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Arctic Tragedy Revealed - March '99 Aviation History Feature

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1999 
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Arctic Tragedy Revealed
Arctic Tragedy Revealed

It took 30 years to learn the fate of the first expedition to fly across the North Pole.

By Kenneth P. Czech

Brisk southerly winds buffeted the heavy fabric skin of the hydrogen-filled balloon, straining the man-made bubble against its guide ropes.

Feverish activity surrounded the craft as its three aeronauts went through a final checklist of supplies: canvas boats, sleds, tents, rifles, 36 homing pigeons, 55 pounds of chocolate cake, scientific instrument….The varied cargo would be necessary, believed expedition leader Saloman Andrée, should the balloon be forced down while attempting to be the first to sail over the North Pole. Few people in 1897 had experience in polar travel.

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"Don't be uneasy if you receive no news from me for a year, and possibly not until the following year," Andrée cried out as fellow Swedes Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg completed final adjustments within the gondola. Swedish sailors and scientists, crowding the barren beach of Danes Island in the northwestern island- group Spitsbergen, waved and cut loose the guide ropes holding the craft earthbound. Andrée's balloon, Ornen (Eagle), floated free, then drifted northward. It was the last time human eyes would see Andrée and his companions for more than 30 years.

Born at Grenna on Lake Vetter in south-central Sweden in 1854, young Saloman Andrée displayed an early interest in engineering and science. At age 17, he enrolled at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology, capping his education with a trip to America's Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. At the fair, he met veteran balloonist John Wise who, Andrée wrote, "taught me the ABCs of his art. He took me to his shop and showed me how balloons were cut out, sewed together and varnished."

Returning to Sweden in the fall, Andrée became acquainted with the Arctic regions while on a meteorological expedition to Spitsbergen in 1882. While in France several years later, he studied the aerodynamics of ballooning with the early aeronaut Georges Besancon. It wasn't until 1892, however, that Andrée finally went aloft, twice, with Norwegian balloonist Captain Francesco Cetti. "I felt no sense of dizziness, not even when I leaned over the railing at the highest point of our flight and looked right down into the deep," Andrée later noted.

Saloman Andrée was hooked. He convinced a public trust fund in Stockholm to support him with a 5,000 kronor ($1,475 at an exchange rate of 3.39 kronor per U.S. dollar) donation to purchase his own balloon. Dubbed Svea, the 37,230-cubic-foot balloon was constructed in Paris by Gabriel Yon. In Svea, Andrée made nine flights including a crossing of the Baltic Sea. Aerial photographs were taken and a variety of scientific experiments conducted. On one flight, Svea drifted well out over open water. Andrée managed to guide the balloon over rocky islands on the Finnish coast and make a desperate landing. The Swede was rescued the following day by a fisherman whose wife thought Judgment Day had arrived when she saw the huge balloon.

In March 1894, Andrée met the well-known Swedish explorer Baron Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld who posed several considerations concerning aerial reconnaissance of the Antarctic. Andrée may well have pursued the concept a step further: "I may try to cross the North Pole in a balloon drifting with the wind," he reportedly said.

The aeronaut plunged into the details of the polar expedition with enthusiasm. Nordenskjöld estimated the cost at 128,800 kronor ($38,000). He also lent his stamp of support when Andrée publicly submitted the idea to the Swedish Academy of Science on February 13, 1895. Among Andrée's stated requirements were: a balloon capable of carrying a crew of three, complete with instruments and provisions for four months; the balloon should be impermeable enough to be kept afloat for 30 days; and the filling of the balloon with hydrogen had to take place as near to the North Pole as possible.

Andrée reckoned that he would have to prepare his balloon at Spitsbergen, the island chain fringing the Arctic Ocean at 20 degrees north latitude. During the islands' short summer, he hoped southerly winds would propel him over the Pole toward the Bering Strait. Traveling at an average height of 250 meters, he estimated the time needed to travel from Spitsbergen to the Pale to be from as little as five or six hours, if theirs was a lively wind velocity, up to about 43 hours if the breezes were mild.

Public interest in the aerial project skyrocketed. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and donor of the Nobel prizes, contributed 65,000 kronor ($19,175). King Oscar II of Sweden provided a generous donation, as did Baron Oscar Dickson of Gothenburg and Professor Gustav Retzius, Andrée's old teacher. An additional $1,000 unexpectedly arrived, a gift from a Swede living in Buenos Aires.

