They Left For The Arctic Via Hot Air Balloon - Their Doomed Expedition Was Found Three Decades Later

On August 5, 1930, a group of men on a sealing expedition made their way across a rarely exposed ice sheet in the Svalbard Arctic Region along the Norwegian archipelago only to discover a scene that was long thought to have been lost to history. While the group, named the Bratvaag Expedition, had intended to hunt seals and study the structure of the glaciers in the area, they instead found themselves unintentionally excavating the remains of the disappeared S.A. Andrée Expedition, which had gone missing in that very region of the Arctic over 30 years before. 

The 1897 balloon expedition was intended to be Sweden's opportunity to become the first country to officially explore the North Pole as part of an Arctic Race whose hype and nationalistic fervor in many ways parallelled that of the Space Race of the 1960s. Led by Salomon August Andrée, a Swedish explorer and engineer, accompanied by Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel, the expedition aimed to pilot a hot air balloon from Svalbard, Norway, to either Russia or Canada, passing directly over the North Pole in the process. Tragically, the three men who committed themselves to the S.A. Andrée Expedition never made it back, and their fate was left unknown.

Once their final camp was rediscovered in 1930, the mystery of what truly happened to the lost explorers finally began to unravel, with their bodies, goods, journals, and even film cameras preserved by the icy tundra. 

Photo: Nils Strindberg/Tekniska museet / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

  • The Entire Expedition Was Based On A Virtually Untested Theory

    The expedition was, at its core, controversial, but its methodology was even more concerning. Andrée had first begun flying hot air balloons in 1892 - only five years before launching his fateful expedition. In the time between his first flight and final expedition, Andrée had completed nine flights covering approximately 900 miles over 40 total hours.

    Despite the value of this experience, it led him to test a number of theories regarding how he might navigate an unruly balloon over the Arctic, specifically, with the help of drag ropes fastened to sails and sandbag releases. In theory, and in limited practice during his pre-expedition flights, the drag ropes appeared to help slow down the balloon in strong winds while the attached sail acted much light a ship sail, allowing him to steer the balloon. Sadly, these methods of control did not achieve their intended results during his final flight. 

  • Their Flight Only Lasted 65 Hours Before They Went Down

    Andrée and his crew selected the location of their hot air balloon launch strategically along a stretch of a Norwegian archipelago calculated to be only 650 miles away from the geographic center of the North Pole. This location would set them up to be only a few hours shy of reaching the farthest north point that any expedition north had yet been able to reach. 

    According to his calculations, Andrée believed that he and his crew would reach their desired goal - the North Pole - within 43 hours of launch. However, after 65 hours, they still had not reached the North Pole and instead found themselves stranded on a seemingly endless expanse of ice with a withered and deflated hot air balloon. 

    Based on the records that the crew kept, which were later recovered during the 1930 expedition, the balloon - named "The Eagle" - launched as planned on July 11, 1897, but as it drifted farther from the house that it had been inflated in, “the balloon struck something.” The balloon then rapidly ascended by a few hundred feet, and then descended so far that the balloon’s basket hit the surface of the water below.

    Already a good distance away from the shore, it is hard to say whether or not those watching the launch saw the crew quickly desert nine bags of sand to help them gain enough altitude to escape the grasp of the surface water. 

    Within an hour, they were out of sight of land, and by July 14, their balloon had failed to maintain altitude and went down.

  • Intense Swedish Patriotism Meant Critical Flaws Were Overlooked In The Spirit Of Racing

    Whether it was a matter of fate or luck, Andrée's desire to pilot a hot air balloon over previously impassable landscapes coincided serendipitously with the desire of the king of Sweden, Oscar II, to reach the North Pole.

    During the late 1800s, a sort of Arctic Race had begun, as numerous countries were battling to gain the fame of having been the first to discover and explore the North Pole. Prior to this, there had been few expeditions, all by land and all failed, to reach the vast limits of the unknown Arctic regions to the north. According to the New Yorker, Oscar II was convinced that “one of the last of the world’s unvisited places, ought to be discovered by the Swedes,” and the citizens of Sweden did not hesitate to express their excitement. 

    Because of this national attention and the excitement for the expedition, the concerns that had been raised upon its first attempted launching (and the subsequent resignation of the two other crew members) went almost completely ignored.

  • Andrée Ignored The Fact That He Had Little Control Of The Balloon On Previous Trips

    Andrée was a scientist by trade and an explorer by necessity. Having become obsessed by the idea that air travel, specifically by hot air balloon, could make previously unreachable places on Earth available for scientific study and observation led him to plan the soon-to-be notorious expedition. 

    Shortly after he took his first hot air balloon flight in 1892, accompanied by Captain Francesco Cetti, he set his sights on purchasing his own balloon. With the help of a public science fund, he purchased a balloon which he named Svea (the name of the Swedish national emblem) and proceeded to complete a total of nine successful flights in it. 

    During these flights, Andrée observed the unpredictable, and often uncontrollable, nature of hot air balloons. He experienced a combination of sudden ascensions and dramatic descensions caused seemingly by the passing of clouds. In addition, he recorded the impact that the sudden altitude shifts could have on him, at least once experiencing “the beating of the pulse produc[ing] a faint singing noise on the left side of [his] skull.”

    It was by these trips that Andrée began to experiment with the various control and steering methods that he would later too quickly rely upon during his expedition north.

  • Andrée's First Crew Backed Out Of The Expedition Due To Safety Concerns

    Prior to the expedition’s successful 1897 launch, Andrée had attempted one launch prior in 1896.

    The 1896 launch was scheduled for a mid-summer day, and Andrée was to be accompanied by two men - Nils Ekholm, a meteorologist, and Nils Strindberg, a physics professor. However, when the launch schedule continued to be pushed back for first days and then weeks due to poor weather, the crew - including Andrée - began to feel discouraged. Once three weeks had passed, the crew determined they must wait to launch until the next summer season.

    However, one member of Andrée's crew would not be returning for the next launch. Ekholm had had reservations about the viability of the trip, and after seeing the issues they encountered when attempting the first launch, he decided to back out of the expedition all together. He is believed to have had grave concerns about whether the balloon was capable of retaining enough hydrogen to make the trip. As a result, he was dismissed, and an engineer named Knut Frankel took his place.

  • Even Newspapers At The Time Questioned The Logic Of The Expedition

    At the time of the initial launch attempt for the S. A. Andrée Expedition, on May 11, 1896, many people were already expressing their concerns about its safety and feasibility - including the local and international news circuits. 

    One such newspaper based out of Albany, New York, The Albany Express, even went so far as to point out the apparent disregard for the crews' safety in the cold aside from the construction of the balloon itself:

    How the men expect to protect themselves for fifteen days from the intense cold which they will encounter in mid-air in the regions of eternal winter is not even suggested. It does not seem possible that any amount of furs would suffice. To sustain life upon the ice, where it is at least possible to secure some shelter, is extremely difficult, as experience has taught; in the frail car of a balloon, where the men will be constantly exposed to the intense cold of the open air, it must seem impossible.

    In the final line of the January 16, 1896, article, the reporter seems to predict the tragic fate that history would long seek answers to, "it looks as if this expedition will result in the sacrifice of several human lives and nothing more."