THE POLAR QUEST

"BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE DRAGONS" 

photo © Tom Hegen

Our heritage is the vast knowledge of the past.
It teaches us what is possible and makes us develop and refine our achievements.
The first controlled flight took off from Paris: in 1852, a dirigible invented by Henri Giffard flew 27 km using a steam engine and a vertical rudder.

Aviation was then developed both as lighter than air and heavier than air. The Wright brothers managed to perform the first controlled, sustained, heavier than air flight, in late 1903 in North Carolina. Innovations in aviation create mobility and transport solutions that lead to prosperity and commerce, and the industry will never stop transforming.

1890

A. Andrée’s Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 was a Swedish expedition for the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished.

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The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen with his ship Fram tried to reach the North Pole in his expedition.

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The Italian Prince Luigi Amedeo setup an expedition towards the North Pole. In the spring he arrived in the Norwegian capital Christiania (the present day Oslo) with 10 companions.

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1900

Frederick Albert Cook planned to attempt to reach the North Pole, although he did not announce his intention until August 1907, when he was already in the Arctic.

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Robert Edwin Peary’s final attempt on the Pole, together with 23 men, including Ross Gilmore Marvin, set off from New York City on July 6th, 1908 aboard the SS Roosevelt under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett.

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1910

The America was a non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard, in France, in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman’s attempt to reach the North Pole by air.

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1920

The Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other team members used two Dornier seaplanes in his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole in 1925.

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Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and loyal advocate of airships, was discussing the possibility of using Shenandoah to explore the Arctic.

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The Norge was a semi-rigid Italian-built airship that carried out the first verified trip of any kind to the North Pole and likely the first verified overflight on 12th May 1926.

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On May 9th, 1926, Byrd and Navy Chief Aviation Pilot, Floyd Bennett, attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker F.VIIa/3m Tri-motor monoplane named Josephine Ford, after the daughter of Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford, who helped finance the expedition.

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Airship Italia was a semi-rigid airship used by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile in his second series of flights around the North Pole.

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1930

Graf Zeppelin’s 1931 Arctic Flight was both a scientific expedition and a dramatic display of the airship’s ability under extreme conditions.

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1937

Valery Chkalov and two others flew a Tupolev ANT-25 on June 18–20, 1937 from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington as the world’s first transpolar flight crossing over the North Pole in an airplane.

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1940

The first landing at the North Pole and the first men, which has been confirmed, to stand on North Pole was the three planes of the Soviet Union Sever-2 expedition of 24 scientists and flight crew led by Aleksandr Kuznetsov.

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1950

The extraordinary voyages of the USS Skate, where Commander James F. Calvert, said “Seldom had the ice seemed so heavy and so thick as it did in the immediate vicinity of the pole.

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SALOMON AUGUST ANDRÉE

A. Andrée's Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 was a Swedish expedition for the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished. S. A. Andrée (1854–97), the first Swedish balloonist, proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from Svalbard to either Russia or Canada, which was to pass, with a strike of luck and the self invented drag-rope steering technique, straight over the North Pole on the way. The scheme was received with patriotic enthusiasm in Sweden.

When Andrée, Strindberg, and Frænkel lifted off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon lost hydrogen quickly and landed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a grueling trek back south across the drifting icescape. Inadequately clothed, equipped, and prepared, and shocked by the difficulty of the terrain, they did not make it to safety. As the Arctic winter closed in on them in October, the group ended up exhausted on the deserted Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard and died there, from starvation and polar bear attack. For 33 years the fate of the Andrée expedition remained one of the unsolved riddles of the Arctic. The chance discovery in 1930 of the expedition's last camp created a media sensation in Sweden, where the dead men had been mourned and idolized.

FRIDTJIOF NANSEN

 

Nansen's ­ expedition was an 1893–1896 attempt by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen to reach the North Pole by harnessing the natural east–west current of the Arctic Ocean. In the face of much discouragement from other polar explorers, Nansen took his ship Fram to the New Siberian Islands in the eastern Arctic Ocean, froze her into the pack ice, and waited for the drift to carry them towards the pole. Impatient with the slow speed and erratic character of the drift, after 18 months Nansen and a chosen companion, Hjalmar Johansen, left the ship with a team of dogs and sledges and made for the pole. They did not reach it, but they achieved a record furthest North latitude of 86°13.6′N before a long retreat over ice and water to reach safety in Franz Josef Land. Meanwhile, Fram continued to drift westward, finally emerging in the North Atlantic Ocean.

