The 1926 expedition
The NORGE expedition was decided within a few months; in the summer of 1925, the explorer Roald Amundsen had requested a meeting with the Italian airship engineer Umberto Nobile, which was held at Amundsen’s home in Uranienborg in July.
The first meeting
Amundsen had recently returned from an attempt to reach the North Pole by air with the use of two Dornier Wal seaplanes, and Nobile already knew, before leaving, that he had been invited to talk about using an airship in a new attempt to the enterprise. The inspirer of the meeting was Amundsen’s right-hand man, Hjalmar Riiser Larsen, explorer and aviator, who would have been one of the great initiators of Scandinavian commercial airlines and in particular an advocate of transarctic routes.
Amundsen and Riiser-Larsen proposed to Nobile to use an airship that was already available – on which they had both flown during a visit to Rome – the N-1, to get to the North Pole from Svalbard and to continue through the Arctic ice cap to Alaska. Amundsen, as an explorer, wanted to verify the geographical configuration of a large area of the Arctic that was still unknown at the time. Nobile agreed to that plan and worked to have the N-1 acquired by the Norwegian Aeroclub by purchasing it from the Italian government with a fundamental economic contribution from Lincoln Ellsworth.
Preparation of the airship and stopovers
The N-1 underwent major modifications to make it lighter (allowing the boarding of more fuel with the same available lifting force) and robust to face landings and moorings in more precarious locations than normal airports, as well as long journeys in adverse weather conditions.
To allow the stopover in various intermediate places on the route of the Pole, where there were no airship bases, a series of modular “mooring masts” were built which were arranged in the planned stopping points where hangars and other facilities were not available for normal protection. The masts had the characteristic of having a rotating top socket, which would have allowed the NORGE to remain hooked to the ground, always rotating with the bow in the direction of the wind, like a giant weather vane. The masts were also equipped to allow the refueling of hydrogen and petrol for the airship as well as, albeit uncomfortably, for the crew to get on and off. The solution of “hooking the airship by the nose thirty meters above the ground“, as effectively described by Nobile’s right arm-man, engineer Felice Trojani, was precarious and uncomfortable but proved to be extraordinarily effective and reliable.
Ready for departure
In March 1926 the airship, modified and fully equipped, officially passed to the Norwegian aeroclub and was renamed NORGE, flying the flag of the Kingdom of Norway which since 1925 had seen its centuries-old aspiration for sovereignty over the Svalbard Islands, the advanced Arctic base camp for the polar enterprise and who had already from 1911 in Roald Amundsen a great and very loved national hero.