Friday, March 31, 2023

ROMA: A Forgotten Local Tragedy (Part 2)

Sgt. Marion “Jethro” Beall standing with one of ROMA’s engines on a test block. (U.S. Air Force photo)
This is the second in a three-part series. To read the first part published on Nov. 15, 2021, please click here. -Ed.
Nancy Sheppard is also a professional historian that specializes in Hampton Roads and aviation history. She has researched, written, and lectured extensively on the subject of the dirigible ROMA disaster and is considered the leading academic authority on this subject. -Ed.

LANGLEY FIELD — At the time of its first flight on Nov. 15, 1921, the U.S. Army semi-rigid dirigible, the second-hand acquired, Italian-built, and aptly named, ROMA, was the largest airship in the American fleet. At that time, it was a race to see which air technology would prevail: the heavier-than-air (planes) or the lighter-than-air (dirigibles). ROMA was thought to be the promise of a new dawn for American aviation but what began as a new hope ended in a disaster that went down in history as the single deadliest disaster of a U.S. hydrogen airship.

Winter of 1921

ROMA‘s first flight in the United States took place from Langley Field in Hampton on Nov. 15, 1921. Though this flight wasn’t without incident, it was still hailed a success. To see the silvery behemoth flying above the Tidewater was a sight to behold for local residents.

Following the first flight, it was time to officially bring ROMA into the American fleet. An elaborate christening ceremony was finally scheduled for Dec. 21, 1921.

As is expected in the weather variations of the Mid-Atlantic, cold temperatures descended upon southern Virginia. ROMA‘s crew was particularly concerned as the 12-