N-4 Down by Mark Piesing: 4.5****

Today they are known as Blimps and many of us have seen those shots from the MetLife or Goodyear blimps over sporting events. But back in the day of the heroic adventurer they were known as Airships, and N-4 Down by Mark Piesing, is the story of the Italian explorer/adventurer Umberto Nobili, the man who constructed airships, and whose exploration of the North Pole in 1928 led to his eventual crash and the loss of many lives, prior to a dramatic rescue of the few remaining survivors.

            Piesing begins this book with a bit of history and then goes into the 1926 airship exploration that to the best of everyone’s knowledge was the first aerial exploration of the Northwest Passage. That exploration was fraught with tension and competitiveness with Umberto Nobili having designed the airship and was reluctantly included as part of the exploration crew. But the exploration was truly led famous explorer/adventurer Roald Amundson who was not about to let Nobili upstage him and the chapters that deal with this flight which began in Norway and ended in Alaska were amazing to read, with the antics of whose flag would come to rest on the North Pole giving us a glimpse of the sometimes comic competitiveness among the explorers.

            This was a time period of the rise of Fascism in Italy and Benito Mussolini was using the 1926 exploration as a way to increase Italy’s prestige in the world. Mussolini went all out in aiding Nobili on this exploration, however we are also introduced to Nobili’s  rival, Italo Balbo, who did all he could to sabotage Nobili when he returned to Italy to a hero’s welcome. This rivalry continued for the rest of their lives and was a huge hinderance to the 1928 solo exploration led by Nobili. But after scores of delays Umberto was off, but it was an exploration that was fraught with problems and one that most likely should never have been attempted. Between the weather and Nobili’s stubborn vanity this exploration with the N-4 airship turned into a huge tragedy. Not only were people killed when the airship crashed returning from the North Pole, but even rescue teams crashed and people were killed or lost at sea. There were certainly advantages to airships being used as exploratory crafts, but by 1929 the rigid fixed wing airplanes had begun to rule the sky, and the age of the heroic adventurer/explorer had ended.

            This is a marvelous nonfiction book that looks at airships, heroic exploration, the life of Umberto Nobili, as well as the many times tragic explorations of the North Pole. It is a captivating read and one that taught me so much about aviation, and the importance of the airship up until the late 1920s. Most of us are aware of the Hindenburg disaster, but there were many more airships that were out floating around the globe during this time period and Mark Piesing has done a wonderful job piercing this all together for us as we follow along with the doomed flight of the N-4.

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