No second-in-command: human fatigue and the crash of the airship Italia revisited

  • Gregg A. Bendrick Aeromedical Certification Division, Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, Federal Aviation Administration, Oklahoma City, OK, USA
  • Sergio Alessandrini Geographic Research and Application Laboratory, European University of Rome, Rome, Italy
Keywords: Polar exploration, aviation history, airship, human factors


The dirigible Italia crashed onto the Arctic sea ice north-east of the Svalbard archipelago on 25 May 1928 at 10:33 GMT while travelling back to her base from the North Pole. Only eight of the 16 crew members survived: one was killed upon impact, one did not survive the post-crash ordeal and six were trapped in the airship envelope (i.e., the balloon), which floated away and disappeared. No definite conclusions have ever been reached about the causes of the crash. The judgements of the Commission of Inquiry instituted by the Italian government and published in 1929 are carefully examined. Recent analysis has presented evidence that the mishap may have been fatigue-related. In this paper, the pivotal question of why General Nobile was so sleep-deprived at the time of the accident is addressed, specifically with reference to the lack of a second-in-command (i.e., a deputy commander) during the flight. Such a position was a standard practice for airships at the time, and General Nobile himself described this position as one necessary for an airship. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons he proceeded on the Italia expedition without an official crew member responsible for this role. The lack of a second-in-command is proposed as a possible major contributing factor in the overall sequence of events leading to the crash of the Italia, although other possible causes and contributing factors for the crash are also considered, including structural failures, crew selection and political obstacles.


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How to Cite
Bendrick, G. A., & Alessandrini, S. (2019). No second-in-command: human fatigue and the crash of the airship Italia revisited. Polar Research, 38.
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