Friedrichshafen, 26 July, 2012. A hand-crafted replica of the seaplane which took Roald Amundsen on the first airborne mission to the North Pole has been unveiled at Dornier Museum Friedrichshafen in Germany on Wednesday after two years of painstaking work to create it.
Nicknamed "the whale" for its belly-shaped fuselage, the Dornier “Wal” (later classified as type Do J) was a sturdy, all-metal seaplane which helped open up new routes for air travel in the 1920s and 30s. More than 300 were built before from 1922 to 1937 in Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, the USSR and even in Japan, but only one original still exists.
The one which made it back from Amundsen’s 1925 North Pole mission was a prized specimen, displayed in the Deutsche Museum in Munich since 1932, but then was destroyed in a fire during World War II.
The one surviving original is in the Luján transport museum, Argentina. Now the Dornier Museum in Friedrichshafen in southern Germany has the next best thing – a faithful replica of Amundsen’s life-saver in original size with 17 meters length and 22 meters wingspan.
The Norwegian explorer had long crossed off the South Pole from his “to do” list when he started planning the trip to the North Pole. Just as his choice of dogs rather than ponies had sealed the 1911 race to the South Pole against Robert Scott’s team, the success of Amundsen’s mission to the North Pole was dependent on having the right kit.
After a couple of failed attempts, he chose Dornier’s “whale planes” and had two shipped, in parts, to Spitsbergen in Norway, where in spite of the the already sub-zero temperatures, the teams finally assembled the Wal N24 and N25.
The team of six men included four Norwegians, US-citizen Lincoln Ellsworth whose father had partly financed the trip, and German Dornier technician Karl Feucht. Despite both planes being over-loaded by 500 kilos each, they lifted into the air on May 21 and headed north.
After nine hours of the journey the engine of Wal N25 cut out and the crew had to look for an ice channel to go down. Shortly afterwards, Wal N24 then also landed nearby, with such force that its fuselage was irreparably damaged.
The men were stuck on the ice, in two planes a kilometer apart – only one of which looked like it would fly again. They were 250 kilometers from the North Pole, and a lot further away from civilisation. One of their scientific goals they reached nevertheless, as their measurements with the depth sounder showed their ice channel surface war 3450 meters over sea ground, proofing the north polar region has no continent underneath like the South Pole.
But the situation was desperate, and Amundsen immediately cut his men’s rations – from the planned kilo of food a day, to just 250g. They were eating a mixture of dried meat and fat, as well as chocolate and biscuits.
Because Amundsen had concentrated on filling the planes with scientific instruments rather than equipment to deal with snow or ice, the men were left with two wooden shovels, two dagger-type knives and an axe.
They worked in shifts, sleeping in the plane when not sharing the motley collection of tools to clear enough snow to create a rudimentary runway. By the time Amundsen decided they had enough space to take off, he estimated they had cleared around 500 tons of ice and snow.
On June 15, after more than three weeks in the ice, they abandoned most of their equipment, and tried to start after nearly four weeks lost, taking the 6th runway they had built in this brash ice desert. So the surviving plane – Wal N25 – could carry all six men, and took off with fortune, heading home.
By this time they had been given up for dead, and despite not having made it to the pole, were welcomed back in Norway as heroes.
The adventures of the Wal N25 did not finish there – Wolfgang von Gronau bought it in 1928 and kitted it out with new BMW engines to cross the Atlantic in 1930 – the first time the route had been undertaken from east to west.
Now in July 2012, two years of research and building, including a trip to see the last original specimen in Argentina, come to fruition, with the unveiling of the Wal N25 replica. Sadly it will not fly – modern safety rules would prevent it. But it looks ready to take to the skies.
Karl Bircsak is technical director of the International Aviation Museum Foundation in Hungary. He led the replica building project, which he said largely relied on historical photographs and plans as well as measurements of the surviving original in Argentina, but also knowledge from experts like the former Dornier engineer Franz Selinger (born 1915), who then one time went from Germany to Hungary to review the replica’s rebuilding progress.
The Dornier Museum Friedrichshafen was inaugurated 24. July, 2009, and showcases 100 years of Aerospace history and scientific research in its contemporary context. The museum next door to Bodensee Airport Friedrichshafen is open all days of the week - in the summertime from May to October 10.00-18.00 hrs, in the months from November to April 10.00-17.00 hrs (except Christmas and New Year’s Eve).
DORNIER MUSEUM FRIEDRICHSHAFEN
Claude-Dornier-Platz 1 (next to the airport) | 88046 Friedrichshafen | +49 7541 487 36 00 | firstname.lastname@example.org