Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.10: Planes in the Sky.

On the same day that Captain Sora, Van Dongen and Warning started out with their sledge to try to make contact with the castaways, one of the most famous of all living explorers arrived at Tromso, in northern Norway, to take part in the search.  He was none other than the veteran Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.

He had already had half a lifetime of polar experience.  At the age of twenty-five he was exploring the Antarctic.  A few years later, he had transferred his attention to the Arctic, and also made the perilous navigation of the dread North West Passage.  Then he returned to his first love, the Antarctic, in the famous three-masted schooner, Fram, now preserved at Bygdoy, near Oslo.  In 1911, he succeeded in reaching the South Pole.  Fifteen years later he accompanied Nobile aboard Norge, across the North Pole to Alaska.  He had thus had experience of polar exploration by land, sea and air.  Though he had quarrelled with Nobile, when the new reached him that the Italian and his party were marooned on the ice somewhere to the south of the Pole he was among the first to volunteer to go in search of him, the quarrel entirely forgotten.

He obtained the financial backing of a wealthy American, Lincoln Ellsworth, who had been a passenger on board Norge in 1926.  With this he chartered a big French Latham-47 hydroplane capable of carrying up to six persons.  With a French pilot and co-pilot, a radio officer and a mechanic, he set off to fly direct from France to the northern tip of Scandinavia and then, after refuelling, straight across the Barents Sea in search of the castaways.  He was then a man in his late fifties, the proud bearer of the title his fellow Norwegians had bestowed on him, "White Eagle of Norway".

It might be thought that, with such an experienced polar explorer as Roald Amundsen, success would have been swift if not immediate.  Actually, the last that was seen of the big hydroplane was when it headed out across the Barents Sea from the northern tip of Norway.  The lookout in a small whaler glanced up as its shadow passed over him, and waved.  The plane vanished over the northern horizon.  Rather surprisingly it was equipped with a very inferior radio transmitter.  Perhaps as a result, no messages were intercepted by any of the many radio operators on the alert at the time for messages from the Red Tent and other search parties.

We shall never know whether Amundsen and his party spotted either the tent, or Zappi and Mariano heading south on their lonely trek, or even the gallant three-man northward trek by Sora, Warning and Van Dongen.  Within less than a week the fact had to be accepted at the base, and farther afield in France, where the crew came from, and in Norway, where Amundsen came from, that the Latham-47 had run into trouble and must be presumed lost.  It had not been provisioned for a lengthy stay on the ice in the event of it being forced down.  In Norway and in France concern was quickly transferred from the question of the Italia's survivors to the plight of Amundsen and his companions.

For ten weeks nothing was seen or heard of the hydroplane or its occupants.  All hope of their having survived was abandoned.  Men speculated endlessly: the Latham-47 was well equipped for coming down on to any ice lead wide enough for its floats.  It was sufficiently strongly built to be able to come down on open water, and to survive even it the water was quite rough.  It could even stand up to a forced landing on ice, if the landing was not too abrupt.  What had happened to it?  Speculators could only conclude that there had been engine failure.  The plane had only one engine, though it drove two propellers, a "pusher" and a "puller" geared together.  A too rapid decent on to broken ice could have caused the plane to disintegrate, killing everyone on board.

Only one sign of the lost seaplane ever came to light.  A crew member of a small whaler fishing off the northwest coast of Norway spotted what looked like a barrel floating in the sea.  He reported this to the captain, who ordered the steersman to head for it.  They hauled in a seven-foot-long metal float, painted grey-blue.  This was later identified as having been one of the two wing-tip floats of the ill-fated Latham-47.  It was not dented.  This suggested that the seaplane had come down on water, not on land or ice.  The impact, obviously, had wrenched it off its mounting.  This indicated that the seaplane had made a forced landing, probably out of control.  In that case it would almost certainly have sunk.  Its crew, even if they could have escaped from the fuselage in time, would inevitably have perished of exposure, if they had not drowned.  The certainty of disaster was now established; the White Eagle of Norway had died in his gallant attempt to rescue the man he had quarrelled with two years before.

