Monday, 25 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg. Pt.3: Disaster!

Eighteen men were on board Italia during the flight from Milan; only sixteen were on board when she left King's bay for the Pole.  For various reasons, Nobile had dropped two of the original number.  One of the two radio operators, Ettore Pedretti, had given indications that he was less able than the others to stand up to the rigours of the flight.  The other, Guiseppe Biagi, had withstood the strain admirably.  Since every pound of weight counted, it was obvious that one of the two journalists could be left behind.  Tomaselli had been on board during the exploratory flights; it was therefore the turn of Ugo Lago.  He was the younger of the two, in fact the youngest member of all.  The remainder of the crew were essential: technicians, navigators, mechanics, riggers, and the scientists Pontremoli, Malmgren and Behounek.

The departure form King's Bay was a ceremonial one, curiously elaborate and formal by more modern standards.  The expedition's chaplain from the base ship, Father Gianfranceschi, recited a prayer, to which Nobile and his fifteen men listened bareheaded in the icy wind.  They were not alone at the ceremony.  About 150 other men - Italian crew men from the base ship, Norwegian whalers and miners, and the Alpini - joined in.  And when the service was ended and the crew had gone aboard, the ground crew at the mooring lines and the lookers-on, hearing Nobile's brief words, "Let go!" and the three engines simultaneously started up by the motormen, raised a resounding "Hurrah!" that echoed through the air as Italia rose gracefully towards the sky, her nose pointed northwest towards the Pole.  They stood and watched her as she receded, diminishing to a blur on the far horizon.

Nobile's orders were to steer first for Cape Bridgman, on the extreme northeast corner of Greenland.  At first they were cruising over open water, but it was not long before they saw pack ice beneath them, and immediately ran into a belt of fog.  Visibility at King's Bay had been excellent; a clear sky and bright light which had made it necessary for every man to wear sunglasses even though they were high above sparkling water and far from actual ice.  But this was a very different story: their first encounter with that major hazard, fog.

In the hope of extricating themselves from it, Nobile gave orders for Italia to be brought down low.  But the fog proved to be down almost to the level of the pack ice, and visibility was dangerously cut.  So, the reverse order had to be given.  Italia began to nose her way steeply upwards through the fog, to emerge above it into the clear air once more.  The navigator noted that the band of fog was 1,500 feet in thickness, a formidable obstacle to encounter so early in their northward flight.

Ten hours or so after leaving King's Bay, the airship ran out of the fog altogether and, to everyone's relief, sighted the landmark they were making for: Cape Bridgman.  Four hours later, they were actually over the cape.  This was the exact point at which Nobile had planned to turn due north, to follow the 27th meridian West of Greenwich directly to the Pole.  The weather now seemed set fair.  Its excellence communicated itself to every member of the party.  All on board Italia, Nobile duly noted in his record, were happy; "contentment shone from every face." 

He gives a detailed account of how the various members of his party were occupied at the time.  Mariano was steering.  Cecioni and Trojani were at the elevator-controls.  Mechanic Pomella was in the aft engine nacelle, Caratti in the port nacelle and Ciocca in the starboard nacelle, each keeping an eye on their respective engines.  Chief Motor Engineer Arduino was patrolling the long gangway in the keel to receive their reports and give any necessary instructions.  Foreman Rigger Alessandrini was scrambling about like a monkey on the catwalks that linked one part of the dirigible with another, checking control cables and the bearings through which they ran and giving his expert attention to the hundred-and-one details for which he was responsible.  When he had time to spare he would temporarily relieve either Cecioni or Trojani at the elevator-controls.

The three scientists were also busy.  Malmgren was pricking out the wall charts of the control cabin the data being transmitted by the Tromso Geophysical Institute about the weather conditions to west and east of the airship's northward route to the Pole.  These messages were being continuously transmitted, to be picked up by Biagi, who sat imperturbably at his radio receiving set with headphones clamped to his ears, translating the information as it came in.  Pontremoli and Behounek were hard at work on their array of scientific instruments, preparing them for the moment when they would be put to the uses for which they had been designed.

