Uppsala, had been aboard Norge; Francis Behounek was a Czech professor; and Aldo Pontremoli was a professor of physics from Milan.
Counting General Nobile, there were 18 men in Italias crew complement. Actually, there was a 19th passenger-Titina, Nobiles frisky fox terrier mascot, who was also a veteran of the Norge flight.
Air Undersecretary Balbo started to drag his feet even before the airship left Italy for northern climes. In the event of a crash, Nobile wanted a couple of seaplanes to be on station at Spitsbergens Kings Bay. The general reasoned that even if they couldnt land on the pack ice, aircraft could airdrop provisions to the men stranded below. Balbo refused this sensible request but grudgingly okayed Nobiles other request for the use of Alpini-highly skilled Italian army mountain troops. Eventually, eight crack Alpini were assigned to go to Spitsbergen.
Balbos obvious distaste for the Italia expedition was a straw in the wind, but Nobile chose to ignore such ill omens. The expeditions support vessel was Citta di Milano (City of Milan), an aged merchant ship well past its prime that was captained by a dedicated Fascist named Guiseppe Romagna. Perhaps he was under orders from Balbo, perhaps not, but Romagna would prove a thorn in No-biles side from the very outset.
If the Fascist government was lukewarm, the Italian people were not. Nobile and his companions also had a supporter in Pope Pius XI, himself an experienced mountaineer who intimately knew the perils of ice and snow. The pope granted the Italia expedition a special audience before the crew left and presented them with a large commemorative cross to plant at the North Pole.
Finally, all the fevered preparations were complete. Italia left Milan in the early morning hours of April 5, 1928. The beginning of the journey north was plagued by problems and, in hindsight, a kind of warning of what was to come. Buffeted by bad weather, Italia was forced to pause in Stolp, Germany, for repairs. Hailstone damage to its fins had to be taken care of, and while they were at it, Nobile overhauled the engines. After a 10-day delay, Italia left Stolp for the Arctic on May 3. The airship finally reached its forward base at Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, on May 6.
Nobile decided that destinations would be determined by the prevailing climatic conditions. While at Kings Bay, he oversaw yet another repair of an engine, as well as an almost microscopic examination of the hull to check for tears or other damage to the outer envelope. Gasoline, oil and hydrogen were replenished, and supplies loaded aboard the waiting dirigible. This last task proved particularly daunting, because the supplies had to be hauled more than a mile across the ice from where Citta di Milano lay at anchor. But no sooner was this done than Nobile had another cause for worry.
At Kings Bay, Italia was moored in a hangar left over from the Norge expedition two years before. Owned by the Aero Club of Norway, the hangar was a crude affair that consisted of two canvas-covered wooden walls. The dirigible was sandwiched between the walls. A third and fourth side were created by the addition of two canvas curtains. The hangar gave protection against winds but had an almost fatal flaw-it was roofless. The top of Italia was exposed to sun, rain and, more ominous, snow.
On May 12 it began to snow heavily, a freakish occurrence so late in the season. Each hour a ton of snow accumulated on the exposed top surface of the vulnerable airship. Although crewmen climbed up and swept away the thick, white powder, the snow kept falling. The sheer weight of the snow caused the control car and rear gondola to drag on the ground, and the metal plating in the stern began to give way, buckling in protest.
When all seemed lost, the snow stopped and the sun made a belated appearance. Soon its pale rays melted the snow, and disaster was averted. On May 15, Italia set out for Severnaya Zemlya in what proved to be its penultimate voyage. As the airship pressed on through the frigid air, vast stretches of ice spread below. There was little sign of life, save for a few birds and a meandering polar bear.
Then, suddenly, the crewmen saw a mirage, a shimmering crystal city that seemed like an apparition from The Arabian Nights. The phantasm soon evaporated into the stark white void. The weather conditions worsened, and contrary winds increased to past 24 mph. It was hard to keep the ship on course, and after 34 hours of bucking the winds, some of Italias reserve fuel was being consumed.
Nobile ordered a return to Kings Bay. The airship apparently never did reach Severnaya Zemlya-in any event, the elusive island was never spotted. Italia returned to base after a 69-hour round-trip flight. Some 2,400 miles had been traversed, and 17,250 square miles of previously unknown territory explored. Italia had also searched in vain for Gillis Land, proving beyond reasonable doubt it was a myth as ephemeral as the crystal city all had witnessed.
