Rescue of the Airship Italia Survivors - August 1998
By Alfred A. Gruber  (Page 1 of 3)


Figure 1. Svalbard is the modern Norwegian name for Spitzbergen. X marks the location of the Italian support ship City of Milano; the arrow in the upper right marks the drift of the survivors on the ice. ( Scott Norway 356)

It is spring, 1928.

The famous Italian general, Umberto Nobile, fresh from his 1926 transpolar flight from Kings Bay, Spitzbergen (Figure 1), to Alaska in the airship Norge, commands a polar scientific expedition in a similar airship, the Italia (Figure 2). The Italian government will not support the expedition with a special stamp. An expedition supporting label is produced, shown on a cover bearing Nobile's autograph (Figure 3).

Disaster strikes. The Italia crashes. The gondola is smashed; men are thrown out. The gas envelope drifts away over the arctic ice with some of the crew, never to be heard from again.

At 1030 GMT on 25 May 1928, six hours after the crash, wireless operator Giuseppe Biagi is radioing the world on an emergency set with a 435 mile range.

SOS Italia. Nobile on the ice near Foyn Island, northeast Spitzbergen , latitude 80:37, longitude 26:50. Impossible to move, lacking sledges and having two men injured. Dirigible lost in another locality. Reply via IDO 32. SOS.

Fifteen days pass. Nicholas Schmidt, a Russian ham radio operator in the Archangel area, 1,200 miles away, is the first to pick up the message. Schmidt informs his government, which then notifies the Soviet Embassy in Rome and the world. Only then is their survival known, despite their being only about 250 miles (well within radio range) from the base ship at Kings Bay and the Norwegian radio station there. The only reasons for the delay are official egos and media pressure keeping the Kings Bay radios transmitting instead of listening.

Journalists, who with most others had become pessimistic, suddenly have a story and the world news outlets are humming. Rescue operations will require airplanes and icebreaker ships from many nations. Heavier-than-air aircraft are still in the wood-and-fabric era, but flown by men experienced in the Arctic. Airplanes are yet to overtake dirigibles in range and reliability.

Figure 2. Dornier Wal (upper left) and airship Norge, sister ship to the Italia (upper right) (Scott Norway 753)

Figure 3. Expedition label and General Umberto Nobile's autograph on 18 May 1928 cover cancelled on Italian support ship City of Milano.

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