As leader of the expedition, Nobile had to be kept in constant touch with developments.  For a while, his chief interest was in the graph that Malmgren was tracing out on the chart.  On Nobile depended, ultimately, the safety of the crew and the success of the expedition.  Any major decision that had to be taken was his and his alone.  So it was with some anxiety that he watched the pattern Malmgren was developing on the chart.  There were, he saw, two cyclonic areas.  One of these was over the Arctic Ocean, in the direction of Siberia; the other was much nearer at hand, over the Barents Sea.  Neither was an immediate cause of anxiety, for they were both a long way south of the Pole itself.  But there was the return trip to bear in mind.  Those areas might move; there could be swift and dramatic changes in the weather pattern.  As in the case of mountaineers, there is not only the problem of tackling the ascent, there is the descent that must follow - frequently an even more hazardous operation than the ascent itself.

He discussed the problem with Malmgren, in whom he had the greatest confidence.  Might it not be better after all, he wondered, to continue across the Pole, either to Siberia or, as with Norge, to Alaska, rather than try to get back to Spitsbergen as originally planned?  The objection to returning to Spitsbergen was the strength of the wind, which they would certainly have to face if they did so.

Malmgren was strongly against this.  If they abandoned their original plan, he pointed out, all their elaborate preparations for scientific observation and research would have to be abandoned too.  The chief reason for his presence on board, with Pontremoli and Behounek, would be nullified.  In support of his argument, he declared himself as sure as he could be that the strong southeasterly wind now on their tail would soon drop and be replaced by the more usual northwesterly.  This would help them when they turned back for Spitsbergen.  Malmgren was staking his established reputation as a meteorologist in giving this advice to Nobile.  For his part, Nobile had recognised his skill and accuracy in forecasting on the Norge expedition and felt reassured by what he now said.

So, with every member of the crew concentrating on his appointed task, they cruised on northward up the 27th meridian West of Greenwich.  Italia, with the wind on her tail, was making excellent time.  But the very existence of this tail wind made controlling the airship something of a problem.  Often the strength of two men was required at the rudder controls and constantly at the elevator controls.  With a strong wind behind her and beneath her, Italia tended to buck upward and dip downward without warning; it was necessary to be continuously on the alert to correct these movements by appropriate adjustments of the controls.

The tail wind did mean a welcome easing of the drain on fuel supplies.  Unfortunately, however, it was obviously gaining in strength.  Nobile was worried by the fact that when he turned the airship back towards her base, he would be meeting increasingly strong wind resistance.  The fuel she was saving on the outward flight would be more than counterbalanced by the excessive amount of fuel she would require on the homeward flight:  there was no escaping this hard fact.  For all Malmgren's assurances on the matter, Nobile remained a very worried man as he wrestled with the decision that he would soon have to make, while Malmgren continued imperturbably pricking out the graph of their northward flight to the Pole, almost at his elbow.

At ten-thirty that evening, just eighteen hours since leaving King's Bay, the navigator reported that the North Pole was exactly fifty-four miles to the north of them.  They had been averaging over sixty miles an hour, the fastest Italia had so far been permitted to fly.  Nobile ordered the engines to be eased, so that they could cruise the last fifty-odd miles leisurely, relishing the moment of arrival over the actual Pole.  At twenty-four minutes past midnight, twenty hours all but four minutes since they had cast off from their base, the navigating officer on duty reported to Nobile: "We're there, General!" 