Exactly at 4:28 a.m. on May 23, 1928, Italia lifted off from Kings Bay again and headed for the geographic North Pole. It was the third Arctic voyage for the airship. There were 16 men aboard Italia, now seasoned and working together like a well-oiled machine, brimming with confidence and camaraderie.
At first, the airship gingerly probed its way through fog, but eventually the gray shroud parted to reveal the northwest coast of Greenland in the distance. The sky was a brilliant cobalt, and the ice and snow reflected dazzling white under the suns golden rays. Italia was blazing a path to the North Pole, voyaging somewhere between Pearys route and the route followed by Norge in 1926. Visibility was 60 miles in all directions, yet there was nothing but a flat and forbidding expanse of polar pack ice as far as the eye could see. A strong tail wind developed that pushed them toward their polar destination. The wind, Nobile knew, might prove more hindrance than help by preventing a manned surface landing at the North Pole.
A cloud bank appeared on the horizon, a cottony wall more than 3,000 feet high, the bulk of which stood in high relief against the azure sky all around them. Italia literally rose above these clouds and was soon back on course.
Excitement mounted as they neared their goal. At 12:20 a.m. on May 24, Italia reached the North Pole. High winds prevented a landing via the pneumatic car, but nothing could stem the elation of the crew. Since the popes cross could not be planted, it was reverently tossed overboard, together with a symbol of Milan and a large red, white and green Italian flag. In one gesture, both the sacred and secular duties of the expedition had been performed. The rest was all celebration.
While Italia kept circling the Pole, a gramophone played the Italian folk song Bells of St. Giusto and the Fascist hymn Giovinezza. In his memoirs, Nobile is discreetly silent about one aspect of the jubilation, but according to some reports, the Italian members of the crew also gave the stiff-armed Fascist salute. Nevertheless, it was a delicious, never-to-be-forgotten moment. Long live Nobile! Commander Zappi cried, and it did seem at that moment to be the pinnacle of the generals career.
Once he reached the Pole, Nobile wanted to keep his options open. He could circle back to the Siberian island of Severnaya Zemlya or even continue on to the northern reaches of Canada. Meteorologist Malmgren felt their best bet was to go back to Kings Bay. Nobile acquiesced and nosed Italia toward home. Fog now shrouded their vision, snow flurries pelted them, and Italias ground speed slowed to a snaillike 25 mph, due to heavy head winds. Progress was slow, a far cry from the 62 mph they had averaged on the outbound journey.
Ice began forming on the struggling airship, a crystalline mass that added weight and further slowed progress. Italias propellers, like Norges before them, drew in ice splinters, and spat them out with the near velocity of a bullet. And then, only 750 feet above the menacing ice pack, the elevator jammed in a downward position, sending the ship into a nose dive. Nobile ordered all the engines stopped, which arrested the ships downward progress a scant 250 feet above the ground.
Without its propellers and power plants to give it forward motion, Italia began ascending like a childs lost balloon. The ship rose to 2,700 feet, enabling the navigators to shoot the sun and determine their position-a scant 180 miles from their Kings Bay base. But the ship rose even higher, and at 3,300 feet, the high altitude caused the gas cells to expand and blow off hydrogen. When Italia finally regained lower altitudes, the ship would be ominously heavier.
The crew went to work, and after some feverish repairs, the ships elevator operated normally again. After a descent, the homeward struggle began anew. One of the crewman examined the elevator mechanism, found nothing wrong, and concluded that ice must have clogged it. Italia leveled off at 300 feet and continued its brave and increasingly one-sided battle against the elements.
About a half hour after the elevator crisis, an anguished Were heavy! escaped from one mans lips. Italia was suddenly stern-heavy, dropping like a stone at the rate of 2 feet a minute.
Nobile ordered accelerated speed on two engines and the starting of the ships third power plant. The propellers corkscrewed the frigid air, but Italia continued to fall. Mechanics Pomella and Caratti increased power to 1,400 revolutions on their respective engines, but to no avail.
