N-4 Down: The Italia Arctic Airship Hunt
Mark Piesing, Customs, 462 pages, 2021, $29.99
A century ago, airships crisscrossed the skies. Although we often remember the Wright Brothers for ushering in the age of aviation, we tend to overlook the fact that before the advent of passenger aircraft, airships were used to transport people and cargo on long distances, mapping unknown regions along the way. During the 1920s, there was fierce competition between proponents of airplanes and airships over the future of flight. And for a few years it seemed like the airships, which covered the transatlantic flight paths, had the upper hand, until the fiery crash of the Hindenburg, the only zeppelin we’ve all heard of.
A century ago, the Arctic remained largely unexplored. Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had both claimed to have reached the North Pole, although both probably lied. Yet at least they had been close. Crossing the pack ice was, for most people, impossible on foot. But maybe not by plane. Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer who had been the first to navigate the Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole, and who understood better than anyone what technologies worked in such extreme conditions, wanted to be the first man to see both poles. And he realized that air was the best means of transportation in the Arctic.
A century ago, Amundsen and Italian aviator Umberto Nobile wanted to travel to the North Pole. They joined forces in partnership aboard a Nobile-built airship called the Norge, and in 1926 flew from Spitsbergen to Alaska, making the first documented crossing over the North Pole along the way. They proved the usefulness of airships for traveling over the ridge of the globe, but by the time they landed their partnership had crumbled beyond the point of talking to each other.
However, their destinies were intimately linked. Two years later, Nobile returned to the Arctic with another airship, the Italia, and again reached the North Pole. Then the ship crashed into the ice. Some of the men escaped. Others were swept into the cabin when the airship’s gas balloon lifted it into the air, never to be seen again. A week-long international search was undertaken for the survivors. Amundsen joined and himself disappeared without a trace. Once rescued, Nobile returned in disgrace to an Italy ruled by Benito Mussolini.
That’s the story British journalist Mark Piesing takes on in ‘N-4 Down’, and he proves himself up to the task and more. The story he chose has all the elements of good fiction. Difficult and complex main characters, epic conflicts of man against man and man against nature, political intrigue, grand adventure, destructive hubris and significant tragedy. Plus, he has airships over the arctic, which would send him into the realm of steampunk if it hadn’t actually happened.
Piesing embraced a complicated, richly detailed narrative and crafted a work of literary nonfiction that readers will get lost in, but in a good way. Working with seemingly endless twists and with more characters than most writers know what to do with, he has crafted a thriller that proves impossible to put down.
Piesing takes its readers into the heady world of the 1920s. In the aftermath of what was then called the Great War, trade and travel resumed their boom. For those working in the emerging field of aviation, the age of exploration was over, global connections were being made, the future belonged to the pilots, and Nobile was among the most skilled. For him, Amundsen was a relic of a bygone era, but important in validating their shared goal of reaching the top of the planet.
Amundsen, for his part, was both avant-garde and past his prime, and also perpetually broke despite his accomplishments. Reaching the North Pole by airship would give him one last moment of glory before retirement.
Nobile’s talents as an airship pilot were partly due to his brash self-confidence. He was gregarious and social. He was also caught up in the fascist movement that had taken over his country. He was a party member by invitation, but not by inclination, and by all indications was privately a communist. He was a man of what he believed to be the future.
Amundsen was notoriously aloof, unwilling to show any emotion other than anger, and growing increasingly paranoid with age. Mentally, he lived in a different place from 1920s Europe, and the politics of the time seem to have interested him little. He was the last great European explorer and probably knew it. Twenty years after gaining worldwide fame with his two polar victories, he was adrift. He was becoming a man of the past.
Nobile’s two polar airship treks would define the relationship between the two and reveal all of their characters, which Piesing explores well. But it would take mishaps and tragedies to get there. After the Italia fell, the survivors on the ice split up, with one group staying put and another trying to get out. What ensued was one of those classic arctic survival tales involving misery, hunger, accidents, death, and rumors of cannibalism. Piesing vividly places us in camp with Nobile and his crewmen, who have spent weeks with dwindling supplies, wondering if help will arrive before the food runs out.
Despite his falling out with Nobile, Amundsen jumped into the rescue effort, but he didn’t get far. His plane disappeared after leaving Tromsø, and he and his partners were never found. They were among the many who died saving Nobile from his dream-turned-nightmare.
Piesing’s writing can be compared to that of Simon Winchester, another British journalist with a penchant for narrative stories. The book moves quickly through the story, but manages to incorporate plenty of detail and place the story fully within the era in which it took place.
A century ago, men came north with airplanes and radios, thinking the Arctic would finally be easy. This was not the case. “N-4 Down” is the unforgettable story of why.