The Airship ITALIA, which crashed in the Arctic on 25 May 1928. The PolarQuest team are the first to visit the crash area in 90 years.

Nanuq searches for Airship ITALIA

On 13 August 2018, the PolarQuest team arrived at the crash area of the Airship ITALIA: 81°14 N 25°25 E. These were the coordinates sent out by ITALIA’s survivors in their first SOS message, 24 hours after the crash.

The crew leave flowers at the crash area of Airship ITALIA.

It was an emotional moment, as the team said a prayer at the site, and left behind flowers and a cross given to them by the descendants of Airship ITALIA’s crew. As the PolarQuest team are the first people to visit the site in 90 years, this was at last an opportunity to lay the missing crew to rest.

It is also the first chance for team to search for the Airship ITALIA beneath the Arctic waters. On board sailboat Nanuq is crew member Gianluca Casagrande, of the Italian Geographical Society and the European University of Rome, who will oversee the search using a multi-beamer scanner provided by NORBIT Subsea. The team will search in a well-defined area, calculated by Casagrande and his team using historical documents and testimonies from ITALIA descendants.

“While we have the coordinates of the first SOS radioed by the ITALIA survivors 24 hrs after the capsule crash, measured accurately by the survivors, the location of its balloon is a mystery,” explains Casagrande. “There are two prevailing theories: that it crashed on the ice pack and floated with it until the pack melted; or that it crashed in the water, sinking to the seabed floor immediately.”

Could the crew in the balloon have tried to land? Or did they try to stay aloft as long as possible? Could there have been a hydrogen leak on board? Many questions surround the mystery, all of which could impact the final crash site. The only clear information is that the survivors of the first crash saw smoke on the horizon 20 minutes after their descent, 20-30 kilometres away. “We have estimated that, considering the wind, this would actually have been a bit closer: 10-20 kilometres,” says Casagrande. “The angle at which they saw this was measured as 110° magnetic bearing by Nobile, which is very close to the true geographic heading 110° today.”

Representatives of the descendants of the Airship ITALIA crew, with the PolarQuest team in Ny Alesund, Svalbard.
Descendant Pino Biagi gives PolarQuest project leader Paola Catapano a cross to leave at the ITALIA crash area.
PolarQuest team members show off their Italian Geographical Society flag from Nanuq.

So, now that the team is at the first SOS point, they will go on to sail North to an extrapolated possible crash area: 14 km East of 81°50N 25°35 E. This is the most likely crash area of the balloon, if it went straight into the water. “The issue in this area is that the depth of the seabed should be beyond our sonar’s capabilities,” says Casagrande. “We will look nevertheless, in case there are spots where the seabed is unusually shallow.”

However, if the balloon crashed on the ice pack, a new issue arises: where did the pack float to? Casagrande’s team at the European University of Rome made preliminary estimates of how the ice would have drifted some 90 years ago. “We have a good understanding of this ice pack, as the survivors of the crash were on the same ice for over a month, making constant measurements,” he explains. “However, our estimates are quite rough, so the search area is still quite extensive.”

With so many variables at play, success is extremely unlikely. Yet, that a team is attempting this at all is of great value to the descendants of the ITALIA crew. Moreover, the sea depth at those latitudes are still not completely charted and the Norbit sonar measurements in this area will be of great value to cartography.

 

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