An Ivory Gull greeted the ship when we docked at the town of Ny Ålesund. It had a few head feathers out of place, but otherwise it was the perfect white bird that it is. I almost missed the bird in my excitement at reaching Ny Ålesund. Ny Ålesund is where the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the millionaire American pilot Lincoln Ellsworth and the Fascist Italian Umberto Nobile launched their dirigible the Norge to fly over the North Pole in 1926.
The history of explorers attempting to fly over the pole is a long and elaborate one. I spent hours looking at photos and film about it in the marvelous airship museum in Longyearbyen. The first attempts to fly over or to the pole begin with the American journalist Walter Wellman in 1907. His three-hour attempt cost over $100,000 and was an unqualified disaster. If you look at the size and clumsiness of a dirigible—which is really a huge sack of hydrogen— it’s easy to understand why this was a disaster. What is harder to understand is why people continued to attempt this feat.