The books hit: a look at the airship of the 1920s that almost reached the North Pole Engadget

During the 1920s, just about everyone was convinced that providers are not only the future of luxury travel, but that these busy airships can also serve as platforms for scientific exploration and adventure. Why walk through malaria-infested jungles, dehydrated deserts and frozen tundra when you can simply drive an expedition to its destination? Among the most ardent fans of the technology were the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the Italian airship designer General Umberto Nobile. In 1928, Nobile attempted to lead the first expedition to land people aboard the airship at the North Pole. Italy. However, a brutal storm forced the vessel to wreck land, stranding its survivors with costly few supplies and launching the largest Arctic rescue effort in history.

N-4 off, by journalist and author Mark Piesing narrates the rescue effort led by Amundsen himself. In the excerpt below, we take a quick look at what technological skill the crew of the fatal expedition actually had to deal with.

Harper Collins Publishers

Of N-4 off by Mark Piesing. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Piesing. Reprinted with permission of Custom House, a print from HarperCollins Publishers.


Amundsen may have dreamed of several air bases in the Arctic Circle, but in 1925 he was one of the only ones. It consisted of two flying boats, no hangars, and a rough runway of ice.

For the flight, he had a team of six men that would be split between the two planes. Lincoln Ellsworth would be in one, Amundsen in the other. The Norwegian also brought for the first time two journalists and a photographer to record the expedition.

The flying boats that Amundsen transported from Pisa, Italy, were not just any flying boats. The N-24 and N-25 were the latest Dornier Do J “whale” flying boats, starting many air routes around the world.

These expensive German-designed machines were at the forefront in 1925. This meant that they were all metal, with a whale-shaped hull and high, outstretched wings. Two stump wings, known as sponges, kept the plane stable, while ribs to the fuselage gave the plane the power to land on sea or ice. Two sturdy Rolls-Royce Eagle propeller motors are arranged from rear to rear: one to pull the aircraft through the air and the other to push it. The Eagle engines were the first aircraft Rolls-Royce ever built.

Unfortunately, the pilots were still housed in an unheated open air cabin, which was forced to wear woolen underwear, sweaters, two pants, a rubber skin as well as a leather jacket, a leather fly helmet, gloves, scarves and heavy boots to keep warm. stay 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), although the terrible struggle to survive what they would experience if their parachutes worked was better not to think about not.

The condition of aviation was not much better. Pilots, who still relied on distinctive features such as railways, rivers and castles to help them determine where they were headed, would always be challenged by the distinctive and changing Arctic landscape. As seafarers have done for the past two hundred years, sextants could be used to determine the altitude, position, and ground speed of their aircraft. These sextants were, of course, less useful when visibility was blocked by fog or thick clouds. Then these early pilots could use a magnetic compass, which becomes less reliable as the plane flies closer to the North Pole, or a solar compass, which acts like a sundial by using the position of the sun to establish a poll ( especially convenient near the North Pole).

Radio began to challenge these far older methods of navigation. By finding radio direction, a navigator could find the direction to a radio station or beacon. If you could then record the signals from two or more stations or beacons, you would be able to find out where you were by simple triangulation. Aircraft navigators had to take all these measurements under conditions that were not accurate, take measurements and keep records of usually an icy cold – and sometimes open – cabin in a noisy and unstable machine.

Unfortunately for the crew of his new expedition, the Amundsen of 1925 was not the Amundsen that beat Scott to the South Pole. It can be said that he lost his eye for detail.

The planes were tested in the Mediterranean before being sent by train and boat to Kings Bay. What they did not have was to test properly in the coldest conditions of the Arctic. In 1925, no one really understood how these thin planes and their internal combustion engines would handle the cold of the Arctic, and Amundsen does not seem so curious about the possible distinction. Then there were the sextants that did not work and the radio sets that had not yet arrived, and on which Amundsen decided that they could not wait. In the end, Amundsen did not formulate any emergency procedures should one of the planes land. Without the radios, the teams would not be able to talk to each other in the middle of the flight if something went wrong. He exacerbated this risk by rejecting the US Navy’s offer of the giant airship USS Shenandoah to act as a lifeboat the year before. But he remembered to take a moving photo camera with him.

Amundsen’s haste was due to concerns that a narrow window in the Arctic would close. There was also the nagging fear that someone else would fly to the North Pole in front of him.

