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Born in Lauro, in the southern Italian province of Avellino, Nobile graduated from the University of Naples with degrees in both electrical and industrial engineering. In 1906 he began working for the Italian state railways, where he worked on electrification of the rail system. In 1911 his interests turned to the field of aeronautical engineering, and he enrolled in a one-year course offered by the Italian Army. Nobile had always been fascinated by the work of airship pioneers such as Ferdinand von Zeppelin. When Italy entered World War I in 1915, the then 29-year-old attempted three times to enlist, but was rejected as physically unfit for service.
Commissioned in the Italian air force, Nobile spent the war overseeing airship construction and developing new designs. The Italian military had already used airships as early as 1912, during the Italo-Turkish War, for bombing and reconnaissance. Italy built about 20 M-class semi-rigid airships with a bomb load of 1000 kg which it used for bombing and anti-shipping missions. The Italians also used other, smaller airships, some of them British-built. None of Nobile's designs flew until after the war.
In July 1918, Nobile formed a partnership with the engineers Giuseppe Valle, Benedetto Croce and Celestino Usuelli, which they called the Aeronautical Construction Factory. During this period he also lectured at the University of Naples, obtained his test pilot's license and wrote the textbook Elementi di Aerodinamica (Elements of Aerodynamics). He became convinced that medium-sized, semi-rigid airships were superior to non-rigid and rigid designs. The company's first project was the Airship T-34, which was designed for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When the British R34 crossed the Atlantic in 1919, Nobile and his partners sold the T-34 to the Italian military. The U.S. Army purchased the airship in 1921 and commissioned it as the Roma. In February, 1922, the Roma crashed and exploded in Norfolk, Virginia, after hitting high-tension power lines, killing 34.
That same year, in the face of political instability and threats to nationalize his company, Nobile traveled to the U.S. to work as a consultant for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. He returned to Italy in 1923 and began construction of a new airship, the N-1. According to his biography and numerous articles, he was also caught up in a web of political and professional intrigue with competitors and detractors. His principal antagonists seem to have been General Gaetano Arturo Crocco, a competing airship manufacturer, and General Italo Balbo, chief of the air force general staff, who sought to develop Italy's air fleet with heavier-than-air craft rather than the airships Nobile designed.
In 1931, Nobile left Italy to work for the next four years in the Soviet Union, where he helped with the Soviet semi-rigid airship programme. Details of the Soviet Airship Program are sparse, but there is an obvious Nobile influence in the design of the airships USSR-V5, and SSSR-V6 OSOAVIAKhIM. He was allowed to return to Italy to teach in December 1936, before going to the United States in 1939 to teach aeronautics at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. When Italy went to war with the United States, he was permitted to remain in the US, but declined the offer of US citizenship and instead returned to Italy in May 1942. After a brief stay in Rome, he moved to Spain, where he remained until Italy surrendered to the Allied forces in September 1943. At that time, he returned to Rome to see to the safety of his only child Maria (born c. 1921).
In 1945, the Italian air force cleared Nobile of all charges related to the Italia crash, and not only reinstated him at his former rank as major general, but promoted him to lieutenant general and awarded him back pay dating to 1928. The following year he was elected to the Constituent Assembly as independent candidate in the lists of the Italian Communist Party. He returned to his beloved University of Naples, where he taught, and wrote of his adventures, until his retirement. He also married again, this time to Gertrude Stolp, a German woman he had met in Spain, who later became chief librarian at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
Nobile died in Rome on 30 July 1978 aged 93 after having celebrated the 50th anniversary of his two polar expeditions. The Italian Air Force Museum at Vigna di Valle (just outside Rome) has a large permanent exhibition on his achievements. Museum Museo Civico "U. Nobile" in Nobile's hometown Lauro collects his documents and memorabilia.