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Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine

3 December 2020

Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine, William F. Althoff, 2011, ISBN 978-1-61251-010-1, 264 pp.

Althoff has done it again, brilliantly bringing readers a fantastic set of true events—in this case two parallel stories of the U.S. Navy’s (USN) first two missions to the geographic North Pole, 90 North. One mission marks the potential of the revolutionary new technology of the Navy’s nuclear submarine while the other mission was part of the closing of the Navy’s lighter-than-air program.

Arctic Mission may hint at an overall history of the effort by all countries to explore to the North Pole but the subtitle—90 North by Airship and Submarine—indicates it is the tale of two specific and very different missions undertaken in 1958 by the USN. One of the mission by the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) to cruise submerged beneath the Arctic ice cap of the North Pole. The other of the flight of the non-rigid airship ZPG-2 (Snow Goose) over the Arctic ice cap and the North Pole. One vehicle to explore the waters and bathymetry beneath the arctic ice cap and the other to investigate the ability to support scientific parties as far north as the North Pole on the same Arctic ice cap. Science and national security demands were imperative as the Arctic ice cap no longer provided the defensive barrier it was with the progress in aviation as well as submarine design. Yet the environment covered great distances with all of it being incredible hostile to human life.

Althoff places the reader into this history as if it is currently occurring with a deft blend of research, communications and the human dimension of personalities and life aboard these two, distinctly differing, vessels. He also provides a chapter summarizing the previous attempts, by air and by land, to reach the North Pole.

Piloting the Snow Goose proved to be problematic as her load and ambient temperatures demanded so full a load of helium that the ballonets had to be fully deflated—making trimming of the airship highly challenging to say the least. Althoff intimately describes life aboard her and how this non-rigid airship differed from the Navy’s previous blimp models by possessing two decks, not one, with the upper deck used for messing, sleeping and the ward room—the lower deck was partitioned according to mission duties. A line drawing helps considerably and it is quite informative. The flight was successful, flying across Canada to the North Pole in a series of hops totaling 6200 miles in 16 days with a flying time of 173 hours. The destination was an ice island with a research team stationed on it which was positioned just shy of the North Pole. Snow Goose demonstrated that its unique abilities to loiter nearly indefinitely, in comparison to heavier-than-air aircraft, as well as cruise slowly at low altitudes for better observation as well as scouting had great potential both scientifically and logistically in the arctic realm.

Cruising in the Nautilus was just as abley described by the author and with several insightful perspectives. For example, how her nuclear power necessitated improved living conditions for the crew although the better conditions were primarily for the equipment—this was a military vessel after all so creature comforts were not a primary consideration for the most part. The submerged endurance of the submarine allowed for the first bathymetric measurements of the sea bottom below the Arctic ice cap. The ship could also bring more equipment as well as people to the Arctic in one go and with more security.

This book more than realistically describes an important and challenge-met niche in the history of aviation and exploration. It belongs on the bookshelves of aviation history as well as great explorers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 December 2020 14:06

    Mark, my older son, went to the pole twice. He was assigned to the icebreaker USCGC Westwind (WAGB-281) . They got to within 200 KM of 90 North, the farthest north any surface ship had gotten at that time. He says for some strange reason, he still misses sailing on the North Atlantic. As a pilot used to flying in turbulent weather, he was not as affected by seasickness as some others.

    On Thu, Dec 3, 2020 at 1:44 PM Travel for Aircraft wrote:

    > travelforaircraft posted: ” Arctic Mission: 90 North by Airship and > Submarine, William F. Althoff, 2011, ISBN 978-1-61251-010-1, 264 pp. Arctic > Mission: 90 North by Airship and Submarine by William F. Althoff Althoff > has done it again, brilliantly bringing readers a fantastic” >

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      4 December 2020 22:52

      Mark is impressive. He must marvel at the raw power I’d guess regarding the N Atlantic? Being so close to the North Pole had to be remarkable as well!

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