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Roald Amundsen Over the North Pole

July 4, 2023 Archive Insight
Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen, 1906. / Detail, THF621173

The list of Norwegian Roald Amundsen's polar accomplishments is impressive. From 1903 to 1906, Amundsen and a crew of six navigated the first ship through the famed Northwest Passage. In 1911, he became the first person to set foot at the South Pole. Following this history-making dash, Amundsen returned to the Arctic. In 1918, he set off to drive a ship into the polar ice cap and drift over the Arctic Ocean and perhaps the North Pole. The expedition ended in 1921 — unsuccessful. Though he failed, Amundsen and his crew joined the few people at the time to have traversed the Northeast Passage — the route along the Arctic coasts of Europe and Asia.

Undeterred, Amundsen planned new expeditions into the Arctic — not on foot or by ship, but this time by air. Amundsen long perceived the advantages of new technologies in conquering the polar regions. Though he valued the wisdom and knowledge of the Native peoples in surviving the cold, harsh climate and incorporated many of their methods in his expeditions, airplanes and airships could open new paths of discovery. In the 1920s, Amundsen decided to fly over the Arctic Ocean — to either land near the pole or cross the polar sea from continent to continent. Either way, Amundsen would fill in missing pieces of some of the last unexplored regions of the world.

Attempts by Airplane

Amundsen's first attempts did not go well. In 1923, he planned to fly from Wainwright, Alaska, to Spitsbergen, off the coast of Norway. But during the test flights, his airplane's landing skis crumpled. Unable to make suitable repairs, Amundsen canceled the expedition. A year later, Lincoln Ellsworth, the son of a wealthy industrialist and an amateur explorer longing for adventure, approached Amundsen, proposing to support his next expedition. Amundsen and Ellsworth convinced Lincoln's father to put up funds to secure two Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats. The plan called for Amundsen, Ellsworth, pilots and other crew members to land near the North Pole and then trek to their goal. In mid-May 1925, Amundsen and Ellsworth (in separate planes) lifted off from Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, Norway. Near the expedition's objective, Amundsen's plane sputtered but landed safely. Ellsworth's plane was not so fortunate. It made a rough landing, severely damaging the aircraft. Several miles of snow, ice, crevasses and channels of open water now lay between the planes and their crews. Eventually, all six expedition members linked up at Amundsen's plane and worked to create a runway. Weeks later, the men, now hungry and weak, piled into the one remaining plane and returned to Spitsbergen, lucky to have survived.

The Norge

Airship "Norge"
Amundsen's airship, Norge, May 1926. / THF621183

While Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth were struggling to survive on the polar icecap, Ellsworth's father died. Lincoln, upon his return, was now a wealthy man and ready for more adventures. With the financial backing of Ellsworth, Amundsen immediately began planning another expedition — he would fly over the North Pole and cross the Arctic Ocean in an airship. Amundsen knew the Italian government had a semi-rigid airship (N1) for sale. Amundsen and Ellsworth secured the N1 — rechristened Norge after Amundsen's native Norway — and hired Umberto Nobile, the Italian army colonel and aeronautical engineer who had helped design the airship, to pilot it.

In mid-April 1926, Amundsen and Ellsworth landed in Spitsbergen, Norway, to prepare for the expedition; Nobile and the Norge would arrive in mid-May. But the Norwegian and the American were not the only ones exploring the Arctic by air. At Point Barrow, Alaska, Australian aviator George Hubert Wilkins, commanding the Detroit Arctic Expedition sponsored by influential businessmen from Detroit, Michigan, began test-flying airplanes in hopes of crossing the Arctic basin. (Accidents and weather prevented a serious attempt in 1926. However, Wilkins would succeed two years later, becoming the first to cross the Arctic Ocean by airplane.)

Another contender was American Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd. Byrd had considerable financial backing from Edsel Ford. His expedition arrived in Spitsbergen at the end of April 1926, before the arrival of the Norge. Byrd planned to be the first to fly to the North Pole and back. In early May, Amundsen's and Byrd's polar expeditions crowded the Spitsbergen coast. Byrd prepared his airplane Josephine Ford (named after Edsel Ford's young daughter) for flight while Amundsen waited for good weather. Byrd took off on May 9 and returned about 16 hours later, claiming to have reached the pole.

Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth greet Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett before the North Pole Flight
Roald Amundsen (far left) and Lincoln Ellsworth (far right) greet Richard Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett after the polar flight of the Josephine Ford, May 1926. / THF621193

Flying to the pole and back was not Amundsen's goal, however. He wanted to fly across the Arctic Ocean from Europe to Alaska. A few days after Byrd's return, on May 11, Amundsen, Ellsworth, Nobile and the crew of the Norge lifted off and headed north. The airship's engines powered it across the frozen icecap, and in the early morning hours of May 12, the Norge crossed over the North Pole. Amundsen and fellow crew member Oscar Wisting, who had accompanied Amundsen on his trek to the South Pole in 1911, became the first to conquer both poles. The crew dropped Norwegian, American and Italian flags over the pole, then headed south — to Alaska.

The crew of the Norge sited the coast of Alaska, hoping to reach the town of Nome. Fog and heavy crosswinds slowed the expedition's progress. Finally, Nobile decided to bring the ship down near Teller, Alaska, north of Nome. The Norge had traveled nearly 3,200 miles, staying aloft for more than 70 hours. Most importantly, Amundsen, Ellsworth and the expedition members had become the first to fly across the Arctic.

After the Norge

After this success, Roald Amundsen began a speaking tour and wrote about his polar exploits. But for once, Amundsen had no plans for further explorations and essentially retired.

In 1928, when Umberto Nobile and the crew of the airship Italia crashed somewhere on the polar Arctic ice, Amundsen joined the rescue efforts. Amundsen, however, would not be in charge. Though still a revered polar explorer, Amundsen had made enemies in Norway and among many international scientific organizations. Amundsen had also feuded with Nobile about the accounts of the flight of the Norge, attacking the Italian pilot in his recent autobiography. Amundsen was offered a minor role in Nobile's ultimate rescue. The French government provided a plane, and Amundsen set off to play his part. His plane lifted off, flew into a fog bank and disappeared. The renowned polar pioneer was lost and never seen again.

Roald Amundsen was the ultimate polar planner. He was unafraid to adopt new technologies to achieve his goals and did not let failure deter his efforts. More importantly, Amundsen brought desire, curiosity, knowledge and drive to his visionary pursuits, opening undiscovered polar worlds.

Andy Stupperich is an associate curator at The Henry Ford.

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