Apart from the Italia's disaster, the disappearance of Amundsen's plane with all its crew was the worst of the air disasters that resulted from this whole rescue operation; but it was not the only instance of a plane finding itself in difficulties.

On June 23 the Swede, Lieutenant Einar-Paal Lundborg, airlifted General Nobile and his terrier from the Red Tent and safely returned them to base.  There the injured man was carefully taken off the plane and carried indoors to be given, for the first time for exactly a month, the comfort, warmth and medical attention he so badly needed.  But before allowing himself to be taken away for treatment, he extracted a promise from the pilot of the Fokker that he would lose no time in returning to the site and taking off Cecioni, the other injured man, and then as quickly as possible, the remaining four members of the marooned party.  Lundborg assured him that he would do this as soon as he had snatched an hour or two of sleep while his plane was refuelling.  Nobile, still deeply distressed that he had had to agree to be taken off first instead of last, as he had planned, resigned himself to the inevitable.  He consoled himself with the thought that it would not be long before the whole party was reunited.

He was drifting off into an uneasy sleep and hour of two later when he heard the sound of the plane's engine starting up again.  So, Lundborg was on his way!  He lay there, somnolent, imagining the happy moment when, an hour or two later, the Fokker would touch down on the landing strip laid out for it;  and the even happier moment when he heard the plane return to base with Cecioni on board.

Six hours after he had taken off from the landing strip with Nobile on board Lieutenant Lundborg was approaching it for the second time.  The sound of his engine roused the five men in the tent.  They had been counting not just the hours but even the minutes until they should see the plane again.  An one, they scrambled out of the tent.  Cecioni dragged himself to the open doorway and twisted around the outside of the tent so as to be able to look up in the direction in which the others were now pointing.

Lundborg's small Fokker began to descend, circling the tent as though to get its bearings.  They knew he would have little difficulty, for he had already landed once, not many hour previously, and the landing ground was clearly marked out with the bright red parachutes.  Yet, as they watched, it seemed to them that he was making a very curious approach.  For one thing, if he was intending to touch down right away he was travelling much too fast.  Viglieri, who was in charge, was greatly worried: he felt sure that the pilot badly misjudging both his distance and his speed.  The thought occurred to him that it might not be Lundborg at all, although it was certainly the same Fokker military plane, with the three crowns inset in a white circle painted on the fuselage and the bold figure, 31.  Perhaps it was some replacement pilot, who had not understood Lundborg's instructions before leaving the base.

Then, to their horror, the plane's skis made contact with the ice.  Horror because, instead of doing so at the very beginning of the runway the skis made contact more than half way along it.  The plane skidded along the remainder of the runway, bumping and bouncing on the rough ice but, for the time being remaining on a fairly even keel.  But beyond the runway, beyond the last pair of marker flags, there was a hummock of ice four or five feet high.  As though determined to wreck herself, the Fokker headed directly towards it.  Though her engine had been switched off, she still had considerable momentum.  She hit the hummock fair and square.  Her nose crumpled against it; he tail lifted so that she turned a complete somersault and came to rest upside down with her tail high in the air.

Viglieri and Biagi, Behounek and Trojani raced from the tent to the scene of the crash.  There was a chance that the plane might catch fire and her pilot be trapped and burned to death.  As they came closer they saw a trickle of oil spill down the side of the fuselage; but there were no flames.  A moment later the pilot extricated himself and dropped down on the ice.  He was helped to his feet by Viglieri and Biagi, the first to arrive; but his legs crumpled again under him when they let go their hold on his arms.  His head waved uncertainly from side to side as though he was dazed.  He might well be.  Perhaps he had struck it on some part of the cockpit as the plane turned upside down.  He spoke thickly, his voice slurred, and they had difficulty in understanding him. But it was Lundborg all right.

