Page 1

From Pole to Pole Roald Amundsen’s Journey in Flight Garth James Cameron

From Pole to Pole.indd 3

12/06/2013 11:22


Introductionvi Chapter 1

The Past is a Foreign Country


Chapter 2

Before Amundsen (Part One): Salomon August Andree


Chapter 3

Before Amundsen (Part Two): Walter Wellman


Chapter 4

A Sailor Struck by Lightning


Chapter 5

A Flight to the North Pole?


Chapter 6

Towards the North Pole


Chapter 7

A Merciful Deliverance from the Ice


Chapter 8


Chapter 9


Chapter 10

Learning to Fly: Ciampino


Chapter 11

Positioning Flight


Chapter 12

Hour of Gold


Chapter 13

Enough Credit for Everyone


Chapter 14

Our Names Would be Linked One More Time


Chapter 15

Gardens of Stone and an AUV


Epilogue172 A Note on Sources176 Annotated Bibliography178 Appendix 1

Glossary of 1920s Aviation Terms


Appendix 2

Dornier Wal (Whale) Flying Boat


Appendix 3

Airship Norge


From Pole to Pole.indd 5

12/06/2013 11:22


‘Victory awaits him, who has everything in order, luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions, bad luck we call it.’ Roald Amundsen 1927 ‘I desire to offer your Majesty and the people of Norway my congratulations on the successwhich has attended the bold undertaking of this hardy and intrepid descendant of the Vikings.’ President Calvin Coolidge 1926. Telegram to King Haakon VII


have written this book because Amundsen’s aviation activities were important, interesting and have not been examined in detail from a modern perspective. I knew something of the story and wanted to know more. It was a pleasure to get to know the subject and write about it detail. About halfway through the book I realised that I had grown to like Amundsen very much and my only regret is that of course I will never have the opportunity to sit down with him, have a few drinks and talk about his life. The social, political and technological context of Amundsen’s life could not be more different from that of today. In his lifetime every nation had its hero’s and it was acceptable to admire and respect people who took risks and achieved. In his lifetime aviation came into existence and developed at a rate that no one had predicted. Explorers found that they could cover in hours what had taken months or years to cover on the surface. It suddenly seemed possible to fill in the blank spots on the maps. Maps became much more accurate due to aerial photography and aerial survey. Airships seemed to be the future, aviators were seen as heroes, governments encouraged ‘air mindedness’ but few people would do more than have a ten minute flight with a barnstormer. Newspapers published lists of the few passengers who arrived at the new airports. Air navigation was developing and very complex. A long flight required an air navigator to work from take-off to touchdown with

From Pole to Pole.indd 6

12/06/2013 11:22

Introduction vii

the varied tools of his trade. The world seemed to be an exciting place with exciting possibilities due to aviation. Explorers and aviators were celebrities in a way movie stars are today. Most importantly, people had not come to take air travel or recreational aviation for granted. I admire Roald Amundsen for his professionalism, his attention to detail, his courage, his achievements and for being interesting character with a fair share of imperfections which make him that much more likable. A note on names (1896–1928) and numbers Place Names The primary sources for this book use a variety of names for the same place. Usually the English language sources used anglicised versions of the place names. The name Spitsbergen was sometimes used for the whole archipelago including the Islands of Spitsbergen, North East Land and many smaller islands. Sometimes Svalbard was used for the group of Islands and Spitsbergen for the main island. The modern convention is to call the whole archipelago Svalbard and Spitsbergen refers solely to the biggest island in the group. Danes Island is Danskoya, Amsterdam Island is Amsterdamoya, Virgo Harbour is Virgohamna, Kings Bay is Kongsfjorden, New Alesund is Ny Alesund, North East Land is Nordaustlandet and Bear Island is Bjornoya. Norway gained its independence from Sweden on 7 June 1905. The Norwegian capital Christiania became Kristiania in 1877 and was renamed Oslo on 1 January 1925. Names of people The sources often give two or more spellings of each individual’s name. I have chosen the most likely one for each person and referred to him or her by that name throughout the book. Dates, Times and Details The books published immediately after Amundsen’s 1925 and 1926 expeditions are valuable but were rushed into print and written by a number of expedition members in parallel. This has resulted in some contradictory statements about dates, times and flight times. I have done my best to reconcile these contradictions. Units of Measurement The sources for this book use a mix of units. For continuity, where the text refers to flight planning and flights, I have converted figures in the sources

From Pole to Pole.indd 7

12/06/2013 11:22

viii  From Pole to Pole

to the units now used in aviation; metres for runway dimensions, metres and kilometres for visibility distances, feet for elevations and altitudes, nautical miles for navigational distances, litres for volumes, kilograms for weights and knots (nautical miles per hour) for speeds. Directions are expressed in degrees(°) with a circle divided into 360° eg: due east is 090°, south east is 135°, south is 180°. The original figures were often round figures. I usually use the exact result of the conversions for the sake of accuracy in narrating the navigational parts of the story. This sometimes gives oddly precise figures. For example the cruising speed of the Dornier Wal flying boat is 150kmph which converts to 81kt. If a figure is rounded in the text I note that the figure is ‘about’. I to readers who wish to convert any of the numbers in the text. In the early twentieth century the indigenous people of the Arctic were usually called Eskimo rather than Inuit.

