In spite of the head wind, in the early morning of May 3 General Nobile gave orders to cast off from Jesseritz airfield and head north across the southern part of the Baltic Sea. Fuel, ballast and provisions had been replenished; all repairs, major and minor, had been completed by technicians rushed from Milan to carry them out. As an additional precaution, some small, light-weight boats had been stowed on board, for use in the event of their being forced down over open water.
Italia made good progress. In little more than seven hours she was cruising over Stockholm, having covered some 400 miles since leaving Slupsk in the darkness of that early May morning. The dirigible was saluted by a number of seaplanes that lifted into the air from their moorings and escorted her in formation past the Swedish capital. Finn Malmgren, the Swedish scientist, asked Nobile to have her diverted over the house where his mother lived, as low as possible, so that he could drop her a little note attached to a weight.
They turned next slightly to the east, setting course northeastward for Rovaniemi, in Finland, over which they flew at two o'clock next morning, less than twenty-four hours after leaving Slupsk. Nobile was feeling elated again: his engines were functioning well and, in spite of the head wind, did not seem to be using as much fuel as they had on the first leg of the flight. They had covered nearly 1,000 miles on this leg, and the tank levels were still well up.
But as he was recording this in the ship's log, his radio operator Guiseppe Biagi handed him a message just received from the Geophysical Institute at Tromso. It made disturbing reading:
"Depression between Bear Island and Spitsbergen moving E. Pressure falling in front of the centre. Behind it, over the ocean between Spitsbergen and Greenland, wind is N to N-W, Force 5 on Beaufort Scale. Wind system will spread E. Advisable to increase airship's speed so as to utilize present fair landing conditions."
A northwest wind meant that Italia would be heading into the wind for the whole of the final 1,000-mile leg of her flight; and Force 5 on the Beaufort Scale represented winds of not less than nineteen miles an hour and up to twenty-four miles an hour. Such figures, of course, would mean little to the pilot of a heavier-than-air machine; but the vast area of Italia's envelope would offer an enormous resistance and she would either be slowed down to a speed that might delay her arrival until after the "fair landing conditions" had ended, or have to have her engines speeded up so that they used more fuel than her tanks contained. It was the first, but by no means last, of the many grim dilemmas with which Nobile was to be confronted in the weeks that were to follow.
He decided to have all three engines speeded up. Now the whole frame of the dirigible quivered as the propellers turned, faster and faster, in a race against time during which the risk of fuel shortage had to be balanced against that of arriving too late to make use of good landing conditions. it was with enormous relief that, with the fuel gauges still above danger level, they came in sight of Vadso, on the Varanger Fjord, a sheltered port on the edge of the Barents Sea close to the frontier between Finland and Russia. The flight of 1,200 miles had taken just thirty hours; as on the first leg, Italia had again averaged almost exactly forty miles an hour. Nobile and his crew took heart once more.
There was a mooring mast at Vadso. But making fast to it in a strong wind proved a very tricky operation, and some damage was caused to the forward frame that called for expert attention from the mechanics and riggers. Meanwhile, since there was no time to be lost and Nobile was reluctant to spend an hour longer at Vadso than was absolutely necessary, the airship was refuelled and reprovisioned while the men worked at the repairs.
Unhappily, the wind steadily increased in strength; worse, it continually changed in direction, so that Italia was buffeted this way and that until she was spinning round the mooring mast like the sweep second-hand of a watch. Nobile and most of his crew were on board, and so passed an uncomfortable time, being tossed about as though in a small boat on a rough sea. They had to endure also the constant fear that Italia might be actually torn away from her moorings and set loose in the storm-filled air. In an attempt to ease the strain on the mooring tackle, her engines were kept turning over gently, but this was a tricky operations the unpredictable wind continually veered. To make matters worse, there were heavy flurries of snow on the wind, and, for the first time, Nobile had to consider the problem of snow accumulating on the envelope and weighing Italia down. Fortunately the snow turned to rain, which washed the envelope clear again.
After twenty-three wretched hours at Vadso, Nobile was able to cast off, the wind having abated slightly, and head northwestward across Nordkapp for the final leg of the flight to Spitsbergen at the north-west corner of the Svalbard Archipelago, the springboard for the actual flight to the North Pole. To be on the safe side, the fuel tanks had now been filled to their maximum capacity of rather more than six tons: sufficient, Nobile calculated, for Italia to cover the whole distance to their destination, King's Bay, even against a wind of Force 7 on the Beaufort Scale, which was higher than that predicted for them by the Tromso Geophysical Institute.