Now there was to be a second ceremony.  Italia's engines were cut.  Her propellers turned for a short while slowly in the wind made by her passage through the air, and then were stilled.  Now the airship was low over the ice.  During the last twenty miles or so, they had encountered frog and they had had to lose height deliberately in order to make sure that they would see the ice field at the Pole.  Nobile reached for the oaken Cross that had been specially blessed by the Pope before the departure of the expedition.  Carefully, lovingly, he enclosed it in the folds of an Italian flag, and then leaned out through the window of the control cabin.  The ice was only 400 feet below.  The crew watched as the Cross drifted downward through the frozen air, gathering speed as the flag unwound itself during the fall.  They saw the Cross hit the ice.  A moment or two later the flag of Italy fell on the ice not far away from it.

No cheer, however, went up from those who witnessed the ceremony: it was too solemn an occasion for cheering.  But there was not one Italian member of the party who did not feel a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye.  Even the more stolid Scandinavians and the Czechoslovakian could not help feeling stirred at the significance of the historic moment which they had been privileged to share.  After a short silence, the somewhat emotional Filippo Zappi could restrain himself no longer.  "Viva Nobile!" he cried, and the cry was taken up by the other Italians as they clustered around him.  Malmgren, his old and well-tried comrade of an earlier flight, contented himself with clasping Nobile's hand and looking earnestly into his eyes.

Nobile had by now made his decision.  To the deep and understandable disappointment of the scientist members of the expedition, and hardly less to his own, he had concluded that in view of the ever-increasing strength of the wind from the southeast, Italia must immediately return to base.  She would have to set out again, when conditions were more suitable for that elaborate plan to lower the scientists in their rubber raft on to the ice for a protracted spell of observation and recording.

It certainly was a disappointment to all.  But then, as he reminded them, the flight from King's Bay had taken them no more than twenty hours.  Without that tail wind it would have taken them a little longer.  They would return and set out again, allowing themselves a little more time.  But for the present, he was not going to risk the lives of good men, and the safety of his dirigible, just to avoid cancelling a cherished scheme.  Anyway, it was not a cancellation but a postponement.  Perhaps even next week….

So, after circling the estimated position of the Pole for half an hour or so, strongly buffeted by the southeast wind each time they came broadside on to it, Nobile gave orders to steer for King's Bay.  Italia's nose was pointed south, along the 25th meridian East of Greenwich.  It was neither the meridian along which they made their approach to the Pole, nor even the most direct line of approach to Spitsbergen; but it did mean that the airship would not have to head directly into the wind.

She was brought up to a height of 3,000 feet as soon as possible.  This was in the hope of rising clear of the bank of fog that had come up astern of them and now obscured most of the enormous ice field that lay spread out beneath them to the far horizon.  There was a cross wind, strong enough to make steering difficult and strenuous; it also caused a good deal of sideways drift, so that keeping an exact estimate of direction and distance travelled presented a considerable problem.  Nobile was thankful that he had such expert navigators on board, and had complete confidence in them.

The fog thickened.  After eight hours of cruising, Nobile gave orders for Italia to be brought down so as to cruise below the fog for a change.  They dropped through the bank of fog from 3,000 feet to less than 900 feet, and the ice was clearly visible.  Though one square mile of ice field looked much like another, the crew had the curious feeling that they were safer than they had been higher up above the fog.  Even a blank expanse of ice was more of a landmark than the upper surface of a 2,000-foot-thick cloud bank stirred by the wind but never torn apart sufficiently for the ice to be sighted through it.

Sight of the ice made it possible once again to check direction and speed.  The navigator reported that they were making about twenty miles an hour - only a third of the speed they had maintained during their outward flight.  He also reported that the wind had now shifted somewhat towards the southwest, and was so strong that the airship was drifting at least eighteen degrees eastwards of their designated course.  This was grave news.  Disturbed by it,  Nobile gave instructions for extra vigilance and alertness at the controls so that this tendency to drift could be more positively counteracted.  It became clear that every mile of the flight back to King's Bay was going to have to be fought for.

