Umberto Nobile

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Umberto Nobile

The Italian explorer and airship designer Umberto Nobile (1885-1978) was a pioneer in Arctic aviation. His dirigible flight over the North Pole encouraged greater use of aircraft in the Arctic.

Umberto Nobile was born in Lauro, Italy, near Naples on Jan. 21, 1885. One of seven children whose father was a government official with limited income, Nobile had to earn his own way at the University of Naples. He graduated with honors in engineering. His early interest in aviation led to a career in dirigible design and construction. Physically unfit for active service in World War I, Nobile was commissioned in the Italian air force and became director of the military factory of aeronautical construction in Rome and eventually a general. His professional skills and long hours of work made him a leading designer of lighter-than-air craft. Convinced of the superior airworthiness of semirigid airships, he designed and built dirigibles for the navies of Italy and other countries.

His 34-ton airship Roma, sold to the United States government in 1921, crashed into a high-voltage line near Langley Field, VA, in 1922, killing 34 people. Despite the accident, explorer Roald Amundsen, who won a dogsled race to become the first man to reach the South Pole in 1912, wanted to use Nobile's airship the Norge to fly over the North Pole. In 1926, they flew from Spitsbergen, Norway, to Alaska, with Gen. Nobile as pilot and Amundsen and American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth as crew members. They were the second group to fly over the North Pole, beaten by Americans Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett, who crossed it by airplane three days earlier. The competence and courage Nobile displayed earned him wide acclaim and aroused Amundsen's resentment.

Blamed for Arctic Disaster

Nobile undertook another polar flight in 1928, this time under his own command, using the airship Italia. He reached the North Pole on May 24, but on the return flight to Spitsbergen, the dirigible was wrecked in a storm and the survivors stranded on the pack ice. The disaster prompted a massive international rescue operation using, for the first time, large numbers of aircraft. Although severely injured, Nobile set a courageous example for his crew members during the 31 days before help arrived. Nobile was flown off the ice by a Swedish air force ski-plane, and the other survivors were picked up by the Soviet icebreaker Krassin18 days later. Amundsen, who had volunteered for the search and rescue effort, died when his airplane crashed in the sea. Eight of the 16 men that had been aboard the dirigible also died.

Nobile's single-minded interest in aviation and exploration gave him little appreciation of the political implications of his exploits. The popular enthusiasm for his dirigible flights engendered a resentment within certain Fascist circles, especially those connected with the Italian air force. A group of these antagonists, led by Marshal Italo Balbo, exploited the Italia tragedy to attack Nobile and his advocacy of lighter-than-air craft. Protesting against the findings of an official inquiry which blamed him for the crash and the deaths, Nobile resigned from the air force in March 1929.


After his resignation, Nobile served as an aviation consultant in the Soviet Union and also taught for several years in the United States, becoming head of the aeronautical engineering department of Lewis College of Science and Technology in Lockport, Ill., in 1936. In 1943 he returned to Italy. After the defeat of the Fascists, he wrote a book, I Can Tell the Truth, arguing that the inquiry against him was rigged. In 1945, he was cleared of the charges against him and restored to the rank of major general in the air force. Nobile was a delegate to Italy's Constituent Assembly in 1946, but a year later retired from politics to spend the remainder of his life in research, writing, and teaching. He wrote five more books on the voyage and crash of the Italia, and the last one, The Red Tent (1967), was made into a movie.

Nobile made a significant contribution to polar exploration during his brief period of activity. Not only did he make the first transpolar flight, increasing knowledge of Arctic geography, but he also demonstrated the feasibility of using aircraft in the Arctic for both exploration and transport.

Further Reading

Nobile's published books include My Polar Flights: An Account of the Voyages of the Airships Italia and Norge (1959; trans. 1961); I Can Tell the Truth (1943); The Red Tent (1967); and With the Italia to the North Pole (1930; trans. 1930). Accounts of the flights of the Norge and the Italia are contained in Basil Clarke's, Polar Flight (1964). Clarke presents a factual and concise description of Nobile's contribution to Arctic flying, though he does not deal extensively with the rescue of the Italia survivors. A more complete examination is found in Wilbur Cross, Ghost Ship of the Pole: The Incredible Story of the Dirigible Italia (1960). Cross is highly sympathetic to Nobile and deals fairly well with the attacks made against him by Balbo and others. Other works of interest are The First Flight across the Polar Sea (1927) by Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth; Einar Lundborg, The Arctic Rescue: How Nobile Was Saved (1928; trans. 1929); and Davide Giudici, The Tragedy of the Italia: With the Rescuers to the Red Tent (1928). □