Resigned to a crash, Nobile ordered stop engines to decrease the risk of fire. The next few horrifying minutes would be forever etched in the memories of the survivors. Italia thudded into the polar ice pack, its fragile hull lacerated by the hard, white shards. Something hit Nobile in the head and, almost simultaneously, his arm and leg snapped like twigs. Its all over, he said to himself, as he closed his eyes.
It was 10:33 a.m. on May 25, the beginning of an epic and grueling ordeal. The impact had torn the control car and rear gondola free from the dirigible, sending the men sprawling onto the ice. Freed of their weight, what remained of Italia began to float ever higher before finally disappearing behind a gray curtain of fog. Six men were still aboard the crippled airship.
Nobile, still reeling from the shock of the impact, became focused on the large black letters Italia emblazoned on the ship, as it drifted away. But soon there were other things to think about.
A search revealed that Pomella had been killed, probably instantly, when the ship crashed. That left nine survivors on the ice. Nobile had fractured his right arm and leg, Cecioni had broken one of his legs, and the Swedish scientist Malmgren had injured his shoulder. The relatively unscathed survivors included Zappi, Mariano, Viglieri, Trojani, Biagi and Behounek. The roster of survivors also included Titina, who frisked on the ice like a puppy.
The unfortunate six men who had floated away on Italias shattered hull were never seen again. Some time after the initial crash, some survivors on the ice saw a column of smoke in the distance. A signal by the six missing men? Or smoke from fires created when the lacerated airship crashed yet again? The truth was never determined.
Nobiles lungs seemed half-paralyzed, and his labored breathing convinced him he was dying. But it was not his own impending demise that upset him as much as the lingering death that awaited his companions without food, shelter or means of contacting the outside world for rescue. Rather a quick merciful death than a slow death by starvation and exposure.
Hope was revived when the field station-the emergency radio set-was found intact behind a hummock. Guiseppe Biagi, the swarthy radioman, now became the most important survivor, since he was the only one who knew how to send and receive messages. Biagi started tapping out the message SOS-Nobile with cold-numbed fingers. Later, the SOS was modified with the message IDO 32, that is, answer on the 32 meter wavelength.
Survival prospects improved even further when Nobile spied a waterproof bag about 10 yards away, lying between two misshapen hummocks. The general knew the contents-a tent, a sleeping bag and provisions. The tents design had evolved from the experiences of many previous polar expeditions. Its lower half was square, 9 feet long on each side, and made of silk that had a 3-inch airspace between its layers for insulation. Its upper half opened into a pyramid shape, supported by a 7-foot tent pole. The shelter was designed for four men, but it now had to accommodate nine and the radio equipment. It also came with a waterproof floor, though the intense cold of the ice did manage to permeate the fabric.
After a few days, the survivors initial joy at the discoveries were replaced by a growing despair. Citta di Milano was not answering their SOS-perhaps not even listening. Even after Italia was overdue, the ship did not monitor the airwaves for an SOS. Captain Romagna kept his radioman busy transmitting journalists reports of the developing story and crew messages to people back home.
Ettore Pedretti, the airships second radioman who had been left behind, was worried about his comrades. He listened for them whenever he could, and eventually he managed to detect a faint SOS. When he reported his finding to Romagna, however, it was dismissed with contempt. Later the captain explained he thought radioman Biagi was dead, so there could be no transmission.
It seems an odd justification. Romagnas almost criminal indifference to the expeditions fate might have had its origins in orders from Rome. Balbos first reaction on hearing of Nobiles disappearance was, Serves him right! Later it was reported that Balbo toasted Italias disappearance at a banquet.
Meanwhile, the survivors got a rude awakening when a loud crashing noise roused them from their slumber. The terrible grinding noise and earthquake tremors were from wind-driven ice. The survivors were sitting atop sea ice, a thick, white patina that covered the Arctic Ocean depths. Currents and winds created fissures, shattering the ice like window glass. The jagged pieces, or floes, were also at the mercy of the climate and could drift for miles or collide and pile up into jagged heaps.
Luckily, the men had chronometers and other aids, and they were soon able to determine that the ice they were on was drifting. By May 28, they had drifted 28 miles. The next morning, the distant silhouettes of two islands came into view. These were Broch and Foyn islands, the latter only a tantalizing 10 miles away. The two islands, Nobile knew, were part of an outer fringe that skirted Spitsbergen.