He was by no means the only man on board to be worried about the effect the strong cross wind was having on Italia.  For the moment he was concerned mainly with the problem of keeping her on course in spite of the pressure on her starboard beam.  But he was not worried about the actual safety of his airship until Foreman Rigger Alessandrini came to him and announced, somewhat breathlessly, that he was anxious about the condition of some of the cross-braces of the forward part of the frame.  In his opinion, if speed was not reduced, one of the main members would almost certainly crumple under the strain.

Nobile reminded his faithful rigger than Malmgren had virtually guaranteed that the strength of the wind would soon decrease.  Alessandrini shook his head; it might well be too late, he said.  In his opinion some of the cross-members would not stand up to many more minutes, let alone hours, of this buffeting.  He left the control cabin no less worried and anxious than when he had come in to make his report.

From that time on, it seems, every member of the crew became increasingly conscious of a curious, unnatural and disturbing sense of vibration along the whole length of the keel, in the cabin and engine nacelles and on the narrow catwalks.  It was not just the faint throbbing that came from the engines; it was something more fundamental, certainly more frightening.  Nor was the forward motion of the airship as steady as it had been.  She continually lurched from side to side, like a hunted animal trying to escape a persistent enemy - as indeed she was, with the strong southwest wind truly her enemy.  At the same time she was bucketing up and down, so that one moment a crew member's feet seemed to be driving into the floor and at the next he felt temporarily suspended, weightless, as the floor fell away under him.  It was alarming.

At twenty minutes past two on the afternoon of May 24, Italia turned her nose southward from the Pole.  The strength of the wind, in spite of Malmgren's prognostications, increased with every hour.  At the same time the air temperature consistently dropped - as they discovered for themselves whenever they risked putting their noses out through a half-opened window.  Even inside, the thermometer dropped steadily.  Seven hours after leaving the Pole an entry was made in the log:  "Fog. Snow. And now - ice."

It was the last word in the entry that held most significance.  Fog they had already encountered and successfully overcome, and snow was something they had had to reckon with even on land.  Nobile still remembered the anxiety he had felt when he had had to call on his men to sweep Italia's 18,000 square feet of upper envelope clear so that she would not be crushed to death inside her own hangar.

But ice- this was something deadly serious.  The ice referred to in that entry was not the thousands of square miles of ice field far below them; it was the slow but inexorable formation of a skin of ice on the airship herself.

There was another danger, too.  During the past half-hour or so every member of the crew had heard repeated sounds as of pistol shots.  To begin with no took much notice of them;
they must be, some of hem thought, exaggerated creakings from the overstrained cross-braces about which Alessandrini had been so worried.  Or perhaps an odd rivet starting here of there under the spasmodic strains imposed upon the framework.

It was the watchful Alessandrini who identified the origin of the "pistol-shots".  Once more he reported to his commander.  This time there was even more urgency in his voice.  Pieces of ice that had frozen on to the propeller blades were being shot off as they turned, by centrifugal force, and smashing into the envelope above the engine nacelles.  The ice was quite capable of penetrating not merely the fabric of the envelope but that of the gasbags contained within it.  If these were punctured, and the hydrogen released….

Nobile gave swift order to Alessandrini to take a mechanic and a fitter and repair every rent in the fabric they could get at.  This proved to be a dangerous task.  It had to be performed in the bitter cold of an ice-bearing wind streaming past them as they worked, without any protection whatsoever except for their clothing, and subject all the time to being "shot at" by the particles of ice.  He also debated whether engine speed should be reduced so that the risk from the ice "bullets" would lessen.  That way, too, fuel would be saved.  But his navigator had reported that though Italia was maintaining an air-speed of nearly sixty miles an hour, thanks to her engines running at maximum revolutions, at an appalling consumption of fuel, her land-speed was not much more that half the figure, so strong was the wind they were having to combat.

