Airship Norge made first Transpolar Flight in 1926
The airship Norge at Teller,Alaska in 1926. The drawing is based on a
photograph in the Kay Kennedy AviationPhotograph Collection at the
Lighter-than-air airships such as the Norge used hydrogen gas for lift (modern airships utilize helium) and it could stay aloft indefinitely. They were much in vogue during the 1920s and 30s. Amundsen had flown airplanes in the Arctic with limited success. Based on his and others’ experiences, he believed airships would be ideal for polar exploration. However, the cost for a new airship was prohibitive.
When an Italian airship, the N1, came on the market second-hand, his fellow explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, provided funds to purchase it in early 1926. The 348’-long airship was retrofitted and renamed “Norge,” (Norwegian for Norway). With the airship’s designer, Umberto Nobile as captain, and a crew of Italians and Norwegians, the Norge left Rome on March 29th, 1926 bound for Norway.
An advance base for the Norge was constructed at King’s Bay on Spitzbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago off the northern coast of Norway. Facilities included a 350’-long hangar and a mooring mast. (The mast is still there, near the tiny settlement of Ny-Ålesund.)
The Norge arrived at King’s Bay on May 7th. According to Amundsen’s book, First Crossing of the Polar Sea, at 9:55 AM on May 11th the Norge lifted off with Amundsen, Ellsworth, Nobile and a crew of 13, headed north. It reached the edge of the ice pack within two hours, and several hours later encountered snow and freezing fog, which persisted through much of the flight.
The fog was extremely dangerous for the Norge. Rigid airships such as German zeppelins had stiffened, waterproof outer skins stretched over structural frameworks. The framework and skin supported and protected the zeppelin’s gas envelopes. However, the Norge was a ‘semi-rigid’ airship. Only the keel had a rigid framework, and most of the airship, including the envelope containing hydrogen gas, was only protected by a canvas covering.
Ice from the fog coated the dirigible’s skin, increasing the airship’s weight and reducing lift. The ice also broke off in chunks, and if swept into the Norge’s propellers was driven forcefully towards the canvas covering, shredding it and possibly puncturing the hydrogen-filled envelope. Falling ice might also break propeller blades. In addition, the ice fog made visual navigation almost impossible and coated the Norge’s radio antenna, interfering with radio reception.
The fog decreased as the airship neared the North Pole. At 1:30 AM on May 12th, the Norge arrived, circling the pole and dropping Norwegian, U.S. and Italian flags. It then headed across the Arctic Ocean towards Alaska.
Before long the fliers were again engulfed by thick fog, and for a time lost radio contact with the outside world. As they approached the Alaska coast the fog again receded. Reaching land near Point Barrow, the Norge proceeded southwest and then south along the coast. Headed into increasingly turbulent weather, the Norge at one point was blown off course out over the Bering Sea.
Struggling back to land, the Norge finally rounded Cape Prince of Wales, the western-most point of the Seward Peninsula. The fliers’ destination was Nome. However, worsening weather, depleted supplies, and an exhausted crew forced them to set the Norge down on the still-ice-covered harbor at Teller, 70 miles short of their goal. They had traversed 3,390 miles in just under 71 hours. (Compare that to a modern flight from Frankfurt to Fairbanks, which travels over 4,400 miles, but only takes about nine hours.)
The Norge was deflated, disassembled, and packed up for shipment back to Europe. Its crew proceeded by boat to Nome. That city’s populace was greatly disappointed that the Norge was not able to utilize Nome’s recently installed airship mooring mast.
As a footnote, citizens of Fairbanks were perhaps also disappointed that the Norge’s journey ended in Teller. Pete Haggland, director of the Pioneer Air Museum, told me that Weeks Field airport in Fairbanks also had a dirigible mooring mast.
A large model of the Norge is on display at the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage.
- Conversation with Pete Haggland, director of Pioneer Air Museum
- First Crossing of the Polar Sea. Roald Amundsen & Lincoln Ellsworth. Doubleday, Doran & Company. 1928
- Photograph of Norge landing at Teller in 1926. Kay J. Kennedy Aviation Photograph Collection. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.
- The Last Viking, The Life of Roald Amundsen. Stephen Bown. Da Capo Press. 2012
- Two Against the Ice, Amundsen and Ellsworth. Theodore K. Mason. Dodd Mead & Company. 1982