By the time they reached the tent with him, Behounek at least knew what the matter was: he had obviously been drinking.  His breath smelt foully of alcohol.  How he had managed to pilot the plane from base to the camp site was a mystery.  But he did get there; and was a castaway himself, for the plane was obviously a complete wreck.  Again there were six men in the tent.

It took all Viglieri's power of command to prevent his companions from wreaking their wrath on the man who could have rescued them one at a time but who, having taken too much liquor, had become a helpless victim of circumstances like themselves.  Biagi radioed the news back to base.  Nobile, who had reckoned that within hours he would see the first of his companions returned by air from the Red Tent, fell, perhaps for the first time, into the bitterness of real despair.

June passed into July.  The weather over the Arctic deteriorated rapidly and unexpectedly.  Biagi radioed, not for the first time, that their situation was becoming desperate.  The ice floe on which the tent was standing was steadily breaking up; they had had to shift camp several times.  Trojani was sick with some mysterious complaint that they were unable to diagnose and for which there was not a sufficient variety of medicines to cure by experiment.

Biagi himself, who had been so fit and had been a giant of reliability all these weeks, was feverish and unsteady on his feet.  Viglieri was concerned for him even more then for Trojani, for he was the one expert left in the party, the man they had come to regard as indispensable.  Nobile was aware of this when he had arranged that Biagi was to be the last man taken off the ice apart from himself.  The other sick man was the newcomer, Lundborg.  But Viglieri suspected that his sickness was more moral than physical; after a week in the tent, he had come to his senses sufficiently to realise that it was his fault that they were still marooned and in such a plight.

The only note of hope that reached them was a message to the effect that a Russian icebreaker, with a plane on board, had left the port of Bergen on her way north to join in the search.  Also, one Swedish hydroplane and two Italian ones were standing in readiness to join in as soon as the deteriorating weather made it possible.  The occupants of the Red Tent, the message emphasised, must try to be patient.  Everything was being done to rescue them as speedily as possible.  The men looked at each other grimly; they had received all too many massages of this kind already; they would believe in their rescuers when they actually saw them.

On July 6, the six men were sleeping fitfully in the tent when the sound of a plane was heard.  As so often before, they scrambled out on the ice, craning their necks in the direction of the sound.  To their delight it was evident that the plane was not merely, like some of its predecessors, about to drop supplies, but was preparing to land.  It was a very small plane, smaller than any they had seen before.  Lundborg identified it as a British Moth.

The pilot made a remarkably good landing, and the six men rushed across the ice to greet him.  As he stepped out of the cockpit they recognised him at once as Lieutenant Schyberg, who had been Lundborg's co-pilot on his first flight, when they had taken off Nobile.  Lundborg greeted him warmly, wringing his hand, an inquiring look in his eye.  There was a rapid exchange of words between the two men, none of which were comprehensible to the Italians.  Then briefly, with hardly as much as a glance at the remainder of the party, Schyberg announced that he had come with orders to take Lundborg back to base.  He added briefly, as though it hardly mattered, that the Moth was too small a plane to accommodate a second passenger.

Angrily, Viglieri tried to pin him down.  What, he asked, was the position back at base?  What planes were being prepared for the expected airlift?  How much longer did he and his four companions, one of them badly injured, two others very sick, all of them suffering from their six weeks' ordeal on the ice, have to wait?

Schyberg was a man of few words.  He was possibly under orders to give to information.  It was rather from his attitude, from what he did not say, that the forlorn group of five frustrated men realised that their ultimate rescue was by no means as near as they had believed it to be.  In silence they watched Lundborg scramble aboard the plane.  It was ironic that he, of all people, should be the one to be taken back to base.  None of them waved as the small plane took off, circled the Red Tent once more, and headed back southward to vanish over the horizon they had scanned so often, so despairingly.  They knew that it was no use pinning their hopes on a return visit from Lundborg or Schyberg.

