Umberto Nobile

Umberto Nobile
Umberto Nobile 1920s.jpg
Umberto Nobile c. 1923
Born(1885-01-21)21 January 1885
Lauro, Italy
Died30 July 1978(1978-07-30) (aged 93)
Rome, Italy

Umberto Nobile (Italian pronunciation: [umˈbɛrto ˈnɔːbile]; 21 January 1885 – 30 July 1978) was an Italian aviator, aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer. Nobile was a developer and promoter of semi-rigid airships during the years between the two World Wars. He is primarily remembered for designing and piloting the airship Norge, which may have been the first aircraft to reach the North Pole, and which was indisputably the first to fly across the polar ice cap from Europe to America. Nobile also designed and flew the Italia, a second polar airship; this second expedition ended in a deadly crash and provoked an international rescue effort.

Early career

Umberto Nobile and his dog Titina in 1926

Born in Lauro, in the southern Italian province of Avellino, Nobile graduated from the University of Naples with degrees in both electrical and industrial engineering. In 1906 he began working for the Italian state railways, where he worked on electrification of the rail system. In 1911 his interests turned to the field of aeronautical engineering, and he enrolled in a one-year course offered by the Italian Army. Nobile had always been fascinated by the work of airship pioneers such as Ferdinand von Zeppelin. When Italy entered World War I in 1915, the then 29-year-old attempted three times to enlist, but was rejected as physically unfit for service.

Commissioned in the Italian air force, Nobile spent the war overseeing airship construction and developing new designs. The Italian military had already used airships as early as 1912, during the Italo-Turkish War, for bombing and reconnaissance. Italy built about 20 M-class semi-rigid airships with a bomb load of 1000 kg which it used for bombing and anti-shipping missions. The Italians also used other, smaller airships, some of them British-built. None of Nobile's designs flew until after the war.

In July 1918, Nobile formed a partnership with the engineers Giuseppe Valle, Benedetto Croce and Celestino Usuelli, which they called the Aeronautical Construction Factory. During this period he also lectured at the University of Naples, obtained his test pilot's license and wrote the textbook Elementi di Aerodinamica (Elements of Aerodynamics). He became convinced that medium-sized, semi-rigid airships were superior to non-rigid and rigid designs. The company's first project was the Airship T-34, which was designed for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When the British R34 crossed the Atlantic in 1919, Nobile and his partners sold the T-34 to the Italian military. The U.S. Army purchased the airship in 1921 and commissioned it as the Roma. In February, 1922, the Roma crashed and exploded in Norfolk, Virginia, after hitting high-tension power lines, killing 34.

That same year, in the face of political instability and threats to nationalize his company, Nobile traveled to the U.S. to work as a consultant for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. He returned to Italy in 1923 and began construction of a new airship, the N-1. According to his biography and numerous articles, he was also caught up in a web of political and professional intrigue with competitors and detractors. His principal antagonists seem to have been General Gaetano Arturo Crocco, a competing airship manufacturer, and General Italo Balbo, chief of the air force general staff, who sought to develop Italy's air fleet with heavier-than-air craft rather than the airships Nobile designed.

Polar expeditions

Umberto Nobile, designer of the "Norge" watching her departure from the base at Spitsbergen, from forward control car


In late 1925 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sought out Nobile to collaborate on a flight to the North Pole – still at that time an unreached goal for aviators – using an airship. Amundsen had previously in early 1925 flown to within 150 nautical miles (280 km) of the North Pole, in a pair of Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats[1] along with the American millionaire-adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth and the pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, but their planes were forced to land near 88 degrees North, and the six men were trapped on the ice for 30 days.

The Italian State Airship Factory, which had built Nobile's N-1, made it available for the expedition 29 March 1926. Amundsen insisted in the contract that Nobile should be the pilot and that five of the crew should be Italian;[2] Amundsen named the airship Norge (Norway). On 14 April the airship left Italy for Leningrad in Russia with stops at Pulham (England) and Oslo. On its way towards its Arctic jumping-off point, Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) at Vestspitsbergen, Svalbard (belonging to Norway) it also made a stop at the airship mast at Vadsø (Northern Norway).

