ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page

Search ExploreNorth

The Airship 'Norge' - North Pole Flight, 1926

    The Arctic had been the target of aerial exploration as early as 1897, but it was not until aviation technology had dramatically improved following World War I that flying started to be considered a credible way to explore the Poles. While the Antarctic attracted some aviators, the North Pole was the favoured region, being much closer to population centres and with somewhat less severe weather conditions.

    One of the most air-minded of polar explorers was Roald Amundsen. In 1922, about to leave on an expedition to Wrangel Island, he purchased a Junkers monoplane which was then shipped to Seattle and loaded aboard his ship Maud. The Curtiss company then loaned him a small plane which was also taken on the expedition. The Curtiss only made two short flights before crashing - luckily, the pilot escaped. In May 1923, the Junkers was also damaged beyond repair, on its first test flight at Wainwright, Alaska. The aerial aspects of this expedition were not a complete failure, though - Amundsen had also arranged for aerial support when the expedition reached Svalbard, and several successful flights were made there.

    On May 21st, 1925, Amundsen again headed north by air. This expedition, financed by Lincoln Ellsworth and his father, left Svalbard with a pair of large Dornier-Wal flying boats, each carrying three men. After eight hours of flying, a fuel tank in one of the planes sprung a leak, and the other plane was having some engine trouble, so a landing was made on the ice at 87° 43'N, 10° 21'W. Both planes were damaged in the landing, but one was able to be repaired. A runway had to be hacked out of the rough ice, though, and it took five attempts before Captain Hjalmar Rüser-Larsen of the Norwegian Navy was able to get the good plane off the ice with all six men. They were able to get back to Svalbard safely.

The airship Norge at her mooring mast on Svalbard in 1926     Rather than being disappointed by that failure to reach the North Pole, both Amundsen and Ellsworth were excited by the possibilities, and Ellsworth purchased an airship built by Italian designer General Umberto Nobile. A semi-rigid craft with a capacity of about 18,000,000 litres, the Norge was flown by Nobile on a circuitous route from Rome to Vadsö in northern Norway and then to Kongsfjorden (King's Bay) on Svalbard, where a mooring mast and other facilities for the expedition had been built. The postcard to the right shows her at the mast prior to the flight - click on the photo to enlarge it.

    There were 16 men on board the Norge when she left Svalbard on May 11, 1926 - under the direction of Amundsen and Ellsworth, Nobile flew her and Rüser-Larsen was back as navigator (although a brilliant fixed-wing pilot, he had no airship experience). The other twelve men took care of the many details of airship operation.

    The flight to the North Pole was remarkably uneventful other than losing radio contact after the antennae iced up, and on May 12, the Norwegian, Italian and American flags were dropped on the North Pole. Continuing on to Alaska, however, the weather deteriorated, and the airship's canvas covering was punctured by ice. Instead of landing at Nome as planned, Nobile set the Norge down at Teller, Alaska, on May 14. The flight had covered almost 5,500 kilometers, much of it over regions that had been white ("unexplored") on the maps of the day.

Italian stamp honoring the airship Norge     A deep animosity developed between Amundsen and Nobile following the flight, with Nobile feeling he should get more of the credit for the flight's success and Amundsen criticizing the construction of the Norge, which was disassembled after landing. However, when Nobile disappeared while returning from the North Pole in the airship Italia, Amundsen joined the search, during which he was killed when the plane he was in crashed, on June 18, 1928. Two weeks previously, Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile had all been awarded Congressional Gold Medals by the United States Congress to honour their achievement in 1926.

    Although there were no special postage stamps issued to commemorate the flight by any of the three nations involved, a semi-official stamp had been issued by Italy on April 10, 1926. Seen above, it has a picture of the Norge superimposed on a map of the route from Rome to the North Pole, with the names Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile and the title "Volo Tranpolare - 1926 / Posta Aerea". Click on the stamp to enlarge it. For philatelists, there were cards carried on the flight that appear occasionally in auctions now (an example is shown below), and a commemorative cancellation was used in Longyearbyen on May 12, 2001 (seen at the bottom).

The postcard below was carried on the polar flight of the Norge -
it is signed by Rüser-Larsen and is stamped in German:
"Luftpost med 'Norge'         Svalbard - Nordpolen - Alaska"

The historic postcard is in the collection of Murray Lundberg, the Norge stamp is in the collection of Fabio Vaccarezza, and the cancellation was sent by Walter Jellum. All are used here with permission.

Arctic & Northern Aviation