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Exploring the Arctic by Airship

January 20, 2023 Archive Insight

Humans have traveled the edges of the iced-covered Arctic for thousands of years. Native peoples survived by harvesting the polar seas' bounty, and within the past several hundred years, explorers probed the ice-bound waters to locate quick trade routes to distant lands. (Explorers finally navigated a ship through the Northwest Passage in the early 1900s.) Around the turn of the 20th century, more adventurers — some for personal glory, others for scientific advancement — voyaged into the unexplored Arctic region to uncover its secrets and be the first to reach the North Pole. Trekking across the ice, however, was hazardous. From the late 1890s into the 1930s — before robust and reliable airplanes made it possible to fly long distances in relative safety and comfort — some explorers turned to balloons and airships to face the challenges posed by the polar icepack.

The Aerial Age, 1911
Walter Wellman's airship America, 1907 / THF701652

Walter Wellman (1858-1934) and the America

Walter Wellman, an American journalist, adventurer, and self-styled expert on an array of topics--mounted two unsuccessful expeditions in the 1890s to reach the North Pole by trekking over the ice. Neither attempt advanced far into the Arctic, and his second expedition nearly cost him his life. But his reports of the harrowing exploits — of men battling the cold, "ice-quakes," and polar bears — enthralled readers. The public eagerly followed Wellman's progress through newspaper and journal articles. Wellman used his celebrity to secure funding, mainly from his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, for future adventures. And those backing his expeditions used Wellman's exploits to lure readers to their publications.

After a near-fatal attempt in 1898-99, Wellman decided the best way to reach the pole was by an airship. In 1905, Wellman, funded by his employers at The Chicago Record-Herald, secured a French-built balloon. The sausage-shaped airship, which he christened America, was 165 feet long and 53 1/2 feet in diameter. A metal-sheathed car, 52 1/2 feet long by 6 feet wide, hung below the hydrogen-filled bag. It would carry the crew and equipment, including two gasoline engines to drive the wooden propellers.

The following year, Wellman shipped the America to Spitsbergen, Norway — the westernmost bulk of land in the Svalbard archipelago bordering the Arctic Ocean — to make his first attempt to fly over the polar icecap. But delays and crippling mechanical failures plagued the enterprise. When Wellman arrived at his remote outpost in July 1906, he found the hangar, that he planned to have built to protect the airship while he prepared it for flight, unfinished. The expedition's experimental motor vehicles, designed by Wellman to pull sleds over the ice, proved useless. (Wellman planned to carry these vehicles onboard the airship and use them instead of dogs if the airship failed to stay aloft.) But most damaging: the airship's engines caused problems. The engines performed well by themselves when designers tested them in France. But when Wellman's team mounted the engines to the airship in Spitsbergen, the driving gear fell apart, the propellers could not stand the strain, and the car in which the crew would work and live as they flew over the icepack could not take the vibration. Wellman's first attempt never got off the ground, but he vowed to try again.

Ernest L. Jones Early Aviation Scrapbook
The hangar for the America under construction in Spitsbergen / THF285398 [detail]

Wellman returned to Spitsbergen in 1907. He arrived in late June with a refurbished America — he had lengthened the airship to 185 feet and extended the steel car to 115 feet. Wellman hoped to lift off in late July, but the weather hampered his plans. Severe gales damaged the hangar on July 4, and unfavorable weather continued well after the hangar was repaired. Summer — the time to safely attempt a journey to the North Pole--was slipping away. The weather broke on September 2, and Wellman and two crewmen boarded the America for its first excursion over the polar waters. The steamship Express towed the airship out to begin its voyage. America's crew cut the lines, and the airship headed north.

But poor weather again intervened. Fog and a snow squall soon engulfed the airship, and winds threatened to push the America into the rugged coast of the Norwegian archipelago. The crew struggled to keep the ship from disaster. Unable to continue, they turned back, spotted a glacier, and landed unharmed. The America fell limp as the crew released the gas from the airship. Wellman and his men waited atop the glacier. Ships soon arrived, and work began to dismantle the airship. Wellman's second attempt had covered only 20 miles.

Wellman returned once more to Spitsbergen two years later, in July 1909. Upon arrival, the expedition found the hangar destroyed — the victim of a winter storm. It was quickly rebuilt, and by mid-August, with favorable weather, Wellman began his third attempt to reach the pole by airship. America lifted off on August 15, assisted by a light breeze from the south. All seemed promising.

Ernest L. Jones Early Aviation Scrapbook
America being towed back to Spitsbergen after its 1909 flight / THF285399 [detail]

As the airship headed north, it trailed a device called an equilibrator — a long, heavy leather tube designed to drag along the Arctic waters and ice to keep the America at a constant height. The tube was filled with food and supplies, helping to free up space in the metal-clad car. The equilibrator had worked well in 1907, and Wellman and his crew did not consider it a source of concern. But this time, disaster struck. After traveling only 40 miles, the equilibrator inexplicably detached and fell into the polar waters. Most of the expedition's food and supplies were gone. They had to turn back. Once again, the pole was out of reach.


Across the Atlantic

The Aerial Age, 1911
Wellman attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a refurbished America / THF701653

Wellman made plans for another attempt in 1910 but abandoned them after learning that both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole. Instead, Wellman decided to try the first transatlantic crossing by air. In October 1910, Wellman and his crew, aboard a refurbished America, lifted off from Atlantic City, New Jersey. All appeared well as the airship skirted the U.S. coast and headed toward the Canadian maritime provinces. But problems soon arose: one engine failed, winds buffeted the airship, and the equilibrator kept tugging the airship closer to the roiling ocean waters. Finally, the airship started to drift south into the vast Atlantic Ocean outside the safety of the main shipping lanes. Wellman and his crew were in grave danger as America hovered precariously close to the ocean waves. One hope remained: to try to head toward Bermuda to encounter a ship. On October 18 — nearly three days since leaving Atlantic City and after traveling more than 1,000 miles — the men spotted the SS Trent steaming from Bermuda to New York City. The crew was saved. They abandoned the airship. The America floated off, drifting low above the Atlantic waters, and was never seen again.

The conquest of the Arctic and the prize of being the first to reach the North Pole attracted seasoned explorers, scientists, and well-read, optimistic adventurers at the turn of the 20th century. Wellman, one of those optimists, saw an opportunity to advance human progress and, at the same time, sell newspapers — as well as himself. His Arctic voyages were largely unsuccessful (he never pushed far into the polar latitudes) and dangerous (he was lucky to survive). But to secure backing for his expeditions, Wellman needed large amounts of money. He played upon his celebrity and shared his adventures with a public eager to read about his attempts to conquer one of the last unexplored areas on Earth. And for that, Wellman was successful.

Andy Stupperich is associate curator at The Henry Ford.

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