The First Flight Over the North Pole

North Pole

The early 20th century saw a time of extensive polar exploration. The poles were the last terrestrial locations that had yet to be reached by humans.

At first there were many disputed claims of reaching the North Pole from various people. Henson and Peary were the first men confirmed to have reached the North Pole by foot on March 30th, 1911.

Arctic Current Arctic Current

On December 14th of 1911, a Norwegian from a small town south of Oslo named Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole. He did this after two failed attempts to reach the North Pole. His first attempt in 1918 was made by lodging a ship in the ice and drifting with it past the North Pole by means of the Transpolar Ocean Current. During this failed excursion Amundsen fell through sea ice and nearly drowned, was attacked by a polar bear, and fell off of the ship breaking his arm.

His second attempt to reach the North Pole was by aircraft starting from the island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), Norway, in 1925. One of the two aircraft was damaged during takeoff and had to make an emergency landing on sea ice 160 miles from the pole. After weeks of desperate work to build a runway the two planes returned to the air and landed safely back in Spitsbergen to a cheering crowd.

Success at Last

Roald Amundsen Roald Amundsen

Now Roald Amundsen began to investigate the use of a blimp to finally accomplish his dream of passing over the North Pole. There were certain advantages that an airship had over a plane. If there were an engine malfunction, it could be repaired midair. If an aircraft were to malfunction it would need to land for repairs and it must do so immediately. In the event of a landing, an airship could reduce altitude while traversing slowly, making a landing in the dense fogs so common in the northern latitudes far less dangerous. At this time airships could also carry heavier loads than planes and could stay in the air longer.

A semi-rigid airship was acquired on March 29th of 1926 from Ciampino airfield, outside Rome, and the name changed from N1 to Norge. Umberto Nobile was the lead builder of the ship.

Gardena Pass The Norge on the island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), Norway

The Norge was 348ft (106 m) long, 62ft (19 m) wide and 79ft (24 m) high. It was built of aluminum covered with a rubber material. Inside was a balloon filled with 688,636 ft3 (19,500 m3) of hydrogen. If needed the crew could walk from the cabin to the ship's three engines. The airship could manage a speed of 50 mph (80 kph).

The flight was to begin 769 miles (1238 km) from the North Pole in the town of Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), Norway. A hangar was erected on the island and the Norge was shipped there along with 4,800 cylinders of hydrogen.

Richard Byrd

Richard Byrd Richard Byrd
photo credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

On April 29th the American steamship Chantier arrived at Ny-Ålesund with Richard Byrd’s expedition which also planned to fly to the North Pole in the Josephine Ford, a triple-engine Fokker monoplane, with the goal of finding uncharted land. Amundsen's expeditionary party urged him to hurry their takeoff so as to beat the Americans to the North Pole. Amundsen would have none of it and insisted there was no competition over achieving the first flight over the pole, especially at the expense of safety.

Some trouble was had in unloading the plane and even more trouble achieving takeoff. After unloading 1,000 lbs of exta weight Richard Byrd’s aircraft took off at 1:50 AM on May 9th, 3 days before Amundsen's. Byrd claims to have "circled" around the North Pole, confirming their location by means of a sextant.

Byrd's party landed back at Ny-Ålesund around 5:00 PM. This gave an average speed of 100 mph (160 kph) for the 1,538 mile (2,475 km) round trip flight.

Doubt is cast on the achievements of Richard Byrd’s expedition due to the stated top speed of 85 mph (137 kph) for the aircraft. Bryd explained this by stating a favorable tailwind was experienced.

Arctic Current Richard Byrd’s Arctic Pole flight chart
photo credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The discovery in 1996 of the diary that Byrd had kept of his famous flight seems to suggest that he and Bennett may have turned back 150 miles short of the pole because of an oil leak in the aircraft. The diary also contained erased (but still legible) sextant readings that sharply differ with a later typewritten official report on June 22nd to the National Geographic Society.

At any rate, Richard Byrd’s expedition to the North Pole is a disputed achievement.

The Flight of the Norge

The Norge airship left Ny-Ålesund on May 11 at 9:55 AM. A total of 16 men were aboard. Roald Amundsen was the leader and first in command. Lieutenant Riiser-Larsen was in charge of navigation, and Finn Malmgren kept the meteorological records.

The expedition experienced no problems and passed over the North Pole at 1:25 AM Greenwich time on May 12, 1926. Amundsen and Wisting therefore became the first to reach both the North and South Poles. Norwegian, American, and Italian flags were dropped onto the ice and the flight continued towards Alaska.

They were now in unknown territory. Amundsen sat at the front of the cabin looking for any sign of land. Unfortunately they passed into a thick fog at 8:30 AM making any sightings of land impossible. The fog stuck to the airship and layers of ice were thrown from the propellers and into the balloon. Repairs were made to the airship as she flew.

At 6:45 AM on May 13 they spotted land before passing over Wainwright, Alaska. Amundsen and Omdal recognized the town from their stay there in 1922. They reported seeing a small house they had built there and saw townspeople waving from the rooves of their homes.

They had now accomplished their goal of flying over the North Pole and crossing the Arctic Ocean. The expedition was, however, not over. A tremendous gale blew and carried them over the Bering Strait. They were likely carried close to Cape Serdze Kamen on the Siberian coast at 6:00 PM on May 13. By 11:00 PM they had made it back to the Alaskan coast. The weather grew worse and they were carried past Cape Prince of Wales at 3:30 AM.

Even not knowing exactly where they were, they decided to land as soon as possible. They chose an ice covered bay beside the small town of Teller on the west coast of Alaska. It was the 14th of May, 1926. The crew had been in the air for 72 hours. They had accomplished their goals of flying over the North Pole and crossing the Arctic Ocean in a feat named "The Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight."

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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