Pity the airship. The dirigible came of age while fixed-wing, combustion engine-powered aircraft were still in their infancy. Airships ferried passengers vast stretches, all while setting speed and distance records. They also were a valuable vessel for exploring once-unreachable lands at the start of the 20th century.
Yet our collective memory of them seems limited to their ghastly demise. Cue the Hindenburg-ablaze film stock. Flip through the black-and-white prints of the wrecked R–101 or the Roma (crashed in Norfolk).
Now, Mark Piesing has penned “N–4 Down,” a recounting of another airship meeting its demise. This tale, however, is less a requiem for the airship era than an examination of how hubris curtails the potential of the machines humans make.
Piesing alludes to an odd parallel between the airships and the explorers of that time. Like the hydrogen-filled dirigibles, the men pining to be “the first” have inflated senses of destiny and combustible egos. The fates of both machine and men were at the mercy of the elements: for airships, it was unpredictable weather; for explorers, it was politics, pride and jealous rivals.
The book centers on Italian general Umberto Nobile, an airship crusader, developer and pilot. All told, his life’s work is one to be celebrated. He shepherds the creation of a line of prized Italian airships. He pilots one of them, the Norge, in the first successful flight through the North Pole and over the entire Arctic ice sheet.
But he’s dogged by a rival Italian air force officer, a German airship builder and famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen—all seeking the status and influence Nobile has amassed. In a bid to maintain his fortunes, Nobile attempts a more-daring 1928 Arctic mission with his new airship, the N–4, that ends catastrophically. The search for the N–4, named Italia, produces more anguish for the would-be rescuers (Amundsen would be among the casualties), and later, for Nobile.
One of the joys of reading accounts of events a century ago is that authors gain access to letters, diaries, journals and other handwritten material that provide so much texture to narratives. Consequently, the stories are rich in detail. Piesing provides great context about the aviation era. He also reveals how petty and shallow explorers, top celebrities of the day, could be.
Piesing tends to tease outcomes too much for this reviewer’s taste. That aside, this is a fine book for explaining why men have a tendency to bring down the very thing they’re trying to pump up.
Jeff is a night sports content editor with The Free Lance–Star.
Jeff Schulze is a night sports content editor with The Free Lance–Star.