Umberto Nobile (January 21, 1885 – July 30, 1978) was an Italian aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer. Nobile was a developer and promoter of semi-rigid airships during the Golden Age of Aviation between the two World Wars. He is primarily remembered for designing and piloting the airship Norge, which may have been the first aircraft to reach the North Pole, and which was indisputably the first to fly across the polar ice cap from Europe to America. Nobile also designed and flew the Italia, a second polar airship; this second expedition ended in a deadly crash and provoked an international rescue effort.
Umberto Nobile and his dog Titina (1926)
Born in Lauro, in the southern Italian province of Avellino, Nobile graduated from the University of Naples with degrees in both electrical and industrial engineering. In 1906 he began working for the Italian state railways, where he worked on electrification of the rail system. In 1911 his interests turned to the field of aeronautical engineering, and he enrolled in a one-year course offered by the Italian Army. Nobile had always been fascinated by the work of airship pioneers such as Ferdinand von Zeppelin. When Italy entered World War I in 1915, the then 29-year-old attempted three times to enlist, but was rejected as physically unfit for service.
Commissioned in the Italian air force, Nobile spent the war overseeing airship construction and developing new designs. The Italian military had already used airships as early as 1912, during the Italo-Turkish War, for bombing and reconnaissance. Italy built about 20 M-class swmi-rigid airships with a bomb load of 1000 kg which it used for bombing and anti-shipping missions. The Italians also used other, smaller airships, some of them British-built. None of Nobile’s designs flew until after the war.
In July 1918, Nobile formed a partnership with the engineers Giuseppe Valle, Benedetto Croce and Celestino Usuelli, which they called the Aeronautical Construction Factory. During this period he also lectured at the University of Naples, obtained his test pilot’s license and wrote the textbook Elementi di Aerodinamica (Elements of Aerodynamics). He became convinced that medium sized, semi-rigid airships were superior to non-rigid and rigid designs. The company’s first project was the Airship T-34, which was designed for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When the British R34 crossed the Atlantic in 1919, Nobile and his partners sold the T-34 to the Italian military. Later the U.S. Army acquired the ship, and commissioned it as the Roma. The Roma ultimately crashed in Langley, Virginia in 1922 after hitting high tension power lines, killing 34.
That same year, in the face of political instability and threats to nationalize his company, Nobile traveled to the U.S. to work as a consultant for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. He returned to Italy in 1923 and began construction of a new airship, the N-1. According to his biography and numerous articles, he was also caught up in a web of political and professional intrigue with competitors and detractors. His principal antagonists seem to have been General Gaetano Arturo Crocco, a competing airship manufacturer, and General Italo Balbo, chief of the air force general staff, who sought to develop Italy’s air fleet with heavier-than-air craft rather than the airships Nobile designed.
In autumn 1925 Norwegian Explorer Roald Amundsen sought out Nobile to collaborate on a flight to the North Pole – still at that time an unreached goal for aviators – using one of Nobile’s craft. Amundsen had previously in spring 1925 flown to within 150 nautical miles (280 km) of the North Pole, in a pair of Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats along with the American millionaire-adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, the pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, but their planes were forced to land near 88 degrees North and the six men were trapped on the ice for 30 days.
The Italian State Airship Factory, which had built Nobile’s N-1, made it available for the expedition March 29, 1926. Amundsen insisted in the contract that Nobile should be the pilot and that five of the crew should be Italian; Amundsen named the airship Norge (Norway). On April 14 the airship left Italy for Leningrad in Russia with stops at Pulham (England) and Oslo. On its way towards its Arctic jumping-off point, Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) at Vestspitsbergen, Svalbard (belonging to Norway) it also made a stop at the airship mast at Vadsoe (Northern Norway).
On 29 April Amundsen was dismayed at the arrival of Richard E. Byrd’s American expedition which also aimed to reach the Pole.On May 9, after Byrdand Floyd Bennett departed in their Fokker F-VII anreturned less than 16 hours later claiming to have overflown the Pole, Amundsen was one of the first to congratulate them. The Norge crew pressed ahead with their flight. Byrd’s co-pilot Bennett is said later to have admitted that they faked their flight to the Pole.