On 29 April Amundsen was dismayed at the arrival of Richard E. Byrd's American expedition, which also aimed to reach the Pole.[2] On 9 May, after Byrd[2] and Floyd Bennett departed in their Fokker F-VII and returned less than 16 hours later claiming to have overflown the Pole, Amundsen was one of the first to congratulate them.[2] The Norge crew pressed ahead with their flight.[2]

On 11 May 1926, the Norge expedition left Svalbard. Fifteen and a half hours later the ship flew over the Pole and landed two days later in Teller, Alaska;[2] strong winds had made the planned landing at Nome, Alaska, impossible. In retrospect, the Norge crew actually achieved their aim of being the first to overfly the Pole: Byrd's 9 May flight, acclaimed for decades as the prestigious first Polar flyover, has since been subjected to several credible challenges,[2] including the discovery of Byrd's flight diary, which showed that navigational data in his official report was fraudulent. Byrd's co-pilot Bennett is said later to have admitted that they faked their flight to the Pole.

The Norge "Rome to Nome" flight was acclaimed as another great milestone in flight, but disagreement soon erupted between Nobile (designer and pilot), and Amundsen (expedition leader, observer and passenger) on the flight, as to who deserved greater credit for the expedition.[2] The controversy was exacerbated by Mussolini's Fascist government, which trumpeted the genius of Italian engineering and exploration; Nobile was ordered to make a speaking tour of the U.S., further alienating Amundsen and the Norwegians.


Despite the controversy, Nobile continued to maintain good relations with other polar scientists, and he started planning a new expedition, this time fully under Italian control. Nobile's company managed to sell the N-3 airship to Japan; however, relations between Nobile and his competitors in the fascist government were hostile, and he and his staff were subjected to threats and intimidation. Nobile's popularity with the public meant he was, for the moment, safe from direct attack. When the plans for his next expedition were announced, Italo Balbo is said to have commented, "Let him go, for he cannot possibly come back to bother us anymore."[3]

The Italia, nearly identical to the Norge, was slowly completed and equipped for Polar flight during 1927–28. Part of the difficulty was in raising private funding to cover the costs of the expedition, which finally was financed by the city of Milan; the Italian government limited its direct participation to providing the airship and sending the aging steamer Città di Milano as a support vessel to Svalbard, under the command of Giuseppe Romagna.

"N3," Japan at Kasumigaura, Japan on 24 May 1927

This time the airship used a German hangar at Stolp en route to Svalbard and the mast at Vadsø (Northern Norway). On 23 May 1928, after an outstanding 69-hour-long flight to the Siberian group of Arctic islands, the Italia commenced its flight to the North Pole with Nobile as both pilot and expedition leader. On 24 May, the ship reached the Pole and had already turned back toward Svalbard when it ran into a storm. On 25 May, the Italia crashed onto the pack ice less than 30 kilometres north of Nordaustlandet (Eastern part of Svalbard). Of the 16 men in the crew, ten were thrown onto the ice as the gondola was smashed; the remaining six crewmen were trapped in the buoyant superstructure as it ascended skyward due to loss of the gondola; the fate of the six men was never resolved. One of the ten men on the ice, Pomella, died from the impact; Nobile suffered a broken arm, broken leg, broken rib and head injury; Cecioni suffered two badly broken legs; Malmgren suffered a severe shoulder injury and suspected injury to a kidney; and Zappi had several broken ribs.[4]

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. As the days passed, the drifting sea ice took the survivors towards Foyn and Broch islands.[3]

A few days after the crash the Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren and Nobile's second and third in command Mariano and Zappi decided to leave the immobile group and march towards land. Malmgren, who was injured, weakened and reportedly still depressed over his meteorological advice that he felt contributed to the crash, asked his two Italian companions to continue without him. These two were picked up several weeks later by the Soviet icebreaker "Krasin". However, there were persistent rumors that Malmgren was killed and cannibalized by Zappi and Mariano.[3]

A "highly imaginative, fictionalized version" of these events was made into the 1969 film The Red Tent.[5] The film was an Italian/Soviet co-production and featured Peter Finch as Nobile, Sean Connery as Amundsen and Hardy Krüger as Lundborg.

