In the 1920s, a huge wooden hangar was built on a remote Norwegian island for a giant airship set to explore the frozen north – and there are still traces of it today.

In the photo, a huge silver airship floats over a large snowfield. On the sides of the airship are stamped in black capital letters, one word: ITALIA.  

The machine itself is dwarfed by the snow-covered mountains that surround it on three sides. Their glaciers glisten in the spring sunshine. In front of it is the sea, full of floating chunks of ice.

Cables hang down from the sides of the craft like the antenna of an insect. A multitude of tiny stick-like figures await their orders below. 

In front of the dirigible is a very large, strange-looking construction. It has no roof, but two sides that look like the giant wooden trestle bridges that you see in Westerns movies. It is clad in green canvas. 

But what exactly is it?

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It is 6 May 1928. The location is Kings Bay in the north of Svalbard, a group of islands known as the gateway to the North Pole. The Norwegian archipelago, formerly known as Spitsbergen, is about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.  

The airship Italia, under the command of its designer Arctic aviator and engineer Colonel Umberto Nobile, has just arrived at Kings Bay having completed the final leg of its flight from Rome. Nobile’s mission is to explore the last big blank space on the globe: the Arctic. The aviator thinks there is still an area about half the size of Canada where few – if any –humans have ever set foot.  

The alien-like building is the airship hangar at Kings Bay. Without the shelter from Arctic storms it provides, the expedition would be impossible.

The need to construct hangars large enough to house these goliaths led to some of the most striking architecture of the 20th Century. Constructions on a monumental scale, such as Hangar One at Moffett Field, California, the hangars at RAF Cardington in England and the CargoLifter hangar in Brandenburg, Germany.

The hangar at Kings Bay was no exception. It was one of the largest structures of its kind in the world at that time. At 110m long (361ft), 34m wide (112ft) and 30m (98ft) high the hangar was narrower than an Airbus A380 but about one third longer and taller too. About 27kms of wooden beams were used to build it. It took Norwegian engineer Joh Höver around seven days to even find a site large enough for it. Even then, the Italia could only just squeeze into it. 

The builders had less than two months to ship material from as far away as Rome to within spitting distance of the North Pole

Even more remarkably, it was built in one of the most extreme environments on the planet in a race against the clock.

The builders had less than two months to ship material from as far away as Rome to within spitting distance of the North Pole before the Arctic winter set in. It then had to be built by only 32 workers during the winter months – during which the islands would be cut off by ice from the rest of the world, with 24-hour darkness.

The hangar had to be ready for the spring when flights could restart.

Explorers at the time likened it to the wonders of the world. “All who have seen the hangar at Kings Bay have been impressed and astonished,” wrote explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole in December 1911. “It is a great work accomplished under more difficult conditions than such a building was ever erected under.”

Eighty years later, engineers agree with Amundsen’s assessment. “Building in the Arctic is challenging even today,” says Hannele Zubeck, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a specialist in Arctic construction. “The construction of this hangar was an incredible undertaking for the 1920s.”

“Many things were impressive about the hangar,” adds Olav Gynnild, senior curator at the Norwegian Aviation Museum. “The size. The systems they needed in place to build it. It was one of the largest buildings of its kind in the world and certainly the largest building in the Arctic.”

The story of the hangar actually began three years before Nobile’s arrival at Kings Bay. On 1 September 1925, Benito Mussolini, the leader of Fascist Italy, and Amundsen representing the Norwegian Aero Club, signed a contract. The Italians would provide the sister ship to the Italia called the Norge, and build the hangar and airship masts necessary for what would become known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition.

 

The expedition was a joint Norwegian, American and Italian attempt to fly the first aircraft from one side of the Arctic Ocean to the other via the North Pole.

Despite the fact the contract was signed only on 1 September, the Sorland arrived at Kings Bay on 17 October with cement, steel poles and huge steel bolts for the airship mast – and engineer Joh Höver. He was given the task of scouting out the best location for the hangar in temperatures that were already dropping to below -20C (-4F).

The Alekto cut it fine, arriving six days later on 23 October with about 600 cubic metres of timber, 50 tonnes of iron and equipment, tools and provision for over 30 workers for the winter. The ship's cargo included a warming 230 litres of brandy. Three days later the sun disappeared. The 10,000 square-metres of French sail-like hangarcloth needed to cover the hangar arrived early in the New Year after the ice that imprisoned the island had started to break up. 

Luckily for master carpenter Ferdinand Arild and his workers, the Kings Bay Mining Company had built a narrow-gauge railway to help carry coal from the mine’s entrance to the ramshackle quay. The line was then extended about 400m (1,320ft) to reach the hangar site. The horses that once pulled wagons full of coal from the mine were then put to work pulling wagon loads of equipment from the quay up to the building site. 

