It’s May 11, 1926, and a giant airship, the Norge (meaning Norway), has just been unhooked from its mast at one of the world’s most remote settlements, Ny-Ålesund, in the Svalbard archipelago.
This cluster of rocky, barren islands, closer to the North Pole than to the Norwegian mainland, is the natural jump-off point for any expeditions venturing into the frozen expanses of the Arctic and this is precisely what those on board the Norge have set to do.
Leading the 16-strong expedition are none other than the most celebrated polar explorer of the time, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 became the first man to reach the South Pole, Umberto Nobile, the celebrated Italian airship engineer who designed the Norge, and American coal heir and adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth.
If Amundsen’s earlier conquest of the South Pole had involved a months-long, grueling march on dog-sleds, this new expedition would be a much shorter affair. The party, however, would have to content themselves with flying over the North Pole rather than setting foot on it.
The trip turned out to be a big success.
The Norge arrived at the North Pole less than a day after departing Ny-Ålesund, making those on board the first people to have ever verifiably reached that geographical landmark. Far from calling the expedition over, the Norge then pushed forward across the Arctic Ocean until it touched down in Teller, Alaska, a couple of days later.
It’s not hard to imagine the sense of exhilaration and accomplishment the crew must have felt the moment they set foot in North America. Yet within a decade, Amundsen would be dead, swallowed by the Arctic, and the airship era pretty much over – or so it seemed.
Thrills and adventure
Airships have seen very limited action since the 1930s. Replaced by fixed wing aircraft as a means of transportation, lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles were confined to a handful of niche uses. But the concept was not entirely forgotten.
About a decade ago, a British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) developed a new-generation large scale airship concept as part of a US military research program. At the time, the Pentagon studied the possibilities that airships could offer to support troops in Afghanistan. Shifting priorities meant the project was canceled in 2012, though, and HAV started looking for new uses for its technology.
What came out of it was the Airlander, a modern reinterpretation of the airship that is, by some measures, the world’s largest aircraft.
These developments in the airship space caught the attention of Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, a Swedish commercial pilot with an entrepreneurial streak.
The idea was to bring back the thrill and sense of adventure of the days of airship exploration, but with the comforts and safety afforded by 21st-century technology.
The result is OceanSky Cruises, a startup firm that offers luxury air cruises on airships, starting with a route to the North Pole and back.
And, while OceanSky has not officially confirmed its choice of airship yet, HAV’s Airlander has been touted as, so far, the only candidate for this mission.
Airships have some characteristics that make them particularly suited to the sort of venture Lawaczeck has in mind. They have long endurance – which means they can remain airborne for very long periods of time – they can be fitted with truly spacious cabins and, crucially, they are fuel-efficient.
“Airships can carry payloads comparable to that of some airliners, but use only a tiny fraction of the energy to transport them over the same distance,” explains the Swedish entrepreneur, who used to fly commercial aircraft for Scandinavian airline SAS and other carriers.
The tradeoff is that airships are much slower, but this too can be turned into an advantage.
Since one of the highlights of such trips will be the possibility of spotting Arctic fauna from the sky. This is where the airship’s capability to fly at extremely slow speeds and very close to the ground will come in handy.
“We can go down to 300 feet, even 100 feet if needed, as slow as a bike, in order to offer our passengers a glimpse of those polar habitats to our passengers,” says Lawaczeck.
The 16 passengers will be lodged in eight spacious hotel-like double cabins. The airship will carry a crew of seven, including a chef.
Lawaczeck likes to compare it to the experience of traveling in a yacht.
“We are not as space-constrained as in an airplane, so we are able to do interesting things with the cabin,” he says. “The design is going to lean towards the heritage side of the project; it will evoke the era of airships.”
On board conditions will be a far cry from those endured by the crew of the Norge nearly a century ago, yet, had they been able to peek into the future, they may have found some elements of the OceanSky proj