Controversial search and rescue

In the wake of the crash, a collection of nations, including the Soviet Union, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Italy, launched the first polar air and sea rescue effort. Privately owned ships which had been chartered by polar scientists and explorers also participated. Even Roald Amundsen put aside his past differences with Nobile and boarded a French seaplane and headed for the rescue headquarters; this 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.[6]

After a month of privation for the Italia survivors, the first rescue plane, a Swedish Air Force Fokker C.V-E ski plane, piloted by Lieutenant Einar Lundborg and with Lieutenant Schyberg as observer landed near the crash site. Nobile had prepared a detailed evacuation plan, with the most seriously wounded man (the heavy built mechanic Cecioni) at the top of the list and himself as number 4, with the navigator (Viglieri) and the radio operator (Biagi) as respectively no. 5 and 6. However, Lundborg refused to take anyone but Nobile. He argued that the plane could only take one survivor and the other seriously injured man was so heavy Lundborg was unsure he could take off.[7] Nobile was airlifted to Søre Russøya, 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.

Eventually, Nobile reached the Città di Milano, where, he later said, he was dismayed at the incompetence he found. His attempts to help co-ordinate the international rescue effort were blocked, and when he threatened to leave he was placed under virtual arrest by Captain Romagna. His telegrams to the survivors still on the ice, as well as to various people involved in the rescue, were heavily censored. It was wrongly reported in Fascist Italian newspapers that his own evacuation was an obvious sign of cowardice. After 48 days on the ice floe, the last five men of his crew were rescued by the Soviet icebreaker Krasin. 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 with the others.

Two hundred thousand cheering Italians met Nobile and his crew on arrival in Rome on July 31. This show of popularity was unexpected by Nobile's detractors, who had been seeding the foreign and domestic press with accusations against him. An aggrieved Nobile was not shy about his complaints; in an interview with Benito Mussolini, he offended the dictator by detailing his grievances at length. The official inquiry and the embarrassment over the crash gave Nobile's enemies the chance they were looking for: blame for the disaster was placed on his shoulders, and he was accused of abandoning his men on the ice – charges he would spend the rest of his life trying to dispel. In protest of the findings, General Nobile resigned from the air force in March 1929. He faced a further trial with the death of his wife Carlotta in July 1934.

Later career

In 1931, Nobile left Italy to work for the next four years in the Soviet Union, where he helped with the Soviet semi-rigid airship programme. Details of the Soviet Airship Program are sparse, but there is an obvious Nobile influence in the design of the airships USSR-V5, and SSSR-V6 OSOAVIAKhIM. He was allowed to return to Italy to teach in December 1936, before going to the United States in 1939 to teach aeronautics at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. When Italy went to war with the United States, he was permitted to remain in the US, but declined the offer of US citizenship and instead returned to Italy in May 1942. After a brief stay in Rome, he moved to Spain, where he remained until Italy surrendered to the Allied forces in September 1943. At that time, he returned to Rome to see to the safety of his only child Maria (born c. 1921).

