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The Arctic has always had an almost mystical appeal to anyone who’s studied geography; up until the early part of the 20th century, it was basically unexplored territory —- a vast ever-shifting, ice-pack desert.
But “N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia” by U.K. journalist Mark Piesing quickly points out the potential that exploring such nether regions using dirigibles offered early 20th century explorers.
Piesing hooks us in his introduction when describing his arrival in Longyearbyen, the de facto capital of the remote Svalbard Islands which served as a jumping off point for many of these expeditions.
“…on three sides of the tarmac strip were mountains covered in snow, their glaciers glinting fiendishly in the April sunlight,” Piesing writes. “At the end of the runway lay the cold, gray, and deadly waters of the Arctic Ocean itself.”
The prime focus of “N-4 Down” is the tragic plight of Umberto Nobile’s airship Italia expedition to the North pole in the spring of 1928. In compelling prose, Piesing draws us into the feverish efforts to conquer the Arctic by air. Although the American explorer Richard Byrd and the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen were household names at the time, a long-forgotten Italian engineer, explorer and airship designer named Umberto Nobile arguably deserves equal credit for his contributions to arctic exploration.
Most of all, “N-4 Down” takes us back to an era in the first third of the 20th century that saw an explosion in all sorts of exploration. Not only was there great interest in fully exploring the four corners of the Earth including the North and South poles, but there was a vitality about aeronautics and aviation of the era that served to supercharge the human spirit.
In 1926, celebrated Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went into a partnership with Nobile to be the first-ever to fly over the North Pole in an airship. Thus, the N-1, or Norge, as it was christened, became the first aircraft to cross the ‘roof of the world’ from Norway to Alaska, writes Piesing.
But there was bad blood between Nobile and Amundsen after this expedition. Thus, Nobile was determined to return to the north pole with a plan to walk upon the ice in an airship dubbed the Italia.
With a crew of 16, Nobile and the Italia reached the North pole on the morning of May 24, 1928. The plan had been to descend to 160 feet and drop a patented sky anchor. From there, Nobile was to have descended in a pneumatic basket clutching an Italian flag. However, high wind prevented this maneuver and the crew was only able to drop two flags and a catholic cross onto the ice before the airship developed grave operational problems.
Nobile’s Airbus A-380 sized airship crashed on the morning of May 25, 1928 less than 200 miles from a triumphant return to the Svalbard Islands. Nobile and several of his crew subsequently survived on the ice for several weeks before their improbable rescue. If not for a makeshift radio that one of the crew hobbled together from the wreckage of the airship, the story of the Italia would have been a complete tragedy. But early radio as pioneered by the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was already well advanced by the late 1920s for use in marine navigation particularly.
One of the Italia crew broadcast an ‘SOS’ signal five minutes before the top of each hour until the operator basically collapsed due to exhaustion. Incredibly, an amateur ham radio operator in northern Siberia happened to hear the Italia’s SOS and subsequently notified the authorities and the Italia support ship Citta di Milano which was stationed in the Svalbard Islands. Soon a rescue icebreaker and aircraft were en route to drop supplies and pick up what remained of the crew. In short, the saga of the Italia is a miraculous story of human survival.
“N-4 Down” in large part because it is refreshingly well-written. So often these days, books tend to be published by historians and researchers who are experts in their fields but who can’t turn a phrase. So, it was a pleasure to be captivated by a working journalist like Piesing’s ability to put together a swath of prose that actually made me want to turn the page.
Piesing’s narrative latches hold in part because although we live in an era in which there’s a lot of talk about pushing the limit of aerospace exploration, it’s been decades years since Amelia Earhart, Richard Byrd and Amundsen routinely risked their lives for the sake of aeronautical exploration.
For his part, Amundsen, who happened to be in the Svalbard Islands at the time of the Italia’s disappearance took off by plane to search for Nobile and the airship. But Amundsen’s search went badly awry and he himself went missing, with neither his body nor aircraft ever found.
Despite such tragedies, “N-4 Down” makes one wonder why airships are not in greater practical use today. Piesing deserves credit for bringing this forgotten bit of aerospace history back to light.