No second-in-command: human fatigue and the crash of the airship Italia revisited
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.
Aas S. 2003. “One man’s foolishness led to the death of 14 men.” Norwegian reactions to Umberto Nobile and the “Italia” disaster. Acta Borealia 3, 169–194, doi: 10.1080/08003830310003164.
Aas S. 2005. New perspectives on the Italia tragedy and Umberto Nobile. Polar Research 24, 5–15, doi: 10.3402/polar.v24i1.6249.
Alessandrini S. 2019. In dirigibile al Polo Nord. Storia di Renato Alessandrini, dalla prima trasvolata dell’Artide col “Norge” all’ultimo volo con l’ “Italia.” (By airship to the North Pole. The story of Renato Alessandrini, from the first transarctic flight by the airship Norge to the last flight of the Italia.) Memorie Vol. 93. Rome: The Italian Geographical Society.
Alhola P. & Paivi P.K. 2007. Sleep deprivation: impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3, 553–567.
Amundsen R. 1927a. My life as an explorer. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.
Amundsen R. 1927b. Roald Amundsen’s “inside story” of the rows aboard the Norge. The explorer complains that Nobile nearly wrecked the airship over the Arctic, but tried to seize the honors. The World’s Work 54(4), 389–404.
Amundsen R. & Ellsworth L. 1927. First crossing of the Polar Sea. New York: George H. Doran Company.
Anonymous 1926. Denies Nobile guide ship in polar flight. Ellsworth says credit is not due Italian. Nobile’s statement. Plattsburgh Sentinel, 20 Jul., p. 1.
Anonymous 1931. R 101 Simon inquiry report. Disaster due to loss of gas. Flight, 3 Apr., pp. 290–291.
Anonymous 1961. Libel on Italian general: Nobile v. Putnam & Co. Ltd. and Eckener. The Times (London), 7 Jul., p. 18.
Bart S. 2013. Race to the top of the world: Richard Byrd and the first flight to the North Pole. Washington, DC: Regnery History.
Běhounek F. 1930. Il naufragio della spedizione Nobile. Sette settimane sul pack. (The wreck of the Nobile expedition. Seven weeks on the pack.) Florence: Bemporad.
Bendrick G.A., Beckett S.A. & Klerman E.B.2016. Human fatigue and the crash of the airship Italia. Polar Research 35, 27–105, doi: 10.3402/polar.v35.27105.
Biagi G. 1929. Biagi racconta … I miracoli della Radio nella tragedia Polare. (Biagi tells … Radio miracles in the polar tragedy.) Milan: Mondadori.
Caldwell J.A. & Caldwell J.L. 2016. Fatigue in aviation: a guide to staying awake at the stick. New York: Routledge.
Caldwell J.A., Mallis M.M., Caldwell J.L., Paul M.A., Jiller J.C & Neri D.F. 2009. Fatigue countermeasures in aviation. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 80, 29–59, doi: 10.3357/ASEM.2435.2009.
Carlyle T. 1888. On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history. New York: Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother.
Crocco G.A. 1945. La mia perizia. (My expertise.) Rivista Aeronautica 21, 9–13. Rome: Ministero Difesa.
Cross W. 2002. Disaster at the pole: the crash of the airship Italia and the 1928 Nobile expedition to the North Pole. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Doran S.M., Van Dongen H.P. & Dinges D.F. 2001. Sustained attention performance during sleep deprivation: evidence of state instability. Archives Italiennes de Biologie 139, 253–267, doi: 10.4449/aib.v139i3.503.
Durmer J.S. & Dinges D.F. 2005. Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25, 117–129, doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1237117.
Eckener K. 1958. A note on the technology and development of the Zeppelin airship. In H. Eckener (ed.): My zeppelins. Pp. 185–216. London: Putnam & Co.
English D. & Kuzel M. 2014. Reliability of eyewitness reports to a major aviation accident. International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics, and Aerospace 1, 1–21, doi: 10.15394/ijaaa.2014.
Ferrante O. 1985. Umberto Nobile. Vols. 1–2. Roma: Tatangelo.
Giudici D. 1928. Col “Krassin” alla tenda rossa. (With the Krassin to the red tent.) Milan: Moneta.
Gokhale B.N. 2010. Report on accident to Air India Express Boeing 737–800 aircraft VT-AXV on 22nd May 2010 at Mangalore, New Delhi. New Delhi: Ministry of Aviation.
Goode J.H. 2003. Are pilots at risk of accidents due to fatigue? Journal of Safety Research 34, 309–313, doi: 10.1016/S0022-(03)00033-14375.
Harrison Y. & Horne J.A. 1999. One night of sleep loss impairs innovative thinking and flexible decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 78, 128–145, doi: 10.1006/obhd.1999.2827.
Harrison Y. & Horne J.A. 2000. The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review. Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied 6, 236–249, doi: 10.1037//1076-898X.6.3.236.
Horne J. & Moseley R. 2011. Sudden early-morning awakening impairs immediate tactical planning in a changing “emergency” scenario. Journal of Sleep Research 20, 275–278.
Killgore W.D.S., Balkin T.J. & Wesensten N.J. 2006. Impaired decision making following 49 h of sleep deprivation. Journal of Sleep Research 15, 7–13, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2010.00904.x.