A rather gothic photograph shows the hangar lit up in the darkness by a handful of lights. At a time when most homes still relied on gaslight, the mining company had a power plant that could provide them with faint electricity when the Sun went down. The builders slept in two warm barracks built to house the miners.

“Timber was used to build the hangar because it was cheaper, easier and quicker to use than steel,” says Gynnild, “and because the hangar was not meant to be a permanent construction. 

They were working 30m off the ground and no-one got injured - Olav Gynnild

“Sometimes the temperature got right down to below -20C (-4F) . Then on other days it was only -5C (23F) and heavy snow covered the tools, materials and even the first levels of the hangar. At still other times strong winds made work dangerous, as did the slippery surfaces, covered in ice.

“Despite these conditions, they were working 30m (100ft) off the ground and no-one got injured.”

Most of the work had to be done manually as well. “The men did have an electric drill and saw, but other than that they used handsaws to cut up the wood,” adds Gynnild. “It was lucky for them that the mine was there to provide electricity and houses.”

Despite these challenges the hangar was finished on time. On 15 February 1926 the structure of the hangar was complete and the Norwegians flew the flag of Norway in celebration. “The innovations the builders employed to get the job done shouldn’t be forgotten,” says Zubeck. “Concreting in freezing temperatures is yet another challenge. But they used warm water heated by coal from the Kings Bay Coal Mining Company to make it possible. 

“Wooden trestles were fitted together to make up the 30m-high hangar walls. The trestles were cleverly covered with sailcloth, reducing the weight of the structure itself, and also the need for lumber and time nailing boards in the dark and cold. 

“The hangar doors were pyramidally shaped and were draped to the ground to reduce the stress on the structure.”

The legacy of the hangar today is inspirational – Hannele Zubeck

Unfortunately, the design of the hangar was not a complete success. When the wind blew it was hard to manoeuvre the huge airship into such a tight space. The lack of a roof also meant that snow could easily build up on the top of the airship. 

After the flight of the Norge, the hangar was stripped of its canvas cover. It was then renovated for the Italians in 1928 by master carpenter Arild. It was then covered with new canvas fastened by around 11,000 iron pins. 

“The hangar had weathered above all expectations during the two years that had gone by,” wrote Arild. “The foundation was just as even and firm as when we left it, there was no need to straighten it out in anyway. The moraine base was just as good as cement.”

Additionally, Nobile ordered that the walls of the hangar should be stuffed with straw to prevent the airship being damaged when it was being pulled in and out.

“The legacy of the hangar today is inspirational,” says Zubeck. “How they solved the challenges in logistics, design and the schedule of the project will continue to inspire future generations.

“The fact that the hangar could be reused again in 1928 for the flight of the Italia was the final proof of what master carpenter Arild had achieved.”

“Was building this hangar the equivalent of landing a man on the moon?” asks Steinar Aas of Nord University and Norway’s leading specialist on Umberto Nobile. “In a way it was worse than landing on the Moon. The astronauts were protected from the cold of space. These men weren’t. They were working with almost their bare hands”

In the 1930s, the hangar finally succumbed to the elements and collapsed. Wood is scarce on Svalbard. Its timbers quickly found a new use in buildings across the islands. A bridge for the narrow-gauge railway made from the hangar’s wood still stands today.

The flight of the Norge helped to pioneer the route over the North Pole that many airlines use today - Steinar Aas

The concrete foundations of the hangar and some rope attachment points can still be seen each year when the snow has melted.  

Unfortunately, the wider legacy of the hangar is more bittersweet. It is hard to separate the fate of the flights of the Norge and Italia from that of the hangar itself.

“The flight of the Norge helped to pioneer the route over the North Pole that many airlines use today,” says Aas. But few people today know about the actual record-breaking flight, one widely considered one of the great feats of its day.

The Italia is better remembered, but perversely for the wrong reasons. It crashed onto the ice during its third Arctic flight for reasons that are disputed 80 years later. Six of the 16 crew floated away in the remains of the airship, never to be seen again. Another crew member died on impact. An eighth was suspected of being the victim of cannibalism. The rest had to survive on the ice for another two months before they were rescued.  

Umberto Nobile’s reputation never recovered from the crash and his subsequent decision to abandon his crew on the ice after he was rescued. A huge rescue mission to find the Italia ended in tragedy; Amundsen’s seaplane disappeared on the way to join the rescue effort. “Nobile has been deliberately forgotten in Norway,” says Aas.

The airship mast still stands at Kings Bay for tourists to gawp at. But few of them will know about the nearby hangar, the huge craft it once sheltered and the workers who battled against the Arctic conditions to build it.

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