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During the Roaring '20s just about everybody was convinced that dirigibles were not just the future of luxury travel but that these lumbering airships could also serve as platforms for scientific exploration and adventure. Why slog through malaria-infested jungles, parched deserts and frozen tundra when you could simply float an expedition to its destination? Among the technology's most fervent adherents were famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Italian airship designer General Umberto Nobile. In 1928, Nobile attempted to lead the first expedition to land people at the North Pole aboard Airship Italia. However, a brutal storm forced the vessel to crash land, stranding its survivors with precious few provisions and setting off the largest arctic rescue effort in history.
N-4 Down, by journalist and author Mark Piesing chronicles that rescue effort, led by Amundsen himself. In the excerpt below, we get a quick look at just what level of technological prowess the crew of the ill-fated expedition were actually dealing with.
From N-4 Down by Mark Piesing. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Piesing. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Amundsen may have dreamed of multiple air bases in the Arctic Circle, but in 1925 his was one of the only ones. It consisted of two flying boats, no hangars, and a rough runway made from ice.
For the flight he had a team of six men who would be split between the two planes. Lincoln Ellsworth would be in one, Amundsen in the other. The Norwegian had also brought with him for the first time two journalists and a photographer to record the expedition.
The flying boats that Amundsen transported from Pisa, Italy, weren’t just any flying boats. The N-24 and N-25 were state-of-the-art Dornier Do J “whale” flying boats, which went on to pioneer many air routes across the world.
These expensive German-designed machines were cutting edge in 1925. This meant that they were all metal, with a whale-shaped hull and high, raised wings. Two stub wings, known as sponsons, kept the plane stable, while ribs on the hull gave the plane the strength to land on sea or ice. Two chunky Rolls-Royce Eagle propeller engines were arranged back to back: one to pull the plane through the air and the other to push it. The Eagle engines were the first aeroengines that Rolls-Royce ever built.
Alas, the pilots were still housed in an unheated open-air cockpit, obliged to wear woolen underwear, sweaters, two pairs of pants, a sealskin greatcoat as well as a leather jacket, a leather flying helmet, gloves, scarves, and heavy boots to stay warm while flying at high speeds. They all had a parachute (one of the conditions Ellsworth’s father made him agree to in exchange for his money), though the terrible battle to survive they would face if their parachutes worked was something it was better not to think about.
The state of aerial navigation wasn’t much better. Pilots, who still who relied on distinguishing features such as railways, rivers, and castles to help them work out where they were going, were always going to be challenged by the featureless and shifting Arctic landscape. As mariners had done for the last two hundred year, sextants could be used to determine their aircraft’s altitude, position, and ground speed. These sextants were of less use, of course, when visibility was blocked by fog or thick clouds. Then these early pilots could use a magnetic compass, which becomes less reliable the closer to the North Pole the aircraft flies, or a solar compass, which worked like a sundial by using the position of the sun to establish a bearing (particularly useful near the North Pole).
Radio had started to challenge these far older methods of navigation. Radio direction finding allowed a navigator to find the direction to a radio station, or beacon. Then if you could pick up the signals of two or more stations, or beacons, then you could work out where you were by simple triangulation. Airplane navigators had to take all these readings in conditions that didn’t lend themselves to accuracy, taking measurements and keeping records in what was usually a freezing cold — and sometimes open — cockpit in a noisy and unstable machine.
Unfortunately for the crew of his new expedition, the Amundsen of 1925 was not the Amundsen who beat Scott to the South Pole. It could be said that he had lost his eye for detail.
The planes had been test flown in the Mediterranean before they were shipped by train and boat to Kings Bay. What they hadn’t been was properly test flown in the below-freezing conditions of the Arctic. In 1925, no one really understood how these flimsy aircraft and their internal combustion engines would cope with the cold of the Arctic, and Amundsen didn’t seem particularly curious about the possible distinction. Then there were the sextants that didn’t work and the radio sets that hadn’t arrived yet, and which Amundsen decided they couldn’t wait for. Finally, Amundsen didn’t formulate any emergency procedures in the event that one of the planes had to land. Without the radios, there was no way for the crews to talk to each other midflight if something went wrong. He had compounded this risk by turning down the US Navy’s offer of the giant airship USS Shenandoah to act as a rescue ship the year before. But he did remember to take a moving-picture camera with them.
Amundsen’s haste was due to his worry that a narrow window in the Arctic weather was set to close. There was also the nagging fear that someone else would fly to the North Pole before him.