Saloman Andrée turned to premier balloon maker Henri Lachambre at Champs de Mars in Paris. Christened Ornen, the new balloon featured an elliptical shape with a capacity of 170,000 cubic feet. Three layers of double Chinese silk formed the upper half of the envelope, with a single layer on the bottom half. A heavy casing of woven hempen netting shrouded the balloon, which was surmounted by a cap, or calotte, of varnished silk to keep arctic snows from lodging in the netting.

Suspended from a bearing ring formed from American elm wood was a wicker car measuring 6.5 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep. The circular gondola contained three sleeping berths. Astronomical and meteorological instruments vied for space with rifles, food supplies and survival equipment. Hanging from the bearing ring were canvas sacks containing a collapsible boat, snow sleds, sails and 36 bags of emergency food. Specially constructed pigeon cotes were squeezed in among bags of ballast and ropes.

By using a trio of canvas sails manipulated by guide ropes, Andrée hoped to tack the Ornen much the same way water-bound sailing vessels were tacked. A series of three trailing ballast ropes, each more than 1,000 feet in length, would aid Andrée in maintaining an altitude between 50 to 200 meters (165 to 650 feet) above ice and water. Each of the coconut-fiber ropes had been soaked in vaseline and tallow to reduce friction while being dragged over the ice and to make them impervious to water.

Complications dogged the expedition. Transporting the hydrogen from Sweden meant compressing the gas in steel cylinders, an expenditure in excess of approximately 85,000 kronor ($25,000). Andrée chose to manufacture the gas on the Arctic islands as a cheaper alternative. "We would make our gas with water, sulphuric acid and zinc or iron," he wrote. "Our experts, Ernst Ek and Axel Strake, decided that shavings of wrought iron and steel, mixed with sulphuric acid and water, would accomplish what we sought." Arrangements were made to ship 40,800 kilograms (89,760 pounds) of sulphuric acid and 23,000 kilograms (50,600 pounds) of iron filings to the lonely outpost at Spitsbergen.

Andrée and his aeronaut companions, meteorologist Nils Ekholm and physicist-photographer Nils Strindberg, set sail from Gothenburg aboard the transport vessel Virgo on June 7. By the 15th, they had reached the southernmost extremities of Spitsbergen, then turned northwest to reach the frigid shores of Danes Island. Ice "high and thick as a wall of rock" blocked their passage. Fortunately, a storm from the northeast broke upon the expedition with high winds that cracked the ice apart. On June 19, Virgo again set sail to the northwest reaching Danes Island early on the 21st.

Andrée's crew sprang into action. Two master carpenters supervised the construction of a large "balloon house," 95 feet long and 200 feet high. The octagonal structure had been prepared in advance and the different sections assembled by means of bolts. As the hangar grew, the Virgo maneuvered close to shore to unload its cargo of balloon bag and hydrogen generators along a roadway of Norwegian pine logs laid from beach to hangar.

By July 27, the balloon was at last ready to take off, waiting only for a suitable southerly wind to propel it toward the North Pole. The winds, however, did not cooperate. On August 3, Andrée noted in his diary: "Everything is in order, and we are only waiting for a suitable wind….If only nature would contribute its share, the thing would soon be done." In the short polar summer, time was of the essence. If the weather did not change, the expedition would have to begin packing up by August 14. Insurance coverage for the ship and party ended on August 20.

At 10 a.m. on August 17, Andrée ordered Ornen deflated. On the 20th, Virgo set sail for Gothenburg. Once back in Sweden, Andrée prepared for an 1897 attempt with vigor. Although most of his funds had already been used, he had little trouble attracting new subscribers. Stockholm businessman Axel Burman offered 10,000 kronor, while his old backers–Baron Dickson, Alfred Nobel and the king–promised the rest. The Swedish government offered the services of the gunboat Svensksund to escort the expedition.

Ornen's gasbag was sent to Paris to be enlarged. The envelope was expanded through its midsection by adding a 3 1/2-foot layer, increasing Omen's perpendicular diameter to 100.25 feet and its capacity by an additional 10,000 cubic feet.

Ornen's new dimensions caused a serious rift among the expedition's personnel. Nils Ekholm argued that the 1896 Ornen leaked too much gas after being inflated at Spitsbergen, and the new version with its increased size would simply leak more gas–too much to maintain a built-in security margin. With growing misgivings, the meteorologist declined an invitation to join the 1897 expedition.

Saloman Andrée had little difficulty in finding a replacement for Ekholm–applications poured in. Andrée chose Knut Fraenkel, a 37-year-old engineer, as Ekholm's substitute.

On May 18, 1897, Andrée's second polar expedition left Sweden aboard Svensksund. The trip was comparatively easy with little ice encountered until reaching Danes Island on May 30. Breaking the ice with its heavy prow, the gunboat cleared a path into the harbor for the more fragile Virgo. By late afternoon Andrée delightedly found the balloon hangar to be in good condition after a year of Arctic storms. Within two weeks the equipment was ashore and the hangar further strengthened.

