UpHere Logo

Airship Lost

Airship Lost

Six balloon-men disappear into the Arctic air, never to be found again
By Daniel Campbell
Sep 19
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

THE FEAT: On May 23, 1928 the airship Italia, with a mostly-Italian crew led by airship designer and pilot Umberto Nobile, left its base on Spitsbergen Island in Svalbard for the North Pole. About a day later, Nobile dropped the Italian flag and a wooden cross from the Pope on the pole. 

THE CRASH: Italia ran into heavy headwinds on its way back. Nobile considered using them to head west for the Mackenzie River in Canada, but his meteorologist said the winds would turn. They didn’t. Ice began to form on the propellers, which then flung ice shards into the weak balloon of the airship, creating holes that needed to be patched on the fly. It’s not known exactly why, but the Italia eventually began descending uncontrollably. The airship’s gondola hit the ice floe below first, ripping itself off from the balloon. Ten people were inside the gondola, and one was killed on impact. Those inside the balloon—a rigger, three engine mechanics, a journalist and a physicist—fared worse. The six men floated away to certain death among the polar clouds.  

THE SURVIVAL: Eight of the nine crewmembers, including Nobile, survived the coming weeks on the ice. One man died trekking for help. At one point, they shot a polar bear and ate it. But much of their sustenance came from a quick-thinking (and selfless) engineer trapped inside the doomed balloon. As the men on the ice watched their companions drift away, Ettore Arduino dumped any supplies he could get his hands on to the survivors below, before floating away into oblivion. 

THE RESCUE: In early June, the survivors on the ice floe were able to make radio contact with the outside world. The messages sparked a massive rescue effort that would eventually involve thousands of people in 31 separate rescue teams from eight different nations, travelling by plane, dog team and boat. Roald Amundsen volunteered to help with the search, but he and five other rescuers disappeared while flying to Spitsbergen and were never seen again. Some of the other rescuers had to be saved themselves, when they became trapped on the ice floe. Nobile was rescued before his crew—controversially—on June 23 by a Swedish pilot. The last survivors of the Italia were rescued on July 12, after nearly 40 days on the ice. 

(Sources: Disaster at the Pole: The Crash of the Airship Italia, by Wilbur Cross and The Polar Adventure: The “Italia” Tragedy Seen at Close Quarters by Odd Arnesen)