In 1945, the Italian air force cleared Nobile of all charges related to the Italia crash, and not only reinstated him at his former rank as major general, but promoted him to lieutenant general and awarded him back pay dating to 1928. The following year he was elected to the Constituent Assembly as independent candidate in the lists of the Italian Communist Party. He returned to his beloved University of Naples, where he taught, and wrote of his adventures, until his retirement. He also married again, this time to Gertrude Stolp, a German woman he had met in Spain, who later became chief librarian at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

Nobile died in Rome on 30 July 1978 aged 93 after having celebrated the 50th anniversary of his two polar expeditions. The Italian Air Force Museum at Vigna di Valle (just outside Rome) has a large permanent exhibition on his achievements. Museum Museo Civico "U. Nobile" in Nobile's hometown Lauro collects his documents and memorabilia.[8]

See also


  1. ^ "Roald Amundsen and the 1925 North Pole Expedition". 12 June 2006. Retrieved 11 March 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h William James Mills (2003). Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 19–20, 116. ISBN 1-57607-422-6. page 19: Amundsen now approached the Italian government, which was prepared to negotiate favorable terms on certain conditions: Nobile must participate as commander of the airship, and five of the crew had to be Italian. (andISBN 978-1-57607-422-0)
  3. ^ a b c Wilbur Cross, Disaster at the Pole, 2002ISBN 1-58574-496-4
  4. ^ Wilbur Cross, Disaster at the Pole, Lyons Press 2002
  5. ^ Barbara Rhodes. "Umberto Nobile – The North Pole Flights". Retrieved 11 March 2009.
  6. ^ "Search for Amundsen expedition webpage". Archived from the original on 2 August 2009. Retrieved 13 August 2009.
  7. ^ Vilhjalmur Stefansson (June 1929). A Defence of Nobile. Reader's Digest.
  8. ^ Museo Civico "U. Nobile" (in Italian)

Further reading

  • Garth Cameron. From Pole to Pole: Roald Amundsen's Journey in Flight. (New York, Skyhorse Publishing, 2014)
  • Garth Cameron. Umberto Nobile and the Arctic Search for the Airship Italia (Stroud, Fonthill Media, 2017).
  • Alexander McKee. Ice crash: Disaster in the Arctic, 1928. (London, Kenneth Leish, 1979).
  • Umberto Nobile. My Polar Flights", (London, Frederick Muller, 1961). Republished as paperback in 1972 with new title: The Red Tent.
  • R Samoilowitsch. S-O-S in der Arktis – Die Rettungs-Expedition des Krassin. (Berlin, Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1929).
  • Rolf S.Tandberg. The Italia disaster: Fact or Fiction – Including the Personal Experiences of a Member of One of the Relief Expeditions. (Oslo, 1977).
  • "Zeppelin Design: Umberto Nobile and the Italian N-1 Airship". Archived from the original on 3 August 2009. Retrieved 11 March 2009. (Umberto Nobile interviewed in 1960 about the Norge and Roma, with transcript)
  • "Land or Ocean? Umberto Nobile Explores the North Pole Terrain". Kenneth Leish. Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved 11 March 2009. (Umberto Nobile interviewed in 1960 about the 1926 Norge Alaska trip, with transcript)
  • The Red Tent at IMDb (fictional dramatization)
  • U. Nobile "Semi-Rigid v. Rigid Airships" FLIGHT, 22 January 1922

External links

Media files used on this page

Umberto Nobile 1926.jpg
Italian colonel and explorer Umberto Nobile smiling holding a puppy. Arctic, 1926.
"N3," Japan LOC 26775146275.jpg

Bain News Service,, publisher.

"N3," Japan

[1927 May 24] (date created or published later by Bain)

1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Notes: Title and date from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negative. Photo shows balloon at Kasumigaura. Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Format: Glass negatives.

Rights Info: No known restrictions on publication.

Repository: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA,

General information about the Bain Collection is available at

Higher resolution image is available (Persistent URL):

Call Number: LC-B2- 4563-11
Umberto Nobile 1.jpg
Col. Umberto Nobile, designer of the "Norge," watching her departure from the base at Spitzbergen, from forward control car
Umberto Nobile 1920s.jpg
Italian colonel and explorer Umberto Nobile smiling. 1920s.