From Pole to Pole.indd 8

12/06/2013 11:22

Chapter One

The Past is a Foreign Country Norway–North-West Passage, 1872–1907


ovelist L P Hartley wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ and that observation certainly applies to the life and adventures of Roald Amundsen. When he was born there were no airships or aeroplanes and large parts of the Arctic and Antarctic were unexplored. He started out using skis, dogs and ships and then adopted the aeroplane and airship as vehicles. Amundsen was the most successful Arctic and Antarctic explorer of his day and one of the reasons for his success was his willingness to innovate. Amundsen’s involvement in aviation started in 1909 and included Arctic flights in 1925, 1926 and 1928. In 1925 he and five others attempted to fly two flying boats from Spitsbergen to the North Pole and back. It was a heroic failure and a near disaster. In 1926 Amundsen lead an expedition in the airship Norge from Svalbard to the North Pole and on to Alaska. This was the first undisputed journey to the North Pole, the first journey across the Arctic Ocean and the first flight from Europe to the Americas by way of the North Pole. In 1928 Amundsen joined the search and rescue effort for the crew of airship Italia which had crashed on the pack ice north-east of Svalbard. His flying boat with all on board disappeared on the last leg of its positioning flight from Troms in northern Norway to Kings Bay in Svalbard. Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872–1928) was the last Viking. A mariner by profession, he turned himself into the best known and most successful Arctic and Antarctic explorer of the early twentieth century. His achievements made him one of the most famous Norwegians of his day. He mixed with kings and queens and princes, with presidents and prime ministers. He was a celebrity who earned his fame the hard way, by doing what no one had done before. He was a hero in Norway, which gained its independence from Sweden in 1905 while he was navigating the North West

From Pole to Pole.indd 1

12/06/2013 11:22

2  From Pole to Pole

Passage. He was an innovator in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic and this book is about his innovative use of aircraft to explore the Arctic. Amundsen was every inch the explorer, 180cm tall, deeply tanned with the strong but trim build of a middleweight boxer and a Roman nose. He would stay fit and strong down to the day he died aged 55. He had decided to be an arctic explorer when he was a teenager after reading accounts of some of the many expeditions mounted in the nineteenth century. From these books he learnt which equipment and techniques worked and which did not. He would always be an open-minded innovator. From an early age he worked on developing the physical strength and endurance that would be required for this type of career and he undertook dangerous and demanding cross-country ski trips whenever he could. He wrote with understandable pride that his physique impressed the doctors who examined him before his compulsory military training. His mother wanted him to be a doctor and he enrolled in University for several years but left as soon as she died. He went to sea to acquire the skills and sea time he would need to qualify as a ship’s officer and ultimately as a master mariner. In 1897–1899 he was second mate on de Gerlache’s Belgica expedition to Antarctica. The ship was trapped in the ice and the crew became the first men to overwinter in Antarctica. Dr Frederic Cook was the ship’s surgeon and Amundsen developed a respect for that deeply flawed character which survived Cook’s later fraudulent claims to have climbed Mt McKinley and to have reached the North Pole. Cook ended up in prison having been convicted of a major fraud involving oil reserves. Amundsen visited him in prison and demonstrated one of his (Amundsen’s) most likeable qualities; he was loyal to his friends. He knew that he would only truly be in control of his future expeditions if he commanded the ship that was used. He therefore qualified for a master mariner’s licence at the earliest opportunity. His career as a ship’s officer was a key part of his overall plan to be a career explorer. For the rest of his life the one title he valued was Captain. In 1903–1907 he commanded Gjoa on the first continuous voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the North West Passage across the top of Canada and Alaska. During that expedition he also made overland journeys to locate and make observations at the North Magnetic Pole. In the process he developed skill in dog sledding and managing expeditions in the snow, ice and deep cold of high latitudes. Before the 1903–1907 expedition he had decided to innovate and trust to his own judgment how to do what many men and ships had been lost doing: ‘What has not been accomplished with large vessels and brute force I will attempt with a small vessel and patience’

From Pole to Pole.indd 2

12/06/2013 11:22

The Past is a Foreign Country  3

Roald Amundsen (L), Master Mariner, with the crew of Gjoa. After the Belgica expedition to Antarctica in 1897-1899 Amundsen had sailed Gjoa from Kristiania in Norway to San Francisco in 1903-1907 by way of the North-West Passage. This was an important ‘first’ and established him as an Arctic explorer of note. Norway had become independent in 1905 when Amundsen was at Gjoahaven on King William Island. He had reached the North Magnetic Pole and made magnetic observations for two years.