Finally, on May 21, 1925, after one last leisurely, rather staged cigarette to calm their nerves, and with a final shove of the plane from the miners — who were given the day off for the occasion — the two overloaded planes roared one after the other across the rough-ice runway like toboggans, the crews feeling every bump in the ice through the flying boats’ metal hull, then out on to the water and into the air. “It was unreal, mystic, fraught with prophecy,” Ellsworth wrote. “Something ahead was hidden, and we were going to find it.”
The low-lying fog quickly cleared. The film that the crew shot of the glaciers of Svalbard comprised the first images ever taken from the air of these rivers of ice.
Amundsen’s dream of flying over the Arctic Sea was realized. The explorers were covering in hours what would take a week to do with dogs and skis. “I have never seen anything more desolate and deserted,” Amundsen remarked. “A bear from time to time I would have thought, which could break the monotony a little. But no—absolutely nothing living.”
After eight hours, they should have been near the North Pole, and the plan was to try to land. But one of the engines of Amundsen’s plane started to splutter on their descent. It quickly became apparent that they had to land rather sooner than they wanted.
“I have never looked down upon a more terrifying place in which to land an airplane,” Ellsworth wrote. For what had looked like smooth ice from high altitude turned out to be cut by ridges, gaps of open water called leads, and icebergs.
Amundsen’s plane made it down safely thanks to the skills of his pilot. Ellsworth’s was not so lucky. His plane eventually found a stretch of water they too could land on. Unfortunately, distances are deceptive at that height and what had seemed long enough was too short. Ellsworth’s plane bounced across the surface of the sea and smashed into an ice floe. Water poured in. That the rivets on the hull had burst due to the rough takeoff only added to their problems.
Soon there was nothing Ellsworth and his men could do to rescue it; the flying boat floated there like a dead whale. Ellsworth’s men were cold and wet, and they had been awake for twenty-four hours. They needed rest and food, but there wouldn’t be any of either for a while. They had to try their best to protect the plane from being crushed by the ice or sinking while they tried to salvage what they could. Eventually they stopped, exhausted—and the peril Ellsworth and his men were in suddenly hit him. “In the utter silence this seemed to me to be the kingdom of death,” he wrote.
The two crews were now separated from each other by many miles. It was twenty-four hours before they spotted each other across the ice pack.
Even when they were in sight of each other, communication across the ice was hampered because no one knew Morse code or semaphore. Instead, the two crews managed to get a rudimentary flag system going between them. It took two to three hours to communicate a simple message. Walking across the ice wasn’t an option either. It was simply too dangerous.
They were lucky in the end. The blocks of sea ice floated closer together, making it possible for the crews to be reunited after five interminable days. This still wasn’t without risk. Attempts by the men to walk across the ice floes with as much equipment as possible nearly ended in disaster when two of them sank through the slush into the freezing water. One of the men screamed, “I’m gone! I’m gone,” as the current tried to pull him under the ice.
Amundsen looked shockingly changed, exhaustion and anxiety cut deep into his face, but he was now back in the world of the ice pack, a world he knew so well. Quickly he took control. He realized that they had to combine the supplies from both planes to give themselves a chance of survival. More important, perhaps, they were able to siphon the fuel out of Ellsworth’s plane to give them enough to reach home again with the heavier load of all the men on board. But before they could attempt this, they first needed to carve a runway out of the ice. Of course, they hadn’t brought any specialized tools with them, despite having planned to land at the North Pole.
Without radio contact, the world first suspected that something had gone wrong when the planes didn’t return to Kings Bay straight away. Even then, some people thought that the aviators could have stayed at the pole for a couple of days or even flown on to Alaska, as Amundsen had long wanted to do. Some remembered conversations where Ellsworth had said it might take a year for them to walk out of the wilderness if their plane crashed.
When nothing was heard from them, newspapers across America started to report that the planes were overdue. There were demands for a rescue effort to be launched. But the lack of ships, planes, airships, and any idea of where Amundsen and his men had crashed presented would-be rescuers with a fearsome challenge. Still, the pressure was there. One headline in the New York Times proclaimed, “Coolidge Favors Amundsen Relief Should He Need It; President Would Approve Naval Plan to Send One of Our Giant Dirigibles to the Arctic.”
The US Navy was keen to launch its own expedition to rescue Amundsen. Two years earlier, naval plans to explore the Arctic with one of its huge dirigibles had been canceled owing to the expense. Now they were pushing the president to dispatch the giant USS Shenandoah or USS Los Angeles airships to search for Amundsen. Either of the two ships could be ready in days for the mission, sources told the New York Times journalist. The flight itself to Greenland (a possible base for the mission) would then take a couple of days, depending on the weather and where the ships were based at that time. “Practically, every officer connected with the aeronautical service of the Navy will volunteer in the event that a call for help is made on behalf of Amundsen,” the reporter explained.