Once over open water, Nobile's luck turned. The head wind miraculously shifted from the northwest to the southeast--right on the airship's tail. This made steering difficult, but added considerably to her speed and, at the same time, relieved the drain on the fuel tanks. Nobile ordered the stern engine to be switched of; much of the flight to King's Bay was completed on the port and starboard engines alone. So well did things seem to be going that at one time he toyed with the idea of flying straight on to the North Pole. But caution prevailed: after all, he reminded himself, if this tail wind held he would have to battle against it on the return trip; this time he was not flying on to Alaska, but returning to his base.
At half past eleven on the morning of May 6, Italia was sighted approaching King's Bay. In the middle of this almost land-locked bay, the Citta di Milano, the base ship provided by the Italian government, lay at anchor, decked with flags to greet the airship and her crew. Another ship, a small Norwegian whaler rather oddly named Hobby, also lay there at anchor. Nobile's heart lifted at the thought of contact with a fellow countryman after his long flight from Milan. Captain Romagna, Master of the Citta di Milano, would, he felt sure, do everything in his power to assist him and his crew in the great enterprise about to be set in motion.
Just inland from the bay was another mooring mast and, alongside it, an enormous hangar constructed to accommodate Italia while she was being prepared for the final and most important stage of her flight. A small army of Italian Alpini (soldiers trained for operations in snow and mountainous conditions) had been assembled at King's Bay to assist in handling the airship at touchdown and takeoff. At 12:45, Nobile ordered the mooring line to be dropped into their outstretched hands. His intention was that his airship should be man handled directly into the hangar, but the officer commanding the men on the ground declared that the wind at present was too strong for that difficult and dangerous operation and that for the time being, as at Jesseritz and Vadso, Italia must simply be attached to the mooring mast.
Nobile was not at all happy about this, and sent for more assistance. A large number of Norwegian miners joined the Alpini, and with their help the airship was transferred from the mast to the hanger, where she was safely housed before the end of the afternoon. Nobile stepped down on to the ground, to be welcomed by his brother Alfredo, who had come from Italy to superintend ground operations. The airship had now covered more than 3,000 miles and was in urgent need of a full overhaul before setting out on the main stage of her flight; nothing must be overlooked that might jeopardise their chances of success.
Though Nobile had been in a hurry to reach Spitsbergen, he now proceeded with caution, taking one step at a time. Everything, he realised, depended on their being prepared for every possible contingency. Admittedly, the airship had been tested over land, but she had not been tested over ice-covered sea and in subzero temperatures. He decided, therefore, to make one or two short exploratory flights in such conditions. One of these should be eastward in the direction of Nicholas II Land, also known as Severnaya Zemlya. Another should be in the opposite direction, westward to the north of Greenland. A third might again be eastward by way of Franz Josef Land and then along the north Siberian coastline. Some of these areas had not yet been adequately charted; this was a function these small expeditions could carry out.
Unfortunately, once again Fate stepped in. The weather proved unusually unkind. His first foray, in the direction of Severnaya Zemlya, lasted no more than eight hours. So violent was the wind, and so varied the sudden rise and fall of temperatures and pressures, that Italia's elevator controls and rudder controls were tested almost to destruction. Nobile gave orders to turn about. He only just succeeded in getting the airship back into the hangar before a blizzard of ferocious intensity swept across King's Bay and blotted out the light and the whole landscape.
The hangar had been inadequately designed and constructed. It consisted of no more than side walls of timber framing on which sheets of canvas were stretched taut. Its doors were of canvas panels on light framing and they proved incapable of standing up to the impact of the wind. Worst of all, the hangar had no roof, which seems quite extraordinary: one would have thought that, since snow falls heavily far within the Arctic Circle, a roof was perhaps even more important than walls and doors.
Snow did fall. It fell heavily, inexorably, incessantly. Its sheer weight was sufficient to counteract Italia's buoyancy so that instead of being poised just clear of the ground she was weighed down and her engine nacelles and control cabin were in contact with it. Nobile was quick to realise the extent of the damage that this contact could mean. It could well be irreparable. Furthermore, the steel girders connecting those parts with the keel could well buckle, snap off, and their broken ends stab into the gasbags so that the hydrogen escaped and Italia would soon become nothing more than a crumpled envelope spread out over the shattered nacelles. There was only one solution: to order every available man to sweep the accumulated snow off the slippery curved top of the envelope before disaster occurred. He estimated that every hour no less than a ton of snow was being deposited on the 18,000-square-foot upper surface of the envelope. Quite apart from this, however, was the risk to the live of the men performing this task, and the possible damege from heavy boots to the delicate fabric of which the envelope was made.