He had faith that a small herring boat like his Gjoa could endure the treacherous Arctic Ocean. During 1910–1912 he commanded the Fram on its third voyage; an expedition to Antarctica. On 14 December 1911 he became the first man to reach the South Pole, beating Captain Scott and his party by a month. This achievement consolidated his national and international fame and guaranteed him a place in the history books. It also created an on-going resentment in Great Britain and its Empire that a ‘foreigner’ and a professional had beaten Scott, the heroic amateur. After doing well financially during the shipping boom of the Great War (1914–1918) he ordered a new ship for a further Arctic expedition. This was the Maude, which he sailed through the North East Passage (from the

From Pole to Pole.indd 3

12/06/2013 11:22

4  From Pole to Pole

Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of Russia) in 1918–1920. The ship would have to be built to survive being trapped in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean for years at a time. He had a Norwegian naval architect and shipbuilder Colin Archer design a vessel that had a hull almost a metre thick and was curved laterally and longitudinally so that it would rise out of the ice and not be pinched and crushed. This was only the third time a ship had completed this voyage. Amundsen had now completed the first circumnavigation of the world above the Arctic Circle. The Maude voyaged in the Arctic for seven years (1918–1925) although Amundsen was not aboard for most of the later years. In the twenty-first century anyone in the developed world can access high resolution satellite photos of every metre of the earth’s surface, talk to anyone anywhere in the world by satellite phone, fly to anywhere in the world in 24 hours and navigate accurately and easily with a hand-held GPS unit, but it was not always so. In the third decade of the twentieth century a state of the art flying boat cruised at about 80 knots and airships at about 40 knots. A strong wind could halve an aeroplane’s ground speed or reduce that of an airship’s to a crawl or even drive it backwards. Air navigation was developing and was as much an art as a science. The crew of an aircraft flying over the Arctic Ocean without radio was entirely on its own. If they were forced down on the pack ice no one knew where they were and the chances of being found or rescued was zero. Even if a downed crew made radio contact they might well be beyond the reach of available rescue planes. There was no such thing as a comprehensive search and rescue service in the era in which explorers took to the air for the first time. Large segments of the arctic basin were unexplored. No one was sure whether or not there were land masses in that part of the globe. In the early years of the twentieth century the Arctic Ocean that covers the northern extremities of the globe was largely mare incognitum or perhaps terra incognita. No one knew how much of the area was sea and ice and how much, if any, was land. Its natural history, weather, and surface conditions were little known but had been the subject of intense speculation for centuries. It follows that attempts to reach the North Pole were of great geographical significance as any successful journey would traverse a significant section of this unknown area. Many attempts to reach the North Pole had been made since the eighteenth century using ships, sledges, dogs and man power. The explorers spent years at a time on expeditions and endured hardships unknown to travellers in more benign climates. Ships were locked in the pack ice for years at a time and were frequently crushed and sunk. The survivors only stayed alive by enduring the most appalling privations and chance was always a factor. The British Antarctic

From Pole to Pole.indd 4

12/06/2013 11:22

The Past is a Foreign Country  5

explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton rightly called such expeditions ‘white warfare’. British polar explorers were awarded the Polar Medal which was worn with war medals on ceremonial occasions. Before Amundsen’s 1925 attempt to fly from Spitsbergen to the North Pole there had been two claims to have reached the Pole, both by surface travel. In 1909 Dr Frederick Cook (1864–1940) claimed to have reached the Pole on 22 April 1908 with two Eskimo companions. He arrived back in civilisation in 1909 and, at first, his claim was widely accepted. He had been medical officer with Robert Perry’s Arctic expedition of 1891–1892 and he had the same role on the Belgica Antarctica expedition of 1897–1899. Shortly after Dr Cook’s return to civilisation doubts about the veracity of his claims were widely felt and widely published. Cook maintained his claim for the rest of his life but by the end of 1909 his claim had been rejected by most of those with knowledge of the lack of evidence to support his claim. A few weeks after Cook made his claim Robert Peary (1856–1920) returned from his 1908–1909 Arctic expedition and claimed to have arrived at the Pole on 6 April 1909 with Mathew Henson and four Eskimo. There were doubts about his claim but the authorities accepted it and Peary received the honours due to the first man to the Pole and secured a place in the history books. The majority opinion amongst modern scholars is that he did not reach the Pole. Even if Peary had reached the Pole his party were surface bound and their observations were limited to only a few miles either side of their route. Other travellers in the Arctic Ocean such as Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) who spent 1893–1896 firstly aboard the Fram iced into the pack ice in the Polar Ocean and then trekking over the ice in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the Pole had also been limited to observing what could be seen from the highest masses of pack ice and the mast heads of their ships. That meant that much of the polar basin was unexplored and there could be land masses waiting to be discovered. Aircraft had the dual advantages of covering in hours what could be covered by surface travellers in months or years and the great tracts of the surface visible from high altitude. When visibility is perfect the horizon is 100km away in all directions at the modest altitude of 1000m. Even when the visibility was not perfect the occupants of an aircraft could expect to observe a huge swath of previously unseen surface. Amundsen wanted to be the first to reach the Pole by air and to make an important contribution to mankind’s knowledge of the planet. He was well aware that there had been a number of unsuccessful attempts to fly to the Pole.

From Pole to Pole.indd 5

12/06/2013 11:22

From pole to pole  

This book explores Amundsen’s enthusiasm for flight from the moment he read about Bleriot’s flight across the English Channel in an aeroplan...