N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia
Mark Piesing, Custom House, 462 pages, 2021, $29.99
A century ago, airships plied the skies. While we often remember the Wright brothers for ushering in the age of aviation, we tend to overlook the fact that before passenger airplanes arrived, dirigibles were put to use carrying people and freight over 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 flying. And for a few years, it seemed dirigibles, which cornered trans-Atlantic flightpaths, had the upper hand, until the fiery crash of the Hindenburg, the one zeppelin we’ve all heard about.
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. Still, at least they had been nearby. Crossing the sea ice was, for most people, impossible on foot. But perhaps not by air. Roald Amundsen, the famed Norwegian polar explorer who had been first to navigate the Northwest Passage and first to reach the South Pole, and who understood better than most what technologies worked in such extreme conditions, wanted to be the first man to see both poles. And he came to realize that air was the best means of transportation in the Arctic.
A century ago, both Amundsen and Italian aviator Umberto Nobile wanted to fly to the North Pole. They joined forces in partnership aboard an airship built by Nobile 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 utility of airships for travel over the crest of the globe, but by the time they landed, their partnership had collapsed beyond the point of speaking to each other.
Yet their fates were intimately tied. Two years later, Nobile returned to the Arctic with another dirigible, the Italia, and reached the North Pole again. Then the ship crashed onto the ice. Some of the men escaped. Others were carried away in the cabin when the gas balloon on the airship hoisted it back into the air, never to be seen again. A weeks-long international search was undertaken for the survivors. Amundsen joined and himself vanished without a trace. Once rescued, Nobile returned in disgrace to an Italy ruled by Benito Mussolini.
This is the story that British journalist Mark Piesing undertakes in “N-4 Down,” and he proves himself up to the task and more. The story he’s chosen has all the elements of good fiction. Difficult and complex leading characters, epic conflicts of man vs. man and man vs. nature, political intrigue, high adventure, destructive hubris and significant tragedy. Plus it has airships over the Arctic, which would send it into the realm of steampunk had it not actually happened.
Piesing has taken on a complicated and richly detailed narrative and crafted a work of literary nonfiction that readers will get lost in, but in a good way. Working with seemingly no end of plot twists, and more characters than most writers would know what to do with, he’s written a suspense tale that proves impossible to put down.
Piesing takes his readers into the heady world of of the 1920s. In the aftermath of what was then called the Great War, trade and travel were again on the upswing. To those in the emerging field of aviation, the Age of Exploration was over, global connections were being established, the future belonged to pilots, and Nobile was among the most skilled. For him, Amundsen was a relic of a bygone era, but important for validating their shared goal of reaching the planet’s pinnacle.
Amundsen, for his part, was both forward-thinking and past his prime, and also perennially broke despite his achievements. Reaching the North Pole by airship would give him one last moment of glory before retirement.
Nobile’s talents as an airship pilot were in part due to his brash self-confidence. He was gregarious and social. He was also caught in the fascist movement that had seized control of his country. He was a party member by invitation, but not inclination, and by all indications, was privately a communist. He was a man of what he believed to be the future.
Amundsen was famously aloof, unwilling to show any emotion other than anger, and growing increasingly paranoid with age. Mentally, he lived in a different place than 1920s Europe, and the era’s politics seem to have held little interest to him. He was the last great European explorer, and likely knew so. Twenty years after finding global fame with his twin polar victories, he was adrift. He was becoming a man of the past.
Nobile’s two polar treks aboard airships would define the relationship between the two and reveal their full characters, something Piesing explores well. But it would take mishaps and tragedies to get there. After the Italia went down, the survivors on the ice split, with one group remaining in place and another attempting to walk out. What ensued was one of those classic tales of Arctic survival involving misery, hunger, accidents, deaths and rumors of cannibalism. Piesing vividly places us in camp with Nobile and his crewmen, who spent weeks with dwindling supplies, wondering if rescue would arrive before food ran out.
Despite his falling out with Nobile, Amundsen leapt into the rescue effort, but he didn’t get far. His plane vanished after departing Tromsø, and he and his partners were never found. They were among the many who died rescuing Nobile from his dream turned nightmare.
Piesing’s writing can be likened to that of Simon Winchester, another British journalist with a penchant for narrative histories. The book moves quickly through the story, yet manages to incorporate extensive details and place the story fully in the era in which it occurred.
A century ago, men came north equipped with aircraft and radio, thinking the Arctic would finally be easy. It wasn’t. “N-4 Down” is the unforgettable story of why.