Italia lay immobile for four long days and nights. Then at last the weather seemed to improve, and Nobile took her out again. His objective this time was to survey some 25,000 square miles of the Arctic: water, ice sheets and land masses embedded in it. This time he was luckier. The weather, though still poor, was not bad enough to make cruising impossible. The airship returned to her base at King's Bay having successfully accomplished her exploratory mission. She had covered 2,500 miles. Her engines functioned perfectly, in spite of the strain imposed on them when she turned into head winds; her rudder and elevator controls, strongly reinforced in the light of experience, had answered perfectly and showed no sign of undue strain. The trip had been a good omen for the flight to the Pole, and Nobile and his crew could hardly contain their impatience.
Still cautious, however, Nobile had the good sense to restrain his anxiety to be off. Quite apart from taking on fuel and making a final and thorough test of the engines and every inch of the long control cables, he must, now that they were so close to the area they were intending to survey, make sure that every member of the crew was briefed as to what lay ahead, and rehearsed in the various types of drill that circumstances might force upon them.
It must be remembered that, unlike the flight of the Norge, across the Pole and on to Alaska, Italia's plan was to lower on to the ice, or into a seaway in the pack ice, a small group of specialists each of whom had his individual observations and research to carry out. This would be a very exacting procedure, and one which must be executed faultlessly the first time or there might not be a second time for any of those involved.
"I propose," Nobile recorded, "to moor Italia at a height of no more than 300 feet. With the dirigible safely anchored, I would then work her down to 150 feet. From this height above the ice (or sea lane), the men and their precious instruments would be carefully lowered in the pneumatic raft into the water. They would then paddle themselves across to the nearest ice mass."
He added that he himself proposed to be lowered with the party and be the first to step on to the ice. His reason, he said, was that he must share any risk the others might have to face, and see for himself what sort of problems would confront them. His real reason, almost certainly, was that he wanted to be the man who planted the Italian flag on the ice, thus claiming the territory for his country.
It was a form of drill that called for a good deal of rehearsal. Between their return from that second foray and their actual departure for the Pole, they tried it out over and over again. The windlass was tested and retested; the cables were checked inch by inch; the inflatable raft was scrupulously examined, every square inch of it, for any possible leak, however minute. The scientific equipment was checked and its distribution in the raft worked out with the utmost care so that balance would be maintained both while it was being lowered and when it was afloat. Every member of the crew likely to be involved in the exercise was rehearsed in the tricky art of stepping out of a raft bobbing on ice water on to a shelf of slippery ice of varying consistency and height above water level. Nobile would leave nothing to chance. It was not only his reputation that was at stake: it was the lives of the men serving under him.
There was another extremely important point he had to bear constantly in mind. When the inflated raft had been successfully lowered there was always the possibility that with the release of the weight of the men and their equipment, and an unexpected sudden rise in wind strength, or change of direction, Italia might drag her anchor and drift away. The party in the raft would then be marooned; from that moment until Italia could be brought back overhead and re-anchored, they would have to depend entirely on their own resources. Therefore they must be equipped for any such possible emergency. Little did he know, when pondering over this problem, how near he was coming to actual fact.
So, he had a small tent prepared for their special use. A set of sleeping bags, extra windproof apparel, a Colt revolver with appropriate ammunition, tinted powder for marking snow or ice as a signal to would-be rescuers, a Nansen stove, a megaphone, material for producing smoke signals, and matches in watertight containers: all these assembled and distributed about the raft so that the small party would know, as they were lowered from the airship, that they were a self-contained unit. Food, of course, was put on board: concentrated iron rations of pemmican and chocolate and a supply of drinking date.
Once all these pre-arrangements had been carried out, checked and double-checked, Nobile felt easier in his mind; he had done, he believed, everything it was humanly possible to do in advance for the men for whom he was responsible. So, at twenty-eight minutes past four on the morning of May 23, five days after their return from the three-day expedition, five and a half weeks since leaving the airfield at Milan, Italia, with nearly seven tons of fuel in her brimming tanks, left King's Bay for her flight to the North Pole.