May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

May 23 1928  Crash of the Airship Italia

The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried 20 personnel, a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, and the expedition mascot, a Fox Terrier named Titina.

Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

Her mission was to explore the ice cap surrounding the North Pole, operating out of an expedition base in Ny-Ålesund, one of four permanent settlements on Spitsbergen Island in the Kingdom of Norway.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in near perfect weather conditions and unlimited visibility, the craft covering 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and setting the stage for the third and final trip departing on May 23.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen. Though wind conditions prevented them from dropping scientists onto the ice sheet, survival packs and the inflatable raft they brought along for the purpose would turn out to be providential.

Trouble started almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds as they headed south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Umberto Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle made the task difficult. The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

Now relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship began to rise again with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a remarkable display of calm under pressure. As the airship’s italia-crashenvelope floated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino started to throw everything he could get his hands on down to the men on the ice. These were the supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death. Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left stranded on the ice.  They immediately began to go through their supplies. They found a radio and fashioned a mast from the debris, and set up a tent after coloring it red using the dye contained in several flares.

The tale of the Italia rescue is a story in itself, as would-be rescuers themselves became stranded or disappeared into the arctic circle, never to be seen again.

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Bureaucratic intransigence, equipment failure and a lack of coordination would hamper rescue efforts.  It would be more than 49 days before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers would be found. The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia, is unknown.