Nobile was a developer and promoter of semi-rigid airships during the Golden Age of Aviation between the two World Wars. He is primarily remembered for designing and piloting the airship Norge, which was the first aircraft indisputably flying across the polar ice cap from Europe to America and the first to reach the North Pole.
In autumn 1925, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen sought out Nobile to collaborate on a flight to the North Pole – still at that time an unreached goal for aviators – using one of Nobile’s aircraft. Amundsen insisted in the contract that Nobile should be the pilot and that five of the crew should be Italian. But to underline that the expedition was Norwegian, he named the airship Norge.
The Italian State Airship Factory, which had built Nobile’s N-1, made it available for the expedition 29th March 1926. On 14th April 1926, the airship Norge left Italy making stops in Russia, England and Norway along the way, until finally reaching Ny-Ålesund in Spitsbergen – the starting point of the North Pole Expedition.
Before Amundsen and Nobile could take off from Ny-Ålesund, they heard alarming news: Richard E. Byrd’s American expedition had reached the North Pole, just 12 days before Norge was scheduled to depart. Even though Amundsen was one of the first to congratulate Byrd, he and Nobile went ahead with the flight.
On 11th May 1926, the Norge expedition left Svalbard. Fifteen and a half hours later the ship flew over the Pole and landed two days later in Teller, Alaska. Strong winds had made the planned landing at Nome, Alaska impossible.
Their efforts were rewarded and the Norge crew actually achieved their aim of being the first to overfly the Pole: Byrd’s co-pilot Bennett is said later to have admitted that they faked their flight to the Pole.
Norge’s flight from “Rome to Nome” was acclaimed as another great milestone in aviation, but disagreement soon erupted between Nobile and Amundsen, as to who deserved greater credit for the expedition. The controversy was exacerbated by Mussolini’s government, which trumpeted the genius of Italian engineering and ordered Nobile on a speaking tour of the U.S., further alienating Amundsen and the Norwegians.
Nobile also designed and flew the Italia, his second polar airship to reach the North Pole. However, the expedition crashed after reaching the North Pole, on its way back to Spitsbergen. The expedition evoked an international rescue effort, something that Amundsen participated in as well, but never returned from.