There was another plane in the air about this time, commissioned to search for, locate and, if possible, rescue the men marooned on the ice: the group of five in the Red Tent; Mariano and Zappi, somewhere to the south of the point at which they had had to abandon Malmgren; and Sora with Van Dongen, somewhere to the north of the point where they had had to abandon Warning, the unlucky Dane.  This plane was the big three-engined German Junkers, piloted by Boris Chuckhnovsky, a young airman who had already had a good deal of experience of flying in Arctic conditions and was an engineer as well.

His plane had not, like the others, had been land-based but had been loaded aboard the Russian icebreaker Krassin, to be taken as for north as possible by sea before being despatched accoss the ice.  On July 6 - the day Schyberg landed his Moth alongside the Red Tent and took off Lieutenant Lundborg - Chuckhnovsky decided that the icebreaker had taken him far enough north into the region of pack ice for him to make a preliminary reconnaissance in search of the castaways.  With the assistance of the ship's carpenter he opened the huge crate in which, for safety's sake, the plane had been stored on the icebreakers deck.  Then, with the help of his crew, all experts, he began checking the plane.  Meanwhile the carpenter organised a timber slipway on which to slide the plane down on the ice for assembly of its wings preparatory to take-off.  The wingspan was too great for the plane to be completely assembled on deck.

After many hours of hard work, the plane was lowered down the slipway and manhandled onto a suitable patch of ice.  There its wheels were replaced by skis.  By July 8, three days after the collapse of Van Dongen, when Sora had given up the attempt to march any farther and had settled down with his companion to await what seemed almost certain death, the plane was at last ready to take to the air.

Chuckhnovsky was the pilot.  He had with him a co-pilot named Straube, an observer named Alexiew, a mechanic named Schellagen and, rather surprisingly, since even in a big three-engined Junkers space was limited and should surely have been reserved for taking off marooned men, a cameraman.

The plane lumbered off on its specially fitted skis across the rough ice.  The intention was to make a preliminary flight, to check the condition of the ice in the area, partly for the benefit of the icebreaker, partly because the essential object of the search was to locate and organise the rescue of the castaways.  It was only a brief flight.  Within an hour or two the plane returned and touched down safely close alongside Krassin.  Chuckhnovsky reported that he had seen nothing at all of any castaways during the flight; he had, however, made detailed notes as to the number, size and direction of sea lanes in the ice field generally.

Then fog closed in again.  For two days it was not possible for the plane to take off.  Even if it had been able to do so, it would have been impossible to spot any of the castaways on the ice though such a thickness of low cloud.  Chuckhnovsky and his crew waited impatiently on board the icebreaker of the moment when they could set off again.  On July 10 the fog had lifted sufficiently for them to feel that a second attempt might hold promise of success.

The Junkers was loaded with as many supplies of various kinds as the pilot thought it would be safe to carry.  They were destined for the occupants of the Red Tent, and for either or both of the smaller marooned parties.  It was a provision that was to prove very fortunate for Chuckhnovsky's own party.  Then, for the second time the plane was manhandled into position for take-off.  The clear sky seemed to be beckoning them.  Chuckhnovsky gave the signal to his ground crew and the plane lifted into the air.  It was five o'clock.

Krassin's radio operator had his earphones clamped to his head: he had instructions to remain on constant duty until relieved.  At any moment a message might be flashed to him that he plane had sighted one of the groups of castaways, and immediate action might be called for.  There was also, of course, the chance that the plane itself might meet with trouble: ater all, Amundsen's plane had vanished without a trace three weeks before and had not been heard from since.  The fact had been casually mentioned to Chuckhnovsky shortly before he climbed into his pilot's seat, but he had cheerfully brushed the reminder aside.  He had absolute confidence that he was to be the man to locate the marooned men and return safely to base to make arrangements for their rescue, even if he did not accomplish it himself.