By June 22, Ornen was ready for inflation. A hydrogen generator pumped gas into its slowly billowing envelope. Workmen varnished the seams, then crawled into the balloon's lower opening to varnish the inside. The envelope was tested by laying strips of white linen impregnated with lead acetate over the bag, then searching for hydrogen leaks where the linen turned black.

June days stretched into July with little change in the wind patterns. Andrée was determined to go aloft after a July 15 deadline, even if the winds were less than southerly. Suddenly, at 3 a.m. on July 11, a puff of breeze tugged at the still surface of Danes Island's Virgo Bay. The wind was south-southwest. By 9 a.m., clouds scudded toward the north with a speed that suggested brisk upper air currents. Andrée's crew sprang into action. The northern wall of the balloon hangar was quickly dismantled as the aeronauts pored over lists of supplies stowed in Ornen's carriage. Strindberg, the photographer-scientist, snapped several photos of the balloon as it tugged at its moorings, then he entrusted the plates and a last letter for his fiancee to a French observer.

At 2:30 p.m., Andrée signaled his ground crew to cut the ropes. The balloon dipped as a southerly gust swept it away from its hangar. In moments, it soared to a height of 300 feet. A sailor from Virgo suddenly shouted, "The drag lines are lying here on the shore!" Andrée's trailing ropes, designed to provide drag and maintain altitude, had somehow become disconnected from the balloon. Nothing could be done–Andrée was on his own.

As the startled spectators from shore looked on, a vagrant air current forced the bag seaward. The wicker carriage brushed the dark, frigid waters of the bay. Fraenkel quickly clambered into the rigging to adjust the sails, while Strind berg and Andrée heaved 42-pound sandbags overboard. Ornen rebounded with the adjustments, then climbed to an altitude of over 1,000 feet. Sailing over the farthest reaches of Spitsbergen, the balloon was soon a speck against the clouds.

The earliest news from Andrée was received on July 15, four days after his departure from Danes Island. He had released one of his messenger pigeons with a note rolled inside of its leg canister. The bird had alighted on the rigging of the Norwegian sealing vessel Alken. Undoubtedly Alken's captain didn't know what to make of the strange bird, so he shot it. Later in the day, Alken rendezvoused with another ship, and the skippers exchanged stories. The Norwegian captain was quickly informed about Andrée's balloon flight and the Belgian pigeons carried aboard. Alken swung about and miraculously discovered the dead bird still floating on the surface. The message inside the leg cylinder was addressed to a Swedish newspaper: "From Andrée's Polar Expedition to Aftonbladet, Stockholm/13th July 12.30 midday, Lat. 82° 2' Long. 15° 5' E. good speed to E. 10° south. All well on board. This is the third pigeon post. Andrée."

The next message from Andrée was discovered on May 14, 1899, on the coast of Iceland. Andrée had equipped Ornen with 12 buoys made of layers of cork and banded with copper wire. The message in the buoy's core was dated July 11, 1897, and revealed the balloon's location. A second message was recovered on August 27, 1900, long after all hopes of finding the expedition party alive had been extinguished. This message was also dated July 11 and had been tossed into the water after four carrier pigeons had been released. "We are now arrived over the ice, which is much broken in all directions," read the note's ending. "Weather splendid. Spirits excellent. Andrée, Strindberg, Fraenkel." Four other buoys, without messages, were discovered in northern waters between 1899 and 1912. Though a rescue party scoured the Arctic seas for the aeronauts, nothing was found. Crank sightings from throughout Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska persisted well into the turn of the century.

In 1930, unseasonably warm weather shifted calving icebergs in the Arctic Ocean, allowing seal and walrus hunters to ply their trade in waters normally inaccessible. On August 5, the Norwegian steamer Bratvaag anchored near the inhospitable shores of White Island on the far northeastern tip of Spitsbergen. Harpooners Olaf Salen and Carl Tusvik had gone ashore to skin walrus, when they suddenly kicked a rusted tin can. After examining the relic, they hastily searched their immediate area. Protruding from a snowbank was the darkened prow of a small boat with a boathook sticking out. Precisely painted letters on the wood were still legible: "Andrée's Polar Expedition of 1897." The great mystery had finally been solved.

Aboard Bratvaag was a small party of scientists, headed by geologist Gunnar Horn, were conducting a variety of polar experiments. Horn immediately took charge of the search. Andrée's snow sledges and canvas boat were uncovered, as was a quantity of stores including a perfectly operable Primus stove ready to be ignited. Diaries, logbooks and canisters of exposed film were carefully removed from the boat.