Libedinsky C., Massar S.A.A., Ling A., Chee W., Huettel S.A. & Chee M.W.L. 2013. Sleep deprivation alters effort discounting but not delay discounting of monetary rewards. Sleep 36, 899–904, doi: 10.5665/sleep.2720.
Maddalena U. 1930. Lotte e vittorie sul mare e nel cielo. (Struggles and victories over the sea and in the sky.) Milan: Mondadori.
Maddox W.T., Glass B., Wolosin S.M., Savarie Z., Bowen C., Matthews M.D. & Schnyer D. 2009. The effects of sleep deprivation on information-integration categorization performance. Sleep 3, 1439–1448, doi: 10.1093/sleep/32.11.1439.
Maxtone-Graham J. 1988. Safe return doubtful: the heroic age of polar exploration. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
MM (Ministero della Marina) 1930. Commissione d’indagini per la spedizione polare dell’aeronave “Italia.” Relazione. (Commission of inquiry for the airship Italia polar expedition. Report.) Rivista Marittima 8. Rome: Royal Navy Ministry.
Monk T.H. 2007. Practical consequences of fatigue-related performance failures. Sleep 30, 1402–1403, doi: 10.1093/sleep/30.11.1402.
National Transportation Safety Board 1994. Aircraft accident report: uncontrolled collision with terrain, American International Airways flight 808, Douglas DC-8-61, N814CK, U.S. Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, August 18, 1993. NTSB/AAR-94/04. Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board.
Nelson M.L. 1999. A digital library for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Technical Report NASA/TM-1999-209127. Hampton, VA: National Aeronautical and Space Administration Langley Research Center.
Nilsson J.P., Söderstrom M., Karlsson A.U., Lekander M., Akerstedt T., Lindroth N.E. & Axelsson J. 2005. Less effective executive functioning after one night’s sleep deprivation. Journal of Sleep Research 14, 1–6, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2005.00442.x.
Nobile U. 1921a. The employment of airships for the transport of passengers: indications on the maximum limits of their useful load, distance covered, altitude and speed. Technical Notes National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics no. 63, August 1921. Accessed on the internet at http://naca.central.cranfield.ac.uk/reports/1921/naca-tn-63.pdf on 2 October 2019.
Nobile U. 1921b. The future of aerial transportation in public services. Technical Notes no. 63. Technical Notes National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics no. 63, August 1921. Accessed on the internet at http://naca.central.cranfield.ac.uk/reports/1921/naca-tn-63.pdf on 2 October 2019.
Nobile U. 1928a. The dirigible and polar exploration. In W.L.G. Joerg (ed.): Problems of polar research: a series of papers by thirty-one authors. Pp. 419–425. New York: The American Geographical Society.
Nobile U. 1928b. More rows aboard the Norge: the Italian commander tells his side of the controversy. The World’s Work 55(3), 261–265.
Nobile U. 1930. L’Italia al Polo Nord. (With the Italia to the North Pole.) Milan: Mondadori.
Nobile U. 1931. With the Italia to the North Pole. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
Nobile U. 1945. Posso dire la verità: storia inedita della spedizione polare dell’ “Italia.” (I can tell the truth: unpublished story of the Italia polar expedition.) Rome: Mondadori.
Nobile U. 1961. My polar flights: an account of the voyages of the airships Italia and Norge. London: Frederick Muller Ltd.
Nobile U. 1969. La tenda rossa. (The red tent.) Milan: Mondadori.
Reason J. 1990. Human error. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Riiser-Larsen H. 1927. Refutation of various points in Nobile’s lectures in America. In R. Amundsen (ed.): My life as an explorer. Pp. 270–277. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.
Samoylovich R. 1930. S.O.S. nel mare artico. La spedizione di soccorso del Krassin. (S.O.S. in the Arctic. The Krassin rescue expedition.) Florence: Bemporad.
Segrè C.G. 1990. Italo Balbo: a fascist life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shappell S.A. & Wiegmann D.A. 2000. The human factors analysis and classification system—HFACS. DOT/FAA/AM-00/7. Washington, DC: Office of Aviation Medicine, Federal Aviation Administration.
Tomaselli F. 1929. L’inferno bianco. Racconto della spedizione Nobile con 94 illustrazioni fuori testo. (The white hell. The Nobile expedition tale with 94 out of text illustrations.) Milano: Unitas.
Trojani F. 1964. La coda di Minosse. (The tail of Minos.) Milan: Mursia & Co.
Venkatraman V., Chuah Y., Huettel S.A. & Chee, M.W.L. 2007. Sleep deprivation elevates expectation of gains and attenuates response to losses following risky decisions. Sleep 30, 603–609, doi: 10.1093/sleep/30.5.603.
Viglieri A. 1929. 48 giorni sul “pack.” (Forty-eight days on the “pack.”) Milan: Mondadori.
Wiegmann D.A. & Shappell S.A. 2003. A human error approach to aviation accident analysis. The human factors analysis and classification system. Burlington: Ashgate.
Wilkinson A. 2012. The ice balloon: S. A. Andrée and the heroic age of Arctic exploration. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wise R.A. & Safer M.A. 2012. A method for analyzing the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association 48, 22–34.
Zani L. 2003. Between two totalitarian regimes: Umberto Nobile and the Soviet Union (1931–36). Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 4(2), 63–112, doi: 10.1080/14690760412331326128.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 Unported License.
Authors retain copyright of their work, with first publication rights granted to the Norwegian Polar Institute.