 

LUIGI AMEDEO DI SAVOIA-AOSTA

 

In 1899, the Italian Prince Luigi Amedeo setup an expedition towards the North Pole. In the spring he arrived in the Norwegian capital Christiania (the present day Oslo) with 10 companions.The duke acquired the ship Jason, a steam whaler of 570 tons. Renamed Stella Polare (“Pole Star”) the ship took the expedition through the frozen sea. On the 12th of June they headed for Archangel.

Prince Luigi Amedeo established a winter camp on the Rudolf-Island. The expedition was to start at the end of the Arctic Night, but the duke lost two fingers during winter because of the cold, which made it impossible for him to join the trip by sled. He left the command over the pole expedition to Captain Cagni. On 11 March 1900 Cagni left the camp and reached latitude 86° 34’ on 25th of April, setting a new record by beating Nansen’s result of 1895 by 35 to 40 kilometres. Cagni barely managed to return to the camp on June 23rd. On 16th of August the Stella Polare left the Rudolf-Island heading south and the expedition returned to Norway. During the expedition the northern coast of Rudolf-Island and two other islands were explored and measured.

 

FREDERICK ALBERT COOK

 

Frederick Albert Cook planned to attempt to reach the North Pole, although he did not announce his intention until August 1907, when he was already in the Arctic. He left Annoatok, a small settlement in the north of Greenland, in February 1908. Cook claimed that he reached the pole on April 22nd, 1908 after traveling north from Axel Heiberg Island, taking with him only two Inuit men, Ahpellah and Etukishook. Going back on the journey south, he claimed to have been cut off from his intended route to Annoatok by open water. Living off local game, his party was forced to push south to Jones Sound, spending the open water season and part of the winter on Devon Island. From there they traveled north, eventually crossing Nares Strait to Annoatok on the Greenland side in the spring of 1909. They almost died of starvation during the journey.

Cook and his two companions were gone from Annoatok for 14 months, and their whereabouts in that period is a matter of intense controversy.

Cook never produced detailed original navigational records to substantiate his claim to have reached the North Pole. He said that his detailed records were part of his belongings, contained in three boxes, which he left at Annoatok in April 1909. He had left them with Harry Whitney, an American hunter who had traveled to Greenland with Peary the previous year, because of the lack of manpower for a second sledge for his 700-mile journey south to Upernavik. When Whitney tried to bring Cook's boxes with him on his return to the USA on Peary's ship Roosevelt in 1909, Peary refused to allow them on board. As a result, Whitney left Cook's boxes in a cache in Greenland. They were never found.

 

ROBERT EDWIN PEARY SR.

 

Robert Edwin Peary’s final assault on the Pole, together with 23 men, including Ross Gilmore Marvin, set off from New York City on July 6th, 1908 aboard the SS Roosevelt under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett. They wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island, and from Ellesmere departed for the pole on February 28th to March 1st, 1909. The last support party turned back from "Bartlett Camp" on April 1st, 1909, in latitude no greater than 87°45' north. (The figure commonly given, 87°47', is based upon Bartlett's slight miscomputation of the distance of a single Sumner line from the pole.) On the final stage of the journey toward the North Pole, Peary told Bartlett to stay behind. He continued with five assistants, none capable of making navigational observations: American Matthew Henson, and Inuit Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah. On April 6th, 1909, he established "Camp Jesup" allegedly within 5 miles (8.0 km) of the pole.

Peary was unable to fully enjoy the fruits of his labours. Upon returning to civilization, he learned that Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who had been a surgeon on an earlier 1891–1892 Peary expedition, claimed to have reached the pole in 1908. After some court trials, Peary was declared right and Cook wrong.

Peary's claim to reach the North Pole has long been subject to doubt. Some polar historians believe that Peary honestly thought he had reached the pole. Others have suggested that he was guilty of deliberately exaggerating his accomplishments. Peary's account has been newly criticized by Pierre Berton (2001) and Bruce Henderson (2005).