Finally, on May 21, 1925, after a last quiet, rather educated cigarette to calm their nerves, and with a final thrust from the plane of the miners – who had been given leave that day – the two overloaded planes roared one after the other. others across the ripe ice rink like rowing tracks, the crew felt every bump in the ice through the flying boats’ metal hull, then into the water and air. “It was unreal, mystical, full of prophecy,” Ellsworth wrote. “Something ahead was hidden, and we’re going to find it.”

The low-lying mist disappears quickly. The film made by the crew of the Svalbard Glaciers contains the first images ever taken from the air of these ice rivers.

Amundsen’s dream of flying over the Arctic Ocean has come true. The explorers warned within hours what would take a week with dogs and skis. “I’ve never seen anything more deserted and deserted,” Amundsen remarked. ‘I would have thought of a bear from time to time, which could break the monotony a bit. But no – absolutely nothing alive. ”

After eight hours they must have been near the North Pole, and the plan was to try to land. But one of the engines of Amundsen’s plane began to splash on their descent. It quickly became apparent that they had to land rather than want to.

“I’ve never looked down on a scary place to land a plane,” Ellsworth wrote. For what at large looked like slippery ice seems to have been cut by ridges, gaps in open water called pilots, and icebergs.

Thanks to the skill of his pilot, Amundsen’s plane landed safely. Ellsworth’s was not so happy. His plane eventually found a piece of water on which they could also land. Unfortunately, distances at this altitude are misleading and what seemed long enough was too short. Ellsworth’s plane crashed over the seabed and hit an ice flange. Water flowed in. That the rivets on the hull burst due to the rough takeoff only contributed to their problems.

Soon there was nothing Ellsworth and his men could do to save it; the flying boat floats there like a dead whale. Ellsworth’s men were cold and wet, and they were awake for twenty-four hours. They need rest and food, but it would not even be a while either. They had to do everything in their power to protect the plane from the ice crushing or sinking it while trying to save what they could. Eventually they stopped, exhausted – and the danger that Ellsworth and his men were in suddenly struck him. “In total silence it seemed to me that it was the kingdom of death,” he wrote.

The two teams were now miles apart. It was twenty-four hours before they saw each other over the ice pack.

Even when they saw each other, communication over the ice was hampered because no one knew Morse code or semaphore. Instead, the two teams managed to get a rudimentary flag system between them. It took two to three hours to convey a simple message. Walking over the ice was also not an option. It was simply too dangerous.

They were finally happy. The blocks of sea ice float closer together, allowing the teams to be reunited after five endless days. It was still not without risk. Attempts by the men to walk across the ice rinks with as much equipment as possible almost ended in disaster when two of them sank through the mud into the freezing water. One of the men shouted: “I’m gone! I’m gone, ”as the stream tried to pull him under the ice.

Amundsen seems shockingly changed, exhaustion and anxiety cutting deep in his face, but he was now back in the world of the ice pack, a world he knows so well. Quickly he takes control. He realizes that they need to combine the stock of both aircraft to give themselves a chance at survival. More importantly, perhaps, they could suck the fuel out of Ellsworth’s plane to give them enough to get home again with the heavier cargo of all the men on board. But before they could try it, they first had to cut a runway out of the ice. Of course, they did not bring any specialized tools with them, despite the fact that they planned to land at the North Pole.

Without radio contact, the world first suspected that something had gone wrong when the planes did not return to Kings Bay immediately. Even then, some people thought the pilots could stay at the pole for a few days or even fly to Alaska, as Amundsen had long wanted to do. Some remember conversations where Ellsworth said it could take a year before they step out of the wilderness when their plane crashes.

When nothing was heard from them, newspapers in America began reporting that the planes were too late. There were demands to launch a rescue effort. But the lack of ships, planes, airships and any idea of ​​where Amundsen and his men crashed presented prospective rescuers with a daunting challenge. Yet the pressure was there. One heading in the New York Times states: “Coolidge favors Amundsen relief if he needs it; President will approve the naval plan to send one of our giant fragrances to the Arctic. ”

The U.S. Navy wanted to launch its own expedition to rescue Amundsen. Two years earlier, naval plans to explore the Arctic with one of its major objects had been canceled due to the cost. Now they are pushing the president to send the giant USS Shenandoah of USS Los angeles airships to search for Amundsen. One of the two ships could be ready for the mission within days, sources told the BBC New York Times journalist. The flight itself to Greenland (a possible base for the mission) would then take a few days, depending on the weather and where the ships were at the time. “Practically, every officer involved with the Navy’s aviation service will volunteer if a call for help is made on Amundsen’s behalf,” the reporter explained.

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