The North Pole Flight. The great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who gained world-wide fame as leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole, was among the first to pioneer the use of aircraft in polar exploration. After some brief exploratory flights from the northern coast of Alaska in 1923, Amundsen teamed with American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth to fly in two Dornier Wal flying boats from Kings Bay, on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, to nearly 88ºN, a record farthest north by air. The following year, in May, 1926, two more flights were preparing to depart from Kings Bay for the North Pole. On May 9, American Richard Byrd made the questionable claim of having flown to the North Pole and back in the Fokker tri-motor Josephine Ford. Five days later, the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile expedition in the airship Norge flew from Kings Bay to Teller, Alaska by way of the North Pole. Following the flight a bitter dispute, played out in the world press, broke out between Amundsen and the Norge’s designer and pilot, Italian Umberto Nobile. As a result, 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 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 Città 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.
June 18 Roald Amundsen disappears on a flight to Spitsbergen to aid in
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 Tromsø 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.
The Search for Amundsen. The often-repeated phrase that Amundsen lost his life searching for his bitter rival Nobile, has a heroic ring but is not entirely accurate. At first, when word reached Oslo that the Italia was long over-due in Kings Bay and presumed down, Amundsen volunteered his services. However Italy rejected a Norwegian proposal that the Italian government supply two Dornier Wal flying boats, one of which was to carry Amundsen and to be flown by Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, Amundsen’s pilot on the 1925 flight to 88ºN and the second-in-command and navigator on the 1926 Norge flight. After an unsuccessful attempt to purchase a Dornier Wal in Germany, Amundsen finally obtained the use of a French Latham seaplane and crew. In the meantime, Riiser-Larsen had departed for Spitsbergen to fly a Norwegian Navy Air Force seaplane in the search operations.
It is highly unlikely that Amundsen was going solely to the aid of Nobile. By the time Amundsen finally departed Tromsø in northern Norway on 18 June bound for Spitsbergen, radio contact had already been established with Italia survivors on the ice floe, their position was known and Nobile was removed on 23 June. A more plausible explanation is that Amundsen intended to search for Italia crewmembers who were left inside the envelope when it floated away and for the missing three-man party that had begun a trek to land from the Red Tent ice floe. One of the three was the renowned Swedish meteorologist Dr. Finn Malmgren who was a veteran not only of the 1926 Norge flight but also of Amundsen’s Maud drift in the Arctic Ocean. The ice-breaker Krassin rescued two of the three from a small ice floe on 12 July before proceeding to the Red Tent ice floe, but Malmgren had died earlier under mysterious circumstances on an undetermined date.
The search for Amundsen and the Latham crew continued throughout the summer of 1928. When world reached Tromsø that Amundsen was missing Louise Boyd, who had chartered the Norwegian sealer Hobby for a summer excursion, immediately placed herself and the Hobby and its crew at the disposal of the Norwegian government. Despite an exhaustive search that covered approximately 10,000 miles and ranged from Franz Josef Land in the east to Greenland in the west, Amundsen’s remains were never found. Boyd received the Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav from King Haakon VII of Norway for conducting the search. Boyd went on to lead five more expeditions to the Arctic and in 1954, she chartered an airplane to fly her over the North Pole to become the first woman to travel to the Geographic North Pole.
It is now presumed that the Latham went down in fog between Tromsø and Bear Island. The Norwegian government officially discontinued the search in September when fishermen found a pontoon later identified as having come from the Latham. On 14 December, 1928, the anniversary of the date Amundsen had reached the South Pole 17 years earlier, Norway observed a national day of mourning for Amundsen and the Latham crew.