The 1931 Polar Flight of the Airship Graf Zeppelin
An Historical Perspective
The 1931 polar flight of the Graf Zeppelin is possibly the least well-known of several spectacular flights the giant rigid airship made in the late 1920s and early 30s. Despite its massive aerial survey and mapping of the Russian Arctic, the flight is perhaps best known now to collectors of the highly-prized Zeppelin mail it carried. It should have been otherwise. Originally, plans called for a meeting at the North Pole between a submarine and the airship. But mechanical problems with the submarine prevented the rendezvous from taking place and the Graf Zeppelin continued with the less well-publicized scientific pursuits of the flight. If for no other reason, the flight should be remembered as a tribute to Count Zeppelin who in 1910 envisioned the use of airships in polar exploration.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
Background. At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, aerial transportation was taking two widely divergent paths. One was lighter-than-air flight in which a lifting medium, a gas such as hot air or hydrogen, causes a vehicle to "float" in the air. Balloons, both tethered and free-balloons, had been in use for a variety of purposes since the 1700s. By the late 1800s, the colorful Brazilian aeronaut Alberto Santos-DuMont was skimming the roof-tops of Paris in his powered dirigibles.
    Heavier-than-air flight--or mechanical flight as it was then known since lift was produced "mechanically" by the movement of an airfoil through the air--was lagging far behind. By the time the Wright Brothers made their first powered airplane flight in 1903, Germany's Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had already made successful flights in the rigid airships that would bear his name. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, it appeared that lighter-than-air aerial transportation would dominate.
Classic photo of the Andrée party landing on the polar ice pack, 1897.
The Quest for the North Pole. By the late 1800s, the Victorian era fascination with remote, exotic places had centered on two parts of the globe commonly identified as "Darkest Africa" and the "Frozen North." Coupled with this was a proliferation of newly formed newspapers, each competing for readers' attention…and their money, that created the image of The Explorer as a heroic figure. While other adventurers were struggling to gain a mile or two more over the surface towards attainment of the North Pole, a Swedish Engineer, Salomon August Andrée, announced elaborate, and well-publicized, plans for flying to the North Pole in a hydrogen-filled balloon. Andrée and his two companions disappeared somewhere over the polar ice pack north of Danes Island, Spitzbergen in 1897. Their fate was a mystery until their remains were discovered on a remote arctic [1] island in 1930.
    Some ten years later, an American journalist Walter Wellman attempted to follow in Andrée's footsteps by flying a somewhat more reliable French-built dirigible. In 1907 on Wellman's first attempt at the North Pole from Andrée's old base on Danes Island, Welllman ran into a snowstorm and landed on a nearby glacier where the airship was abandoned. Wellman returned in 1909 for another attempt at the pole, but this time the airship encountered mechanical problems out over the polar ice pack and returned to land. Wellman abandoned his plans when both Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook announced in the fall of 1909 that each claimed to have attained the North Pole by surface travel. More than fifteen years would pass before the airship Norge finally reached the North Pole from Spitzbergen.
The 1910 Zeppelin expedition to Spitzbergen flying tethered balloons from the ice pack northwest of Spitzbergen.
A Spitzbergen Trip. [2] Once the Zeppelin concept of rigid airships had proved itself reliable, Count Zeppelin turned to considering scientific uses for his airships. The suggestion that Zeppelin airships might be useful for polar exploration was passed to Zeppelin from the Norwegian explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen who had followed closely the accounts of the Andrée and Wellman flights. In 1910 Count Zeppelin, Professors Hugo Hergesell and Adolf Miethe, and Crown Prince Henry of Prussia led what they termed a "study-trip" to Spitzbergen to explore the use of airships in the polar regions. The group traveled aboard the steamship Mainz and arrived on the west coast of Spitzbergen in mid-July.
     While investigating the Isfjord region, Zeppelin and Hegesell discovered a spot in Cross Bay that they thought would be suitable for an airship base. The party then traveled to the northwest coast of Spitzbergen where they flew tethered balloons from the pack ice. After stops at Andrée's and Wellman's old bases at Danes Island and at Kings Bay, the party returned to Germany. The consensus at the time appeared to be that airship technology had not yet reached the point that polar travel was feasible. It would be another twenty years before a Zeppelin airship was used for polar exploration and the task of realizing Zeppelin's vision would fall to his successor, Dr. Hugo Eckener.
The airship Norge at the mast, Kings Bay, Spitzbergen, 1926, prior to the North Pole flight.
The North Pole by Air. The outbreak of World War I in Europe put a stop for a time to polar exploration. But following the war, aviation technology had advanced to the point that polar exploration by air became realizable. After some brief exploratory flights from the northern coast of Alaska in 1922/23, in 1925 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen teamed with American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth to fly in two Dornier Wal flying boats from Kings Bay, Spitzbergen to nearly 88ºN, little more than 120 nautical miles from the North Pole. In May, 1926, two 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, the 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 broke out between Amundsen and the airship's designer Italian Umberto Nobile over who should receive credit for leading the expedition. As a result, in 1928, Nobile returned to Kings Bay as sole leader of his own expedition in the airship Italia. The Italia crashed on the ice north of Spitzbergen on the return from a claimed attainment of the North Pole and sparked a massive international air-sea rescue operation to which five countries sent airplanes and pilots. In a controversial move, the Swedish pilot  Einar Lundborg landed on the ice floe on which the Italia survivors were stranded and removed Nobile although other survivors were more badly injured. Lundborg's plane was damaged on the return for more survivors and he himself had to be rescued. Ultimately the Russian ice-breaker the Krassin reached the ice floe and rescued the remaining survivors.  
     Tragically, Roald Amundsen lost his life in a plane crash flying from Norway to Spitzbergen to aid in the rescue operations. In the aftermath of the Italia disaster the Italian government stripped Nobile of all the honors he had received following the 1926 Norge flight. The Italia flight was the last well-publicized polar flight to depart from Spitzbergen  
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© Copyright 2000 Barbara G. Rhodes