At six o'clock, an hour after he had left the icebreaker, Chuckhnovsky radioed back that he still had not seen a sign of any of the parties he was looking for.  A quarter of an hour later he radioed that a fog bank was building up and that he had reluctantly decided to turn back while there was till fair visibility.  Those on board Krassin did not need to be told about the fog.  It was already lying all about them, thickening with the passing of every quarter of an hour, and visibility from the icebreaker was less than a couple of hundred feet.

Then, suddenly, the radio operator was startled to hear an excited, staccato message.  He caught the two words "King Charles".  There was a gap.  Then two more words: "Malmgren's party".  That seemed to be all.  He was about to remove his headphones and shout to someone to take his message when he heard the beginning of something else.  He snatched at his pencil and pad and began to scribble the words as they came in.

It was a dramatic message: "Have located Malmgren party… Cannot locate Krassin, owing to fog.  Am attempting to land."  Strain his ears as he might, the radio operator heard nothing more.  His instrument had gone dead.  Everyone on board Krassin became increasingly filled with anxiety.  If Chuckhnovsky could radio what he intended to do, then surely, they thought, he could tell them that he had done it.  Since there had been no further message, they could only assume that he had crash-landed his Junkers and damaged his transmitter.  And perhaps - but the thought was too terrible to entertain - in crash-landing he and his crew had been killed.

The evening aboard the icebreaker dragged interminably.  The crew continued to speculate as to what could have happened, coming up with one suggestion after another, none of them at all convincing.  The basic fact remained that they had lost touch with the plane and her crew.  The radio operator remained steadfastly at his post, alert for any hint of a message coming through, refusing relief even to eat a meal.  He would snatch a mouthful of two as he sat at his instrument; that was all.

Then, shortly before midnight, his instrument came alive again.  Automatically he picked up his pencil, poising it for the first words that would follow the faint sound indicating that transmission was about to begin.  He picked up a very brief message; but it brought supreme reassurance to him, the Captain and the crew.  "We have landed… Uncertain exact position… Plane damaged… We are uninjured."

All, then, was well with Chuckhnovsky and his party.  But had they been successful in sighting those whom they had set out to locate?  The radio operator had the strong feeling that they were having difficulty with their transmitter, for the brief message had been staccato, halting, and so incomplete.  He knew that Schellagen, the radio mechanic, was a qualified engineer; with luck he would be able to get the transmitter into better working order.  In any case he would not leave his post - just in case further messages came in.

His patience was rewarded.  In the small hours of the morning messages began to flow once more, and to flow more certainly, and more strongly.  The occupants of the plane had sighted Malmgren's party, and were able to give their exact position.  In addition to giving the co-ordinates, Chuckhnovsky had assessed the men's predicament.  They were on a smallish ice floe, with wide leads all around them, so that they could not possibly escape.  He had dropped supplies to them, but each time the packages had landed wide of the mark and been lost in the water.  He had the impression that the men were in a very bad way.  They seemed to have no strength left.  There were two of them together.  A third man - at least, he thought it was a man - was located some distance to the north of the other two.  He had made no movement at all.  The general feeling aboard the plane was that he was dead.

The last part of the radioed message was simple and straight-forward.  They themselves had sufficient supplies to survive in their grounded plane for two weeks at least, probably more, and could therefore be ignored for the time being.  the all-important thing was for a rescue party to push through, or across, the ice to reach the two men before it was too late.  As for the so-called Red Tent, Chuckhnovsky reluctantly reported that the had seen no sign of it.  He could not help wondering whether the ice floe had broken up under it and the tent and its occupants had been lost.  There were so many sea lanes intersecting the ice that this seemed more than a mere possibility.


saradwyn3 said...

oh man, this is turning into a real cluster...

Outa-Spaceman said...

"just when you think things can't possibly get any worse..."