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N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia

12 August 2022

N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia, Mark Piesing, 2021, ISBN 978-0-06-285152-9, 428 pp.

Another fantastic book about a lesser known—though enrapturing—chapter in lighter-than-air (LTA) aviation history has been deeply researched and well written by Mark Piesing—N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Airship Italia

Piesing writes descriptively and in detail about the demise of The Italia (Umverto Nobile’s N-4 design) as readers would expect from the title, of course, but it is also the backstory which is also captivating and intriguing. The rescue of the survivors, which was weeks in the making, as well.  Readers will sense the agony of Arctic crash survivors (Piesing also recounts previous Arctic expeditions of the 1920s and before). Survivors who endured desolate weeks and even months marooned on the pack ice. Pack ice which is constantly in motion, apparently at random speed as well as direction, but never still for long—much like “The Grand Staircase” of Hogwarts. An overnight’s drifting could find oneself more than ten miles from the night before. Travel on foot was a combination of hiking, sloshing and crawling that lent whole new meanings to the terms arduousness and hostile environment.

N-4 Down also brings to life the actual personalities of historical figures in this historical part of Arctic exploration. Names which are universally recognized, and many which are not, but all described in all their humanity. They were men and women—some were less than likable, most were ensnared by their country’s governmental power plays. Naturally, all had feet of clay (marking N-4 Down as an objective telling history) but all were driven to be the first to explore, or tell the tale of, the blank million square mile surrounding the geographical North Pole. Yes, people knew it was there but they did not know what was there. Exploration at its most challenging and demanding!

Umberto Nobile, designer and commander of The Italia, was much more than the man most typical histories record him—as well documented by Piesing. He was a brilliant designer of aircraft and highly personable. He saw value in the semi-rigid dirigible designs—a solid keel from which a control car and engines were positioned, control surfaces to the rear, and a fabric covered envelope that housed the bags of lifting gas—hydrogen in the case of The Italia, as in his earlier designs. 

Famed arctic explorer Roald Amundsen came to realize that reaching the North Pole would have to be done by means other than months of dog sledding which brought him to aviation with its promise of hours instead of months travel time. After a false start with aircraft he shifted to LTA and Umberto Nobile. They collaborated, with others too, and flew the LTA renamed The Norge to the North Pole and to the World’s acclaim. The flight was less than pleasant as stirringly told by Piesing given the roughness of Amundsen’s leadership style and lack of common language between Nobile and Amundse. The apparent disdain of the Norwegians to non-Scandinavian arctic explorers also did not help. Readers will feel the tension as well as the cluttered, messy confines of the unsealed control car as The Norge navigates the unknown.

After the flight of The Norge Nobile realized that more could be done with airships than ticking off record boxes. The airship era meant arctic exploration was no longer the realm of the Scandinavians, especially the Norwegians. Piesing describes intricately, and in an easily understandably way, Nobile’s effort to fund, build, then fly his N-4 design—The Italia. Italian built and crewed but all was not to be so altruistic as Nobile lived in a totalitarian state ruled by Benito Mussolini who allowed Italo Balbo, more devious and vicious than Il Duce, to be Nobile’s powerful nemesis. 

As readers soon learn The Italia had a demanding schedule of five flights slated during the Arctic exploration season of 1928. Five flights for science, for mapping, for dispelling of myths and unfounded beliefs in what lay in the Arctic. Returning from the fifth flight, Nobile’s second to the North Pole, ended tragically with a crash which separated the envelope and control car. The control car somewhat softly crashing onto the pack ice and the envelope (containing the bags of lifting gas) carrying away part of the crew but not before they heroically tossed out life saving supplies to those on the ground. Weeks of ingenuity and abandonment followed for the rest of the crew. Their well thought out struggle for survival is remarkably told in N-4 Down. Soon the world joined in the rescue the survivors of The Italia with the notable exceptions of three major countries—Great Britain which had flying boats and an airship which could be soon with range of the Arctic, the USA with its great LTA capability, and Italy which sponsored Nobile’s expedition for a huge propaganda ploy.

Italy? Yes! Amazingly…unbelievably…Italy. 

Italo Balbo had the fix in and delayed, denied and deliberated any rescue efforts. Shame on the captain of Nobile’s support ship. Bravo to one Italian army officer who defied orders and set out to find the crash site and survivors. Piesing tells their stories and more—describing perilous transcontinental flights, stormy tossed passages through mountain passes and flight through dense fog to break out over land with the problem of finding out where they actually were (given the absence of GPS and electronic navigation at the time).

N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia is a wonderfully written and a well researched book on Umberto Nobile’s exploration of the Arctic using his airships The Norge and The Italia. It is also the story of the best of human nature with people uniting as a force to survive and a number of rescuers risking life and aircraft with many losing both.

Readers will enjoy the excitement of the times, the thrill of exploring the unexplored, flying LTA and vicariously meeting historic figures through Piesing’s expert authorship. Aviation history buffs and historians will want this book for its telling of perhaps the most significant historical chapter of semi-rigid LTA airships, the Arctic exploration achievements and personality of Umberto Nobile. They will also enjoy the context filling footnotes, index and detailed end notes.  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. theflyingyorkshireman permalink
    12 August 2022 13:42

    Outstanding review, for a well-told story.
    Bravo Zulu, sir!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      19 August 2022 13:04

      Thanks David–that made my day 🙂

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