 

WALTER E. WELLMAN

 

The America was a non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard, in France, in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman's attempt to reach the North Pole by air. Wellman first conceived the idea of using a balloon to fly to the pole during a failed polar attempt by boat and sledge from Svalbard in 1894. He then visited Paris to review the state of balloon technology but left disappointed by the lack of acceptable steering and propulsion capability. A decade later while at the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Conference he learned of recent innovations in French dirigible design and believed a solution might be at hand for his Arctic aerial plan. After receiving the backing of newspaper publisher Victor F. Lawson, the Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition was announced, and Wellman travelled to Paris in search of a suitable design and manufacturer. In the meantime a public company was established to raise the $US 250,000 required for the expedition and airship (to which Lawson contributed $60,000).

On 15th of October 1910, takeoff was made from Atlantic City. Condensing water on the airship's skin added excess weight, and it was difficult to gain height. A passing storm also made forward navigation difficult. The engines failed 38 hours into the flight, apparently due to contamination by beach sand, and America started to drift. The crew jettisoned all excess weight, including one of the defunct engines. The ship had gone as far as a point east of New Hampshire and south of Nova Scotia before floating generally south.

After another 33 hours, and having now travelled a total distance of 1,190 nautical miles (2,200 km) from launching, they sighted the Royal Mail steamship Trent west of Bermuda. After attracting the ship's attention by a signaling lamp using Morse code, they made the first aerial distress call by radio. The crew, and mascot cat Kiddo, got into the lifeboat and, after opening the gas valves on the airship, abandoned the America. The airship drifted out of sight and was never seen again. Trent, having barely avoided running down the lifeboat in a high crosswind, was able to rescue the crew and returned them to New York.

 

R. AMUNDSEN & L. ELLSWORTH

 

The Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen accompanied by Lincoln Ellsworth, pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, and three other team members used two Dornier seaplanes in his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole in 1925. Their two aircrafts, N-24 and N-25, landed at 87° 44' north. It was the northernmost latitude reached by any aircraft up to that time. The planes landed a few miles apart without radio contact, yet the crews managed to reunite. One of the aircraft, the N-24, was damaged beyond repair. Amundsen and his crew worked for over three weeks to prepare an airstrip to take off from the ice. They shoveled 600 tons of ice while consuming only one pound of daily food rations. In the end, six crew members were packed into the N-25. Riiser-Larsen took off, and they barely became airborne over the cracking ice. They returned triumphantly after widely being presumed dead.

 

ZR-1 USS SHENANDOAH

 

Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and loyal advocate of airships, was discussing the possibility of using Shenandoah to explore the Arctic. He felt such a program would produce valuable weather data, as well as experience in cold-weather operations. With its endurance and ability to fly at low speeds, the airship was thought to be well-suited for such work. President Calvin Coolidge approved Moffett's proposal, but Shenandoah's upper tail fin covering ripped during a gale on 16th January 1924, and the sudden roll tore her away from the Lakehurst mast, ripping out her mooring winches, deflating the first helium cell and puncturing the second. Zeppelin test pilot Anton Heinen rode out the storm for several hours and landed safely while the airship was being blown backwards. Extensive repairs were needed, and the Arctic expedition was scrapped.

 

AMUNDSEN ELLSWORTH, NOBILE

 

The Norge was a semi-rigid Italian-built airship that carried out the first verified trip of any kind to the North Pole and likely the first verified overflight on 12th May 1926. It was also the first aircraft to fly over the polar ice cap between Europe and America. The expedition was the brainchild of polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, the airship's designer and pilot Umberto Nobile and American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, who along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.

In 1925, Amundsen telegrammed Nobile asking to meet him at Oslo, where he proposed an airship trip across the Arctic. With a contract in place Nobile modified the N-1 for cold conditions. As the expedition was being financed by the Aero Club of Norway the modified N-1 was given the name Norge.

