By Laurel Downing Bill
Senior Voice Correspondent 

Strange sight soars over Teller

Aunt Phil's Trunk

 

May 1, 2024 | View PDF

University of Alaska Fairbanks

The dirigible Norge traveled from Norway over the North Pole to Alaska and is seen here settling on the ground in Teller on May 14, 1926.

The people of Nome were planning a grand celebration in mid-May 1926. They'd decorated their fine city, set up committees, arranged receptions and lined up wagon teams to take school children to the airfield to see the landing of the dirigible Norge N-1.

Slated to be the event to top all events, Nome residents were none too pleased when they learned that the huge craft-which had left Norway to fly over the North Pole a few days earlier-had missed their beautiful town and landed in Teller instead.

Famous explorer Roald Amundsen, who twice before had attempted to reach the North Pole in conventional aircraft, realized his dream in the 348-foot airship after he joined forces with a couple other men who were familiar with dirigibles.

Lt. Riiser-Larsen of the Royal Norwegian Navy steered him toward the N-1, of Italian construction, because it was small enough to be economical. After contacting Col. Umberto Nobile, who had built and flown the ship, Amundsen agreed to pay $75,000 for its use (almost $1.3 million in 2023 dollars) – with $46,000 to be refunded if the craft was returned intact after the voyage.

Financial support of $90,000 came from Lincoln Ellsworth, son of an American industrialist, as well as the Aero Club of Norway. Nobile agreed to supply the crew for the trip for $11,000.

The airship, which left Rome on April 10, 1925, was filled with highly flammable hydrogen held in envelopes of rubberized silk. Balloons filled with air through an opening in the nose helped the ship retain its shape.

After landing in Spitsbergen, Norway, on May 7, the expedition prepared for its flight over the North Pole with 16 men aboard.

The dirigible was pulled from the hangar on the morning of Sunday, May 11, and Nobile ordered the crew to cast off the moorings. The Norge then made its way to the coast of Alaska, traveling at altitudes of between 1,800 and 2,400 feet. After several hours, however, it ran into fog and suffered icing problems. Then harsh winds blew it off course.

By May 13, the crew had been awake for more than 60 hours, and in danger for half that time.

The men spotted a few houses along the shore on May 14 and continued on for a couple more hours. But they ended up back at that spot again. It was Teller.

The crew threw ice anchors overboard, but they did not hold. Villagers ran to the rescue. Some jumped onto the anchors, forcing them into the ice, while others seized the mooring ropes flung from the craft. The airship finally came to a halt some 300 feet from the nearest building.

So ended the historic flight of Amundsen, who had conquered the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. He now added the North Pole to his list of accomplishments. And he and his crew confirmed that no land lay between the pole and Alaska in the Arctic Ocean.

This column features tidbits found while researching Alaska's colorful past for Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.

 
 

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