In the early 1900s, the notion of flying an airplane over the North Pole was considered dangerous and an almost impossible task. Umberto Nobile’s dream was to fly a dirigible over the top of the world, and he wasn’t deterred by skeptics who scoffed at his insane idea. Nobile was a determined adventurer and with his loyal dog Titina by his side, he made a historic flight over the Arctic in an airship. This earned them recognition as the first man and dog to fly over the North Pole.
Titina was a stray Fox Terrier wandering the streets of Rome when she found Nobile one day in 1925. The two month old pup was lost, starving, and desperate for help. She approached him, stood up on her hind legs and pawed the air with her front feet. He bent down and petted her on the head. Unable to leave her behind, Nobile scooped her up and carried her home. From that moment on, Titina followed Nobile wherever he went.
She didn’t share her owner’s love of flying, but her desire to be with him was stronger than her fear. Nobile had intended to leave Titina at home during his 1926 flight over the Arctic, but the little dog wasn’t about to be left behind. As his airship the Norge rose from the ground, Nobile clutched Titina tight against his chest as thousands of well wishers cheered. A green, red and white Italian sash hung around the dog’s neck. The Norge headed north and began a journey that would make Titina and Nobile household names.
A dirigible is a lighter-than-air flying machine (the Goodyear blimp is a dirigible). Nobile was the designer and main pilot of the Norge. The expedition’s commander was Roald Amundsen who had led the first successful Antarctic expedition in 1911. A small gondola hanging under the airship held 16 men. It was so cramped no one could sit down, except for Titina who made herself comfortable on a pile of clothes and supplies. Amundsen was furious with having to make room for a dog.
An Italian journalist, Antonio Quattrini, was aboard to record the history making flight. To write in his notebook he had to crouch down, but that put him in Titina’s territory. For some reason she didn’t like his notebook and tried to grab it whenever she saw it in his hands. Fortunately, he was quite fond of her and called her an outrageous flirt. He wrote her official biography which was printed in the New York Times. Quattrini said Titina was “A dog marked by destiny, a dog of greatest character.”
People all over the world followed Nobile’s expedition and eagerly waited for news, especially about Titina. One dispatch reported, “Over the pole she wore clothes – a red woolen jersey – and during the greatest part of the flight she slept, covered by Colonel Nobile’s sleeping bag.” Nobile and Titina had become celebrities; after the successful polar flight they went on a world tour and were greeted by world leaders, royals, Hollywood celebrities, the New York mayor, and the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Nobile made sure every photograph taken of him included his beloved dog.
Another polar flight in 1928 was a disaster. Nobile’s airship the Italia crashed during a storm killing half of the crew. Nobile and Titina were among the small group of survivors. They gathered what they could from the wrecked airship and waited to be rescued. It was a month before they were found, hunkered down on a drifting ice pack. Nobile was told by the rescue pilot he was the only one to be rescued at that time. But after Nobile boarded the rescue plane with Titina and left his men behind, some with serious injuries, his reputation was ruined.
To make matters worse, when the rescue plane went back for the others it crashed before getting to them and they had to wait weeks before finally being rescued. Nobile was blamed for the crash and vilified by the press and the public for abandoning his men. They were even angry he had rescued Titina.
Nobile’s fall from grace was complete when he was forced to resign his commission. He spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild his tarnished reputation. In 1945, he was officially cleared of any wrongdoing by an Italian Air Force inquiry and his rank of major general was restored.
Nobile was 93 when he passed away in 1978. Titina lived a long life and died of natural causes. She stood steadfastly by the man she loved through his fame and downfall. Titina was indeed “a dog marked by destiny.” Always loyal to the man who rescued her from the streets and placed her name in the pages of history as the first dog to fly over the North Pole.
Read more articles by Linda Cole