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Into Thin Air: Umberto Nobile, Fascist Explorer

In 1926 Umberto Nobile, a young Italian airship engineer, became a hero of Mussolini’s Fascist state when he piloted Roald Amundsen’s Norge over the North Pole. But his subsequent attempt to make the journey on behalf of his own country ended in tragedy. Irene Peroni tells his story.

Col. Umberto Nobile, designer of the "Norge," watching her departure from the base at Spitzbergen

In the autumn of 1925 the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the man who had beaten Robert Falcon Scott in the ill-fated race to the South Pole in 1911, asked a young Italian aeronautical engineer to build him an airship that would fly to the North Pole. Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini enthusiastically backed the project as it would demonstrate Italy's technological prowess and show the growing power of his Fascist state. The expedition would turn the engineer, Umberto Nobile, into a national hero but it was a reputation that was not to last.

Amundsen owed much to the American Lincoln Ellsworth, whose millionaire father, a coal magnate, had financed his previous attempt to reach the North Pole by plane. Together they wanted to organise a new journey, this time by airship. Nobile had built one that needed only a few modifications and he promised to have it ready by early 1926.

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