Malmgren, however, remained confident that at any moment the strength of the wind would drop substantially.  It might even, he thought, shift until it was more astern than in face of the airship.  He actually urged Nobile to increase the revolutions, if this were possible.  Soon, he promised, they would have cleared this nightmare zone of ice and head winds and be running in easier conditions.  Unable to challenge this authority, Nobile with some reluctance ordered the motormen to step up the speed of their engines to their absolute maximum.  One man was to remain on permanent duty in each nacelle to maintain maximum performance from his charge.

But for all Malmgren' optimism, every man could see that there was no diminution in the strength of the wind with which the airship was battling.  If anything, it seemed to be on the increase.  The whole framework trembled like a living creature under the furious impact of the wind, coming as it did sometimes from directly ahead, sometimes on the port beam and more often on the starboard beam.  It caused the huge envelope to stretch on one side and temporarily crumple into folds on the other, and set the bracing wires humming on a high, strident note that could be heard even above the whistle of the wind passing through the cross-braces and the nacelle supports fore and aft.  The continuous whine, rising and falling, reaching every now and then a new crescendo and then temporarily dying, only to rise again with renewed force, took on a banshee-like quality that was quite terrifying and had the most devastating effect on the morale of the crew.

The airship's speed dropped measurably: from thirty-seven (land-speed) to thirty, and to less than that.  For hours on end, it seemed as though they were making no progress at all, though the navigators with their instruments could show that they were, small as the progress was.  But this was at a considerable cost: the swift depletion of their fuel.  On setting out, it had seemed that a total of nearly seven tons of fuel should easily see them through the outward and return flight.  But a wind strong enough to halve the airship's forward speed meant that for every gallon of fuel used another gallon was virtually thrown away.  After twelve hours of battling with this ever-increasing head wind, which at times blew with almost hurricane force, not one member of Nobile's company could look at another without the dark shadow of doubt, even fear, clouding his gaze.

Throughout more than twelve hours from the time they left the Pole, every man aboard Italia was fighting in one way or another to assist her to maintain course for King's Bay.  The course, as it was set out on the chart in the control cabin, was a hopeless zigzag which showed how she had veered first to one side and then to the other.  There was not one straight line.

The men at the controls were exhausted with battling against the kick of the wheel.  Nobile supplied reliefs for short spells, even taking a trick or two at the controls himself.  It was Zappi and Mariano who bore the full brunt of the ordeal, though Malmgren relieved one or other of them from time to time.  The thought nagged at him that it was on the basis of his positive assurance that Nobile had decided to set course southward into the teeth of a gale that seemed determined not to abate.  It was a rare experience for him to find that his forecasts proved inaccurate; and here they had been of vital importance.

Anxiety spread throughout the airship's company that there should still be no sign of land on the south horizon.  Surely form this altitude, they told themselves, they should have been able to descry a hint of land: either the mainland of Spitsbergen or at least one of the several islands that lay off its north coast.  They peered out for'ard, screening their eyes, striving to pierce the poor visibility in the hope of being the first to announce the glad tidings that their destination was at last in sight.

At seven o'clock in the morning, after more than sixteen hours of battling against the mounting gale, there was still no land in sight.  This was all the more strange in view of the fact that they were now travelling on an almost direct route, whereas they had approached the Pole, deliberately, by a circuitous route via Greenland, and reached it in less than twenty hours.  It was not only a strange fact but an alarming one.

But even this was nothing compared to the alarm that went up at twenty-five minutes past nine that morning.  Nobile was standing beside the radio operator's desk, listening for any information that might be received by Biagi and give them a "fix" on their present position, when he heard a voice yell out, "The elevator-wheel is jammed!"

It was the voice of Felice Trojani, who for the past hour had been at eh elevator control.  Nobile darted across to him and tried to help him as he wrestled to free them.  While the elevator was jammed, anything could happen to the airship and it would be impossible to compensate for any upward thrust she might receive at the stern end of her keel.  A sudden lift there, and she would plunge nose down on to the ice below.  The situation was all the more grave since at the time she was flying at a mere 750 feet above the ice and being driven forward with her three engines at maximum revolutions.

