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b. Lauro, Italy, 1885

d. Rome, Italy, 1978

Italian aeronautical engineer and aeronautical science professor; designer of semi-rigid airships including the Norge and Italia. Promoted from Colonel to General in the Italian air force following the Norge north pole flight, forced to resign following the Italia disaster. Spent five years in the USSR in the 1930s developing Soviet airship program; lived in the US for several years during WW II; returned to Italy in 1944 where he remained until his death in 1978 at age 92.

Italian airship designer and pilot Umberto Nobile took part in two flights over the North Pole, one in 1926 in the airship Norge and another in 1928 in the airship Italia.

The Norge [meaning Norway] flight took place on May 11-14, 1926, and was a joint Norwegian-American-Italian venture. The co-leaders 626j93g were the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, and Italian Umberto Nobile, the airship's designer and pilot. The Norge departed Kings Bay [Ny ┼lesund], Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago on May 11, 1926--just five days after American Richard Byrd's claimed (and highly questionable) attainment of the North Pole by airplane--and flew by way of the North Pole to Teller (near Nome), Alaska. The flight, which originated in Rome, had been touted as "Rome to Nome" but bad weather forced them to land at the small settlement of Teller just short of Nome. This was the first undisputed attainment of the North Pole by air and the first crossing of the polar sea from Europe to North America. Additionally it gave Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole (1911), the distinction of being the first person to travel to both poles of the earth.

After a safe landing in Teller in which the Norge was undamaged, the airship was deflated and dismantled. Originally plans called for the airship to be sold back to the Italian government after completion of the flight; however the Norge unfortunately fell prey to souvenir hunters from Teller and was more or less destroyed.

Following the Norge flight a bitter dispute--that was played out in the world press--broke out between Amundsen and Nobile over who should receive credit for leading the expedition. As a result Nobile returned to Kings Bay, Spitsbergen in 1928 as sole leader of his own expedition. However, the Italia flight ended in tragedy. The Italia departed Kings Bay on May 22, 1928 and flew over the North Pole but crashed on the ice northeast of Spitsbergen on its return flight to Kings Bay the following day. Nine crewmembers, including Nobile, were thrown out onto the ice and survived the crash. The Italia crash sparked a massive search and rescue operation, the first in the far north, to which six countries sent planes and ships. As a further tragedy Roald Amundsen lost his life travelling by air from Norway to Spitsbergen to take part in the rescue mission.

On June 23, 1928 a Swedish pilot removed Nobile to the mainland from the ice floe on which Italia survivors were stranded, but damaged his plane on the return for more survivors and had to be rescued himself. Ultimately, the Russian icebreaker Krassin reached the by-then badly disintegrating ice floe and rescued the remaining survivors on July 12, seven weeks after the Italia crashed.

One additional note: both the Norge and Italia flights flew over the North Pole but did not land. Well-publicized plans to land and leave a scientific team from the Italia at the North Pole were vague at best and failed to materialize. However, some publications incorrectly identify either or both flights, as well as Byrd's 1926 airplane flight, with having landed at the North Pole. It was not until 1937 that four 4-engine cargo planes from the Russian SP-1 expedition flew from Franz Josef Land and landed at the North Pole.


In 1928, Nobile returned to Kings Bay as sole leader of his own expedition in the airship Italia. On May 21, 1928, the Italia crashed on the ice north-east of Spitsbergen on the return from a claimed attainment of the North Pole.

  The Italia carried a crew of 16. At the time of the crash, nine crewmembers--including Nobile--were in the main cabin gondola and were thrown onto the ice. One additional crewmember was in the rear engine gondola and was also thrown to the ice, but was found dead. Six crewmembers were inside the envelope and disappeared when the envelope, relieved of the weight of the gondola, floated away in free-flight. Their remains were never found. Remark-ably, a number of supplies, including a radio and a tent, were also thrown to the ice. The radio eventually allowed survivors to establish contact with the outside world. Survivors used a red dye to paint red stripes on the tent to make it more visible from the air and the site became known in the extensive press coverage as the Red Tent.

The Rescue Operations. The Italia crash sparked the first massive air-sea rescue operation in the Far North. Ultimately five countries sent planes, pilots, and ships to the Svalbard area to aid in the search. But in reality no one was in charge and there was little, if any, coordination of activities. The Italian ship CittÓ di Milano, in the harbor at Kings Bay, served as the expedition's base ship and carried a small contingent of Alpini soldiers proficient in mountaineering; otherwise, there were no advance preparations for the possibility of a disaster. There were no airplanes in Spitsbergen at the time.

The following is a brief chronology of rescue operations related to the Italia tragedy:

  • May 23, 1928  The Italia crashes on the ice at 81║14'N, 25║25'W, north of North East Land in the Svalbard Archipelago. [The ice floe drifted extensively and at various times survivors were in sight of land].
  • May 31  Unable to establish radio contact, three Italia survivors begin a trek toward land.
  • June 5  A Norwegian pilot makes the first flight in search of the Italia. In the ensuing weeks, pilots from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Italy make search and rescue flights.
  • June 6   A Russian radio operator hears the Italia SOS signals.
  • June 8  Radio contact established between the ice floe and the CittÓ di Milano. Search operations continue.
  • June 18  Roald Amundsen disappears on a flight to Spitsbergen to aid in    rescue operations.
  • June 20  An Italian pilot spots the Red Tent location and drops supplies.
  • June 23  A Swedish pilot removes Nobile from the ice floe but damages his plane on the return for more survivors.
  • July 12  The Russian ice-breaker Krassin rescues remaining Italia survivors.

Once radio contact was established with Italia survivors and rescue operations were underway, the focus shifted to a search for Roald Amundsen who with five others in a French Latham seaplane had disappeared on a flight from Troms° in northern Norway to Spitsbergen. At this point France joined five other countries already in the Svalbard area in sending ships and planes to take part in the search.


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