History

The Airship Norge

Written by
Ray Bonnell

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen capped his illustrious career in 1926 by commanding the first expedition to fly across the top of the world. That transpolar expedition utilized the dirigible Norge.

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.

An Italian airship, the N1, came on the market second-hand in 1925. Amundsen’s fellow explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, came from a wealthy family and he provided funds to purchase the Italian ship 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 29, 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 a.m. 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 would be 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 a.m. 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.

No items found.

The Airship Norge

History

Author

Ray Bonnell

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist specializing in pen & ink drawings of historic buildings, and is also a columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper. His column won the Alaska Historical Society’s “Contributions to Alaska History” award in 2011. His books include: “Interior Sketches, Ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites” and “Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites.” Original drawings are also available. Check out Ray’s blog at http://sketchesofalaska.blogspot.com.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen capped his illustrious career in 1926 by commanding the first expedition to fly across the top of the world. That transpolar expedition utilized the dirigible Norge.

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.

An Italian airship, the N1, came on the market second-hand in 1925. Amundsen’s fellow explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, came from a wealthy family and he provided funds to purchase the Italian ship 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 29, 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 a.m. 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 would be 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 a.m. 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.

No items found.

Author

Ray Bonnell

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