Swiftly, Nobile ordered all engines to be stopped.  But by the time they had run to a standstill, Italia was little more than 200 feet above the ice.  However, she poised there on an even keel, and Nobile knew that her buoyancy would maintain her at that height, while her engines were shut off, at least until the control cable was freed and the engines could be set in motion again.  True, she would drift astern in the wind, and that length of drift would have to be made good; but that was better than being forced nose downward on to the ice.  As an extra precaution, however, he gave orders for the heavy ballast chain to be paid out.  Then, if a real emergency were to arise, it could be instantly released and the airship would thus gain the necessary extra lift.  

It was young Alfredo Viglieri who came to the rescue.  By a stoke of luck, or inspiration, he contrived to release the elevator control with a sideways blow from a light hammer.  The mechanism had been jammed by a formation of ice that no one had noticed, and the hammer blow chipped it off just where it mattered, and the wheel spun free.  Nobile ordered the airship's nose to be tilted upwards and two of her engines to be restarted, so that she would rise steadily form this hazardous position.  The third engine, he said, was to be held in reserve.

The plan succeeded.  Italia rose steadily.  Chief Engineer Arduino watched the instruments keenly, with Nobile at his side and his mechanics alert for any new orders.  The airship was back in the bank of fog, but still she rose steadily.  At 2,700 feet she had cleared the fog and was once again riding in clear air under a sky of brilliant blue.  Mariano and Zappi seized the opportunity to make observations for entry in the airship's log.

Nobile told a technician to check the gas valves.  He was disturbed to find that the pressure was higher than was safe in view of the fact that there was now very little ballast available for emergency use.  Reluctantly, he gave orders for altitude to be decreased from the 3,300 feet to which Italia had now climbed.  At that height, and with a bank of fog below them, it was not possible to check drift; and it was this lateral drift that had worried him, ever since they had set off on their return flight from the Pole.

So, slowly, cautiously, Italia nosed her way down through the fog bank.  From 3,300 feet to 2,500 feet; from 2,500 feet to 1,500 feet; then down to less than 1,000 feet.  They were again underneath the bank of cloud.  The limitless expanse of ice field stretched in all directions below them.  The altimeter read exactly 900 feet.

It was ten o'clock on the morning of May 25.  All seemed well again.  With two of her engines running, Italia was heading on a southeasterly course into a cross wind that had decreased a little so that her sideways drift was less pronounced that it had been.  Zappi reported that they were making almost exactly thirty miles an hour, land-speed; this was vey much better than they had been doing for some time past. At this rate, Nobile thought….  It was certainly a thought shared by every member of his company.

King's Bay, Spitsbergen, their longed-for destination, seemed almost within hail; though they still could not see it, soon, surely, they would be there.  Observation of their present position suggested a straight-line distance of about 180 miles.  At thirty miles an hour that meant only six more hours' flying time.  Allow for drift, for a possible increase in wind-resistance (though Malmgren was positive that this would not take place), and it might be eight hours flying rather than six.  Even then, with luck they should be mooring Italia not much later than six o'clock that evening.

Nobile was at the chart table in the control cabin.  With him were Mariano and Viglieri, checking speed measurements.  Professor Behounek was close by, working on his instruments.  Caratti and Ciocca were in the port and starboard engine nacelles, nursing their engines.  Pomella was in the stern engine nacelle, awaiting orders to start up his engine when necessary.  Use of the third engine depended on a report from Alessandrini on the level of fuel in the tanks.  Arduino was on duty on the gangway which provided access to all three engines, to the control cabin and to the forward and aft gas valves.  Alessandrini was dividing his time between the gas valves and checking the levels of the fuel tanks.  The first was the more important task, for with most of their ballast reserves now lost, manipulation of these valves was an essential factor in controlling the level of the airship.