On 12th May at 01.25 (GMT) they reached the North Pole, at which point the Norwegian, American and Italian flags were dropped from the airship onto the ice. Relations between Amundsen and Nobile, which had been strained in the freezing, cramped and noisy conditions became even worse when Amundsen saw that the Italian flag dropped was larger than either of the others. Amundsen later recalled with scorn that under Nobile, the airship had become "a circus wagon in the sky".

On 14th May the Norge reached the Inupiat village of Teller, Alaska where in view of worsening weather, the decision was made to land rather than continue to Nome. The airship was reportedly damaged during the landing and was dismantled and shipped back to Italy.

The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge)—are all disputed as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. Some of those disputing these earlier claims therefore consider the crew of the Norge to be the first verified explorers to have reached the North Pole.

 

RICHARD E. BYRD

 

On May 9th, 1926, Byrd and Navy Chief Aviation Pilot, Floyd Bennett, attempted a flight over the North Pole in a Fokker F.VIIa/3m Tri-motor monoplane named Josephine Ford, after the daughter of Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford, who helped finance the expedition. The flight went from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and back to its take-off airfield, lasting 15 and 57 (including 13 minutes of a claimed circling of the pole). Byrd and Bennett claimed to have reached the pole, a distance of 1,335 nautical miles return.

When he returned to the United States from the Arctic, Byrd became a national hero. Congress passed a special act on December 21st, 1926, promoting him to the rank of commander and awarding both him and Floyd Bennett the Medal of Honor. Bennett was promoted to the warrant officer rank of Machinist. Byrd and Bennett were presented with Tiffany Cross versions of the Medal of Honor on March 5th, 1927, at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge.

His claim, widely accepted at first, has been challenged since.

The 1996 release of Byrd's diary of the May 9th, 1926, flight revealed erased (but still legible) sextant sights that sharply differ with Byrd's later June 22nd typewritten official report to the National Geographic Society. Byrd took a sextant reading of the Sun at 7:07:10 GMT. His erased diary record shows the apparent (observed) solar altitude to have been 19°25'30", while his later official typescript reports the same 7:07:10 apparent solar altitude to have been 18°18'18". On the basis of this and other data in the diary, Dennis Rawlins concluded that Byrd steered accurately, and flew about eighty percent of the distance to the Pole before turning back because of an engine oil leak, but later falsified his official report to support his claim of reaching the pole.

 

UMBERTO NOBILE

 

Airship Italia was a semi-rigid airship used by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile in his second series of flights around the North Pole. It crashed in 1928, with one confirmed fatality from the crash, one fatality from exposure while awaiting rescue, and the disappearance of six crew members who were trapped in the still airborne envelope.

Nobile planned five flights for the expedition, each starting from and returning to Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) and exploring different areas of the Arctic.

After the necessary engine and structural repairs were completed, the first flight departed from Kings Bay on 11th May 1928. Italia was forced to turn back after only eight hours flight because of thick ice forming on the envelope, as well as fraying of the control cables due to the extreme conditions.

The second flight left at 13:20 on 15th May and lasted 60 hours. In contrast, this time the weather conditions were excellent and visibility perfect. Valuable meteorological, magnetic and geographic data were gathered in a 2,500 mile (4,000 km) flight to the hitherto uncharted Nicholas II Land and back. Malmgren gathered weather and ice observations, while Pontremoli and Běhounek made measurements of magnetic phenomena and radioactivity. The ship returned safely to base on the morning of 18 May.

The third flight started on 23 May 1928, and following a route along the Greenland coast, with the assistance of strong tailwinds, reached the North Pole 19 hours later at 00:24 on 24 May 1928. Nobile had prepared a winch, an inflatable raft, and survival packs (providentially as it turned out) with the intention of lowering some of the scientists onto the ice, but the wind made this impossible. Instead they circled the pole making observations and at 01:20 dropped the Italian and Milanese colours, as well as a wooden cross presented by the Pope and a religious medal from the citizens of Forlì onto the ice during a short ceremony. At 02:20 on 24 May, the Italia started back to base.

The same tail wind that had helped Italia to the Pole now impeded their progress. Nobile calculated the return journey would take 40 hours, and had discussed their options with Dr Malmgren in the hours before their arrival at the Pole. Nobile considered a trans-polar route to Mackenzie Bay in Canada. According to Nobile, Malmgren advised a return to Kings Bay, predicting lessening winds on their return trip. On the other hand, Malmgren predicted a head wind all the way if the Canadian route was attempted. No doubt the prospect of a forced landing in the Canadian wilderness was unpalatable to both men, as it would mean the end of the expedition.