Many of the survivors were losing faith in the radio. A polar bear ventured into camp, and the men tracked it down and shot it. It provided meat and a bearskin, but Malmgren and several others grew impatient for rescue. With some reluctance, Nobile gave permission for a group to attempt to walk out to Kings Bay. Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano left for Spitsbergen on May 30, leaving six men behind in camp. In fact, by then search-and-rescue operations were at last underway. Eventually, the effort would involve the ships, aircraft and personnel of seven countries, an almost unparalleled example of international cooperation. Sweden sent aircraft, and Norway dispatched the icebreaker Braganza to Spitsbergen.
The Italian government seemed to drag its feet, though Mussolini announced Major Umberto Maddalena would be sent with a Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boat. Il Duce failed to mention that the people of Milan, not the Italian government, were underwriting Maddalenas effort. Later, a Dornier-Wal seaplane piloted by Commandant Luigi Penzo was also added to the Italian rescue team.
On June 3, a young Russian farmer named Nicholas Schmidt picked up the survivors signal on his ham radio at Archangel. Once contact was made, the news flashed around the world. In time, even a belated radio link with Citta di Milano was established. The survivor campsite was now some 20 miles off Cape Leigh Smith, which was off North East Land of the Spitsbergen-Svalbard group.
On June 18, Roald Amundsen let bygones be bygones and joined a French rescue operation in a Latham hydroplane. The aircraft left Tromso, Norway, en route for Spitsbergen but never arrived. The great Arctic explorer and his companions were lost and presumed dead. Even Soviet Russia, still something of a pariah among nations, made a gesture, sending out two icebreakers-Malygin to scour the east coast of Spitsbergen and Krassin the west coast.
On the morning of June 20, Major Maddalena reached the survivors campsite in his S.55 seaplane. He dropped much-needed supplies, the first of several airdrops that were made. But then Swedish pilot Einar Lundborg managed to land his ski-shod Fokker hydroplane on the ice, jump out, and make his way to Nobile, amid general rejoicing by the survivors.
By this time, the men looked like scarecrows, dirty, bearded and disheveled. Lundborg insisted that Nobile be evacuated first, over the generals strong objections. As a leader responsible for the lives of his men, Nobile, like a captain of a ship, wanted to go last. Come, General, scoffed Lundborg, this isnt grand opera! Nobile finally consented to go, if only to direct operations at Spitsbergen. It was a decision he was to regret the rest of his life.
Lundborg flew Nobile and his little dog Titina back to Spitsbergen, but when the Swede attempted another landing on a return trip, he crashed. For a time he, too, was marooned on the ice, but on July 6 the Swedes landed a little Moth two-seater and picked him up. There were now five forlorn men on the ice, which summers advancing warm weather was beginning to melt.
It was the Russian icebreaker Krassin that finally rescued the men on July 12, after a 49-day ordeal. Earlier, the ship had picked up Adalberto Mariano and Fillipo Zappi, two of the three men who had attempted to walk out some weeks before. Zappi, exhausted and his face burned almost black by sunburn, greeted the ship enthusiastically but was evasive about the fate of Malmgren. The Italian explained Malmgren had simply given up-had lain down on the ice and died about a month before. Zappi and Mariano looked fairly well nourished, which fueled persistent rumors they had turned cannibal and eaten their companion.
The epic ordeal of Italia was over, but Nobiles troubles were just beginning. Once he landed at Kings Bay, he was under virtual house arrest aboard Citta di Milano, placed there by Captain Romagna, who was apparently following orders. When Nobile returned home, Italian crowds greeted him warmly, but the official government reaction was harsh. The Fascist press excoriated the general, even suggesting he be shot for his crimes.
An official inquiry-a kind of trial-was held, and Nobile was officially condemned as the man responsible for the Italia disaster. The very failure of the expedition was deemed almost a crime. Disgraced, a nonperson in his native land, Nobile emigrated first to Russia, then to the United States, where he accepted a post at a Chicago aeronautical school. After World War II and Mussolinis fall, he returned to Italy, were he was vindicated and honored as an aviation pioneer. He died in 1978, in his 90s, one of the last great names of Arctic exploration.
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