Born in Lauro in southern Italy in 1885, Umberto graduated from the University of Naples with degrees in both industrial and electrical engineering and he first worked on the state railway.
He was deemed unfit for active service during World War One, but thanks to his interest in aeronautical engineering and the work of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, he was commissioned by the Italian air force and oversaw and developed new airship designs. None of his designs actually flew until after the war had ended.
In 1918, Umberto formed the Aeronautical Construction Factory in partnership with three fellow engineers. He also lectured at the University of Naples, obtained his test pilot’s license and wrote the textbook Elementi di Aerodinamica (Elements of Aerodynamics).
Umberto was convinced that medium-sized, semi-rigid airships were superior to non-rigid and rigid designs and his company’s first project was the Airship T-34, intended for trans-Atlantic crossings.
They were beaten in this endeavour by the British R4 in 1919 and he sold the T-34 to the Italian military which in turn sold it to the US Army. Renamed the Roma, the airship crashed in Langley, Virginia, in 1922, killing all of its 34 crew.
Political instability and the threat of nationalisation forced Umberto to leave Italy and he spent a year in America as a consultant for Goodyear, but he returned home in 1923 to begin work on a new airship, the N-1. However, he found himself in steep competition from rival airship designers and the growing demand for aircraft by the military.
But the age of the airship hadn’t quite passed. In 1925, Umberto was approached by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, to collaborate on a flight to the North Pole, one of the remaining challenges in the development of flight. Earlier that year, Amundsen had flown two Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats within 170 miles of the Pole, but had been forced to land and had been trapped on the ice for thirty days.
Umberto’s N-1 airship was made available for the expedition in 1926 and renamed the Norge by Amundsen who insisted that Umberto should pilot the craft, along with six Italian aircrew.
On 11 May 1926, the Norge left the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and after a little over fifteen hours, it flew over the Pole and landed in Teller, Alaska, two days later. This was an important milestone in the development of flight, but Umberto and Amundsen fell out about who deserved the greater credit – the explorer or the designer – and Mussolini made matters worse by proclaiming it a feat of Italian engineering.
Despite this, Umberto did not enjoy good relations with the fascist government, a hostility that was fuelled by his rivals, but his public popularity was such that he was safe from direct attack. So when he announced that he planned another Polar expedition, it was welcomed by the regime, but as a way of getting rid of him, rather than for the possible propaganda of another Italian achievement.
Umberto began work on the Italia, an airship almost identical to the Norge, and on 28 May 1928, it began its Polar flight from Svalbard. It reached the Pole the following day and turned for the return journey when it ran into a storm and on 25 May it crashed on the pack ice. Ten of the crew were thrown clear as the gondola was smashed, but six others were trapped as the now buoyant Italia rose again. Their fate has never been determined.
Umberto suffered a broken arm, broken leg, broken rib and head injury, another of the crew died on impact and the others were badly injured. Even so, they managed to salvage vital equipment, including their radio, a tent that they painted red for visibility, food and survival equipment.
In the wake of the crash, there followed another ‘first’ as Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Italy, launched the first combined polar air and sea rescue effort. Even Amundsen joined the search, an unfortunate decision as it turned out since the French seaplane he flew in crashed, killing Amundsen and five others on board.
It was a month before Umberto and his crew were spotted by a Swedish ski-plane. The plane was small and could only rescue one person at a time, and although Umberto had made detailed evacuation plans based on the seriousness of the crew’s injuries with himself at number four, the pilot insisted on flying him out first. This was falsely reported as a sign of his cowardice by the fascist press in Italy.
The ski-plane which found the survivors crashed when it returned for the others, trapping the pilot and co-pilot with them. Umberto joined the rescuers on board the support vessel and after 48 days on the ice floe, the last five men of his crew were rescued by a Soviet icebreaker. He wanted to continue the search for the other six crew members but was ordered back to Rome where he was met by a cheering crowd of 200,000 on 31 July.
Umberto was openly critical of the authorities for the incompetence of the rescue effort. This embarrassed Mussolini who ordered an inquiry into the disaster. Unsurprisingly, this laid the blame squarely on Umberto’s shoulders and accused him of abandoning his crew on the ice. He would spend the rest of his life defending himself against this charge.
He resigned his commission in the air force and spent several years in Russia, helping them to develop their airship programme. He then taught aeronautics at Lewis University in Illinois during the first years of World War Two and only returned permanently to Rome after Italy surrendered in 1943.
When the war ended, Umberto was cleared of all charges against him relating to the Italia crash and reinstated in the air force with back-pay dating to 1928. He returned to teaching in Naples and died in Rome in 1978 having celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Polar expeditions.