On May 11, 1926, the Norge expedition left Svalbard. Fifteen and a half hours later the ship flew over the Pole and landed two days later in Teller, Alaska; strong winds had made the planned landing at Nome, Alaska impossible. In retrospect, the Norge crew actually achieved their aim of being the first to overfly the Pole: Byrd’s May 9 flight, acclaimed for decades as the prestigious first Polar flyover, has since been subjected to several credible challenges, including the discovery of Byrd’s flight diary which showed that navigational data in his official report was fraudulent.
The Norge “Rome to Nome” flight was acclaimed as another great milestone in flight, but disagreement soon erupted between Nobile (designer and pilot), and Amundsen (expd. leader, observer and passenger) on the flight, as to who deserved greater credit for the expedition.The controversy was exacerbated by Mussolini’s government, which trumpeted the genius of Italian engineering and ordered Nobile on a speaking tour of the U.S., further alienating Amundsen and the Norwegians.
Col. Umberto Nobile, designer of the “Norge” watching her departure from the base at Spitsbergen, from forward control car
Despite the controversy, Nobile continued to maintain good relations with other polar scientists, and he started planning a new expedition, this time fully under Italian control. Nobile’s company managed to sell the N-3 airship to Japan; however, relations between Nobile and his competitors in the fascist government were hostile, and he and his staff were subjected to threats and intimidation. Nobile’s popularity with the public meant he was, for the moment, safe from direct attack. When the plans for his next expedition were announced, Italo Balbo is said to have commented, “Let him go, for he cannot possibly come back to bother us anymore.”
The N-class airship Italia was slowly completed and equipped for Polar flight during 1927-28. Part of the difficulty was in raising private funding to cover the costs of the expedition, which finally was financed by the city of Milan; the Italian government limited its direct participation to providing the airship and sending the aging steamer Città di Milano as a support vessel to Svalbard, under the command of Giuseppe Romagna.
This time the airship used a German hangar at Stolp en route to Svalbard and the mast at Vadsø (Northern Norway). On May 23, 1928, after an outstanding 69 hour long flight to the Siberian group of Arctic islands, the Italia commenced its flight to the North Pole with Nobile as both pilot and expedition leader. On May 24, the ship reached the Pole and had already turned back toward Svalbard when it ran into a storm. On May 25, the Italia crashed onto the pack ice less than 30 kilometres north of Nordaustlandet (Eastern part of Svalbard). Of the 16 men in the crew, ten were thrown onto the ice as the gondola was smashed; the remaining six crewmen were trapped in the buoyant superstructure as it ascended skyward due to loss of the gondola; the fate of the six men was never resolved. One of the ten men on the ice, Pomella, died from the impact; Nobile suffered a broken arm, broken leg, broken rib and head injury; Cecioni suffered two badly broken legs; Malmgren suffered a severe shoulder injury and suspected injury to a kidney; and Zappi had several broken ribs.
The crew managed to salvage several items from the crashed airship gondola, including a radio transceiver, a tent which they later painted red for maximum visibility, and, critically, packages of food and survival equipment which quick-witted engineer Ettore Arduino had managed to throw onto the ice before he and his five companions were carried off to their deaths by the wrecked but still airborne airship envelope and keel. As the days passed, the drifting sea ice took the survivors towards Foyn and Broch islands.
A few days after the crash the Swedish meteorologist Malmgren and Nobile’s second and third in command Mariano and Zappi decided to leave the immobile group and march towards land. Malmgren, who was injured, weakened and reportedly still depressed over his meteorological advice that he felt contributed to the crash, asked his two Italian companions to continue without him. These two were picked up several weeks later by the Soviet icebreaker “Krasin”. However there were persistent rumors that Malmgren was killed and cannibalized by Zappi and Mariano.
A “highly imaginative, fictionalized version” of these events was made into the 1969 film The Red Tent. The film was an Italian/Russian co-production and featured Peter Finch as Nobile, Sean Connery as Amundsen and Harsy Krüger as Lundborg.