As the Norwegians continued their investigation, they discovered the remains of Nils Strindberg wedged into a cleft in the rocks. A short distance away, under the collapsed and frayed tent made from the skin of Ornen, lay the skeletons of Andrée and Fraenkel wrapped in a sleeping bag.

Andrée's own diaries, packed in straw and swaddled in oilcloth, revealed the aeronauts' tragic ending. When Ornen's undercarriage had brushed the waters of Virgo Bay during their departure on July 11, 1897, the expedition's success had immediately been placed in jeopardy. The loss of weight from the three drag ropes and the 450 pounds of jettisoned ballast had caused the balloon to soar far higher than Andrée had intended. He mentioned he heard gas escaping, perhaps from a safety valve. They drifted through a polar fog, a coating of ice layering the balloon's envelope, pushing it ever earthward. Andrée noted in his dairy, "A means must be provided for heating the gas in the balloon, to prevent the formation of ice."

Ornen's progress became erratic as the wind shifted east, then west, then southeasterly again. The combination of gas loss and ice weight forced the balloon dangerously low. Everything deemed unnecessary was heaved overboard. By the night of July 12, the gondola was skidding over the ice. "We have had to drop more ballast and have been unable to sleep or rest because of the continuous bumps," wrote Andrée. "It is not likely we can stand this much longer."

By July 13, the situation had become desperate. After further lightening, the balloon had risen to 80 meters (265 feet), but it quickly lost altitude again. Andrée had to make a decision. Jettisoning what remained–mostly survival equipment– might give them a temporary respite but would surely jeopardize their chances should they be forced to the ice permanently. At 7:22 a.m. on July 14, Saloman Andrée brought Ornen to rest on the Arctic ice pack, roughly 216 miles from the nearest land. The rest of their journey would have to be made on foot.

The aeronauts salvaged what they could from their stricken craft. They had sleds for hauling equipment, a boat for crossing open leads, and a healthy supply of guns and ammunition. Emergency bases had been established at Mossel Bay on Spitsbergen and Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land far to the east. Believing his calculations as to their location to be correct, Andrée felt they had a better chance of reaching the latter camp. After stripping Ornen and resting, the little party began their trek on July 22. The short Arctic summer was nearing its end.

The aeronauts' journey across the ice rapidly became a nightmare. Sleds loaded with supplies had to be manhandled over pressure ridges more rugged than mountain ranges. Leads of black, open water blocked their path or were negotiated by using the canvas boat. Deep pools of fresh water on the ice pack made travel treacherous. Distances covered daily rarely amounted to more than a few miles. To make matters worse, the ice floe they traveled on had begun drifting westward–away from the Cape Flora station.

Andrée, Fraenkel and Strindberg tried to remain cheerful. Food was plentiful as they shot and cooked polar bears on the ice–"the wandering meat shops of the Arctic," Andrée termed them in his diary. Strindberg continued to snap photos of their journey, often using an automatic release device.

By August, Andrée's calculations showed Franz Josef Land to be too distant to reach. They pushed toward Spitsbergen, hoping to go as far as possible before the frigid winter raked them. On September 17, they sighted the mountain peak marking White Island. On October 6, with the Arctic winds already swirling the snow, the explorers settled into a makeshift winter camp.

It's difficult to ascertain what happened to the trio during the waning days of October. Nils Strindberg provided a last entry in his journal on October 17, "Home 7.5 o'cl. a.m." Sometime afterward, the physicist died. Andrée and Fraenkel partially buried their friend, then waited for the end. They undoubtedly succumbed to the cold, though it has also been suggested that they were asphyxiated by a malfunctioning stove or that they died from trichinosis from eating poorly cooked bear meat.

After the discovery of the remains of Andrée and his companions in 1930, the Swedish government dispatched the gunboat Svensksund–the same vessel that had taken Andrée to Spitsbergen three decades earlier–to bring her fallen sons home. On September 27, 1930, the little warship steamed into Gothenburg with three caskets draped with Swedish flags on her aft deck. Thousands of onlookers crowded the docks, much as they had when Andrée had departed with such high hopes in 1896. To the strains of Beethoven's "Marche Funèbre," the aeronauts were borne into Storkyrkan Cathedral and laid to rest.


Kenneth P. Czech is a frequent contributor. For further reading, he recommends: Andrée: The Record of a Tragic Adventure, by George Palmer Putnam; and The Aeronauts, A History of Ballooning 1783-1903, by L.T.C. Rolt.



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