Cecioni was at the elevator controls.  Just before half-past eleven he startled Nobile by calling out, "We are down by the stern!"  Had he called out, "We are down by the nose!" that would have been alarming enough; but to be down by the stern was even more serious.  It is one thing to tilt and airship's nose downward by a spin of the elevator wheel; it is quite another to "lift" her by operating the controls in the reverse direction.  Cecioni was well aware of this; and so was Nobile.

At this time Italia was little more than 600 feet above the ice field.  But she was not steady at that height.  Careful observation revealed that she was losing height, even though her nose was pointed steeply upwards, at a rate of two feet per second of forward flight.

Nobile gave the orders for the third engine to be started instantly.  Pomella, who had been alert in the stern nacelle for the past half hour for just such an emergency order, had started up his engine almost before the order reached his ears.  The airship hummed and thrummed with the vibration caused by all her engines turning at maximum revolutions.  The crew became conscious of an increase in forward speed.  The eight-degree tilt of the airship's nose was increased to one of more than fifteen degrees as Cecioni, at Nobile's orders, spun the elevator wheel.  In spite of this, they all realised with horror that the airship was still steadily losing height.  What was more, she was losing height more rapidly than she had been when Cecioni first cried out from his post.

Alessandrini was sent skimming aloft to inspect the gas valves.  It was possible that one of these, the stern one, had failed, or had been damaged in some unexpected fashion, and had been permitting gas to escape from the aft gasbag.  There seemed no other explanation for Italia's being down but he stern and sinking fast in spite of the forward speed her three engines were giving her.

Even as he ordered Alessandrini aloft to check the valves,  Nobile realised in a flash that his airship was doomed.  She must crash; and in a matter of minutes at most.  He glanced down through the control cabin window.  The ice field that had not so long ago been several hundred feet below them, an apparently level stretch of frozen sea, revealed itself as a hummocky, ice rubble-strewn wasteland not 900, not 600, not 300, not 100 feet below them but closer even than that.

"Stop all engines!" he yelled.  His idea was that, since he knew Italia was bound to crash, there would be less risk of fire and explosion it the engines were switched off.  But with the switching off of the engines all forward speed was immediately lost; neither rudders nor elevators responded to the controls.  Italia was completely helpless.

"Throw out the ballast-chain!" Nobile shouted,  Cecioni was already trying to do this, as a last desperate attempt to slow up the airship's rate of descent.  But the cable retaining the chain had jammed.  He tore his fingers to the bone in his attempts to release it before it was too late.

The ice field seemed to be rising with ever-increasing swiftness towards those who were leaning out of the control cabin, helpless now to avert the airship's remorseless descent.  The after engine nacelle was within thirty feet, twenty feet of the ice.  The airship's nose was tilted at an impossible angle upward into the sky, and at the same time swinging sideways under the pressure of the cross wind that had been their bitter enemy ever since they had begun their southward journey.

Malmgren spun the wheel of the useless rudder feverishly, in the forlorn hope that he could steer the airship during her last seconds in the air towards a patch of one less hummocky and treacherous-looking than the rest.  But she had no steering way on her whatsoever; she was completely at the mercy of the buffeting wind.  As though echoing his unspoken words, Zappi called out from the elevator control which he had taken one from Cecioni: "The wheel is dead!"

In less time than it takes to write the words, Italia crashed.  It was three minutes after ten-thirty.  In the last few seconds the ice had seemed to rush upwards at express-train speed, its jagged teeth reaching for their expected prey.  Through the window of the control cabin Nobile bought a glimpse of Pomella, in the stern nacelle, covering his face with his arms to protect himself from the impending impact.  Even as he caught that glimpse, he was hit violently on the side of the head.  At the same moment he was conscious of enormous pressure on his legs and arms and chest, followed by excruciating pain.  He heard a loud "snap!" but could not tell where the sound came from.  He knew, though, that he heard it at the exact moment that his whole body experienced an agonising pain.  Then, mercifully, he blacked out.