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"GRIPPING. ... One of the greatest polar rescue efforts ever mounted." —Wall Street Journal
The riveting true story of the largest polar rescue mission in history: the desperate race to find the survivors of the glamorous Arctic airship Italia, which crashed near the North Pole in 1928.
Triumphantly returning from the North Pole on May 24, 1928, the world-famous exploring airship Italia—code-named N-4—was struck by a terrible storm and crashed somewhere over the Arctic ice, triggering the largest polar rescue mission in history. Helping lead the search was Roald Amundsen, the poles’ greatest explorer, who himself soon went missing in the frozen wastes. Amundsen’s body has never been found, the last victim of one of the Arctic’s most enduring mysteries . . .
During the Roaring Twenties, zeppelin travel embodied the exuberant spirit of the age. Germany’s luxurious Graf Zeppelin would run passenger service from Germany to Brazil; Britain’s Imperial Airship was launched to connect an empire; in America, the iconic spire of the rising Empire State Building was designed as a docking tower for airships.
But the novel mode of transport offered something else, too: a new frontier of exploration. Whereas previous Arctic and Antarctic explorers had subjected themselves to horrific—often deadly—conditions in their attempts to reach uncharted lands, airships held out the possibility of speedily soaring over the hazards. In 1926, the famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen—the first man to reach the South Pole—partnered with the Italian airship designer General Umberto Nobile to pioneer flight over the North Pole. As Mark Piesing uncovers in this masterful account, while that mission was thought of as a great success, it was in fact riddled with near disasters and political pitfalls.
In May 1928, his relationship with Amundsen corroded beyond the point of collaboration, Nobile, his dog, and a crew of fourteen Italians, one Swede, and one Czech, set off on their own in the airship Italia to discover new lands in the Arctic Circle and to become the first airship to land men on the pole. But near the North Pole they hit a terrible storm and crashed onto the ice. Six crew members were never seen again; the injured (including Nobile) took refuge on ice flows,unprepared for the wretched conditions and with little hope for survival.
Coincidentally, in Oslo a gathering of famous Arctic explorers had assembled for a celebration of the first successful flight from Alaska to Norway. Hearing of the accident, Amundsen set off on his own desperate attempt to find Nobile and his men. As the weeks passed and the largest international polar rescue expedition mobilized, the survivors engaged in a last-ditch struggle against weather, polar bears, and despair. When they were spotted at last, the search plane landed—but the pilot announced that there was room for only one passenger. . . .
Braiding together the gripping accounts of the survivors and their heroic rescuers, N-4 Down tells the unforgettable true story of what happened when the glamour and restless daring of the zeppelin age collided with the harsh reality of earth’s extremes.
Mark Piesing writes for the Guardian, FT, Economist and Wired, among other publications. He lives in Oxford, England. This is his first book.