Airship Italia

Lost in the depths of the arctic

Tragedy on the Ice

On May 25 1928, Airship Italia, commanded by Umberto Nobile, one of the founding fathers of Arctic exploration, crashed on the way back from the North Pole, about 120 km northeast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard (81°14 N 28°14 E).

The crash killed part of the crew trapped in the still drifting airship envelope and leaving the survivors stranded on the pack ice. Their story of their survival and the surrounding tragedy of their rescue was a great inspiration for the Polarquest2018 expedition, which collaborated with the descendants of these heroes to pay tribute to their incredible tale. 

In the wake of Airship Italia’s crash, a collection of nations, including Soviet Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Italy, launched the first polar air and sea rescue effort.

 

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, boxes 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.

In the wake of the crash, a collection of nations, including Soviet Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Italy, launched the first polar air and sea rescue effort.

Norwegian polar hero Roald Amundsen, first man to conquer the North and the South poles put aside his past differences with Nobile (who had built the Norge airship, the first aircraft to reach the North Pole, and the first to fly across the polar ice cap from Europe to America) and boarded a French seaplane and headed for the rescue headquarters. His plane disappeared between Tromsø and Svalbard, and though a pontoon from the craft was later found, the bodies of Amundsen, the pilot René Guilbaud and the four others on board were not.

After a month, the first rescue plane, a Swedish airforce Fokker ski plane, piloted by Lieutenant Einar Lundborg landed near the crash site. Lundborg refused to take anyone but Nobile, who was airlifted to Ryss Island, base camp of Swedish and Finnish air rescue efforts. When Lundborg returned alone to pick up a second survivor he crashed his plane on landing, and was trapped with the other five.

After 48 days on the ice floe, the last five men of his crew were rescued by the Soviet icebreaker Krassin. Nobile insisted that he wanted to continue the search for the six crew who were swept away by the airship when it disintegrated, but he was ordered back to Rome (by Mussolini) with the others.

On 13 August 2018, the PolarQuest team arrived at the crash area of the Airship ITALIA: 81°14 N 25°25 E. These were the coordinates sent out by ITALIA’s survivors in their first SOS message, 24 hours after the crash.

It was an emotional moment, as the team said a prayer at the site, and left behind flowers and a cross given to them by the descendants of Airship ITALIA’s crew. As the PolarQuest team are the first people to visit the site in 90 years, this was at last an opportunity to lay the missing crew to rest.

It is also the first chance for team to search for the Airship ITALIA beneath the Arctic waters using a multi-beamer scanner provided by NORBIT Subsea. The team searched a well-defined area, calculated using historical documents and testimonies from ITALIA descendants. This was the first documented targeted attempt at locating the wreck of airship ITALIA in 90 years.

 

“I was thrown outside head down. Instinctively, I closed my eyes and thought with indifference, “It’s all over.”

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Umberto Nobile

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