Heading directly south on a heading for Kings Bay, after 24 hours of increasing head winds and thick mist the Italia was only halfway back to base. The airship struggled to gain ground and break through to the zone of calmer winds which expedition meteorologist Finn Malmgren predicted was just ahead. Ice formed on the propellers and shot off into the envelope, necessitating running repairs. Engine speed was increased but with little effect, except for a doubling of fuel consumption. Dr Běhounek, in charge of the compass, started reporting variations in course of up to 30 degrees, and the elevator man Cecioni had similar problems maintaining control. By 07:30 on 25 May, Nobile, who had been awake for over 48 hours, knew that the situation was critical and Giuseppe Biagi, the wireless operator, sent out the message: "If I don't answer, I have good reason". By dead reckoning, Nobile estimated his position as 250 miles (400 km) northeast from Moffen Island. This estimate was 350 miles (560 km) off.

At 9:25am on 25 May the first critical incident occurred, when the elevator control jammed in the downward position while the ship was travelling at less than 1000 feet (300 metres) altitude. All engines were stopped and the airship began to rise again after it had dropped to within 300 feet (90 metres) of the jagged ice pack. The airship was allowed to continue rising to 3000 feet (900 metres) and above the cloud layer into bright sunlight for 30 minutes. After two engines were restarted the ship descended to 1000 feet (300 metres) with no apparent ill effect, with the headwind appearing to decrease slightly allowing an airspeed of 30 mph. Malmgren took the helm with Zappi supervising him. Cecioni continued to operate the elevators.

At 10:25 the ship was noticed to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of 2 feet per second (0.6 m/s). Nobile ordered full elevators and emergency power, but although the nose rose to an upward angle of 21 degrees, the descent continued. Nobile ordered foreman rigger Renato Alessandrini to the tail of the envelope to check the automatic gas valves. A short time later, seeing a crash was unavoidable, Nobile ordered full stop and the cutting of electrical power to prevent a fire on impact. The port engine engineer failed to notice the order and the ship began to bank. At the same time Nobile ordered Cecioni to dump the ballast chain, but was unable to carry out the order in time owing to the steep angle of the floor and the secure way the chain was lashed.

Seconds afterwards the airship's control cabin hit the jagged ice and smashed open. Suddenly relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship, with a gaping tear in the keel and part of one cabin wall still attached, began to rise again.

Nine survivors including Nobile's fox terrier and one fatality were left on the ice, and six more crew were trapped in the still drifting airship envelope. The envelope and the crew members aboard it have never been found. The position of the crash was close to 81°14′N 28°14′E, about 120 km (75 mi) northeast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. The drifting sea ice later took the survivors towards Foyn and Broch islands.

 

HUGO ECKENER

 

Graf Zeppelin’s 1931 Arctic Flight was both a scientific expedition and a theatrical display of the airship’s ability.

In July, 1931, the ship carried a team of scientists from Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Sweden on an exploration of the Arctic, making meteorological observations, measuring variations in the earth’s magnetic field in the latitudes near the North Pole, and making a photographic survey of unmapped regions using a panoramic camera that automatically took several pictures per minute. The size, payload, and stability of the zeppelin allowed heavy scientific instruments to be carried and used with an accuracy that would not have been possible with the airplanes of the day.

The five-stage flight covered 7,187 nautical miles in 136:26 flying hours between July 24th and July 31st, 1931, and literally changed the map of the Arctic region with the information obtained during the flight.

 

VALERY PAVLOVICH CHKALOV

 
Russia's interest in the North Pole was driven by economic prospects and the opportunity for technological advancement. A northern sea route would allow passage of commercial and war ships, and would establish refueling and supply stations for ships and aircraft in remote areas. For navigation, meteorological stations were built providing better weather forecasting for northern Europe and Asia.

Weather, temperature, and reliance on aviation gauges were key elements in the first transpolar flight. Once over the Pole, the Chkalov crew encountered stormy, cold weather, throwing the ANT-25 off course and burning more fuel as they tried to fly above the storm. Baidukov, the co-pilot, and Chkalov slept in shifts as they manned the controls, while Belyakov, the navigator, took short naps to stay alert for navigation needs. Ice formed unevenly, endangering structural integrity and weighing down the aircraft. The higher they flew, the greater the crew's demand for oxygen. Baidukov prevailed by "flying blind" with instruments only. They were an excellent team. With Chkalov's steady guidance, Belyakov's expert navigation, and Baidukov's skills, they flew 5,288 miles through white skies and over unfamiliar territories. Through diplomatic arrangement, Russian and American meteorologists and radio operators communicated with the crew throughout the flight, though the fliers reported reception difficulties several times.

On the morning of June 20 in Vancouver, Washington, people were dressing for church, milkmen were beginning their deliveries, and the commanding general of the US Army's Department of the Columbia was sipping coffee in a beautiful house on Officers' Row. No one realized the magnitude of the aerial achievement that was about to unfold at Pearson Field.

In a huge, glider-like airplane above Eugene, Oregon, Valery Chkalov and his crew realized they were running out of fuel and would not make it to Oakland, California, as planned. Chkalov told his copilot, Georgi Baidukov, to turn the ANT-25 back towards Portland. Droplets of rain glistened on Baidukov's face as he leaned out the cockpit window. "I need the detailed map," he shouted to navigator Alexander Belyakov. "That's it," Chkalov whispered a short time later, as he gazed at photos of American airports and recognized the bridges and factories below.

AMERICA! Sixty-three hours and sixteen minutes from the time they left Moscow, the world's first transpolar flight landed safely at Pearson Field. This dangerous, fantastic flight matched the glitz and glamour of Earhart and Lindbergh, but few in America would realize its lasting impact. Three men endured incredible cold, hazards, exhaustion, and a lack of oxygen to fly over the North Pole, setting world records in the process.

ALEKSANDR KUZNETSON

 

The first landing at the North Pole and the first men, which has been confirmed, to stand on North Pole was the three planes of the Soviet Union Sever-2 expedition of 24 scientists and flight crew led by Aleksandr Kuznetsov.

The expedition used the Lisunov Li-2 aircraft, originally designated PS-84, which was a license-built version of the Douglas DC-3. It was produced by Factory #84 in Moscow-Khimki and, after evacuation in 1941, at TAPO in Tashkent.

The pilots were: Ivan Cherevichnyy, Vitaly Maslennikov and Ilya Kotov. Cherevichnyy's plane was the first one to land at 4:44pm on April 23rd, 1948.

 

JAMES E. CALMERT

 

Skate was unable to surface precisely at the Pole on her August voyage 1958, due to dangerous ice conditions as noted in the captain's 1960 book, Surface at the Pole: The Extraordinary Voyages of the USS Skate, where Commander James F. Calvert, said "Seldom had the ice seemed so heavy and so thick as it did in the immediate vicinity of the pole. For days we had searched in vain for a suitable opening to surface in." The closest was to make radio contact at the surface from a polynya around 30 nm away, but not to surface fully owing to the risk of damage from ice. Skate did manage to surface and make contact with Drifting Ice Station Alpha at 85ºN, 300 nm away.

While the Skate was unable to surface on its first voyage to the pole, on 17 March 1959, she became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole with Calvert describing the historic moment in his book, saying, "Slowly we blew the tanks and the Skate moved reluctantly upward. It was apparent we were under heavier ice here than any we had experienced before." While at the pole, Calvert and the crew planted an American Flag in a cairn they built out of ice blocks and put a waterproof container in the cairn with a note commemorating the event. The crew also held a ceremony for the late Arctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins and committed his ashes at the pole. In 1931, Sir Hubert had conducted an Arctic expedition in the disarmed research submarine Nautilus. After reaching the Pole, the Skate continued its mission to pioneer arctic operations during periods of extreme cold and maximum ice thickness. When the submarine returned to port, she was awarded a bronze star in lieu of a second Navy Unit Commendation for demonstrating "... for the first time the ability of submarines to operate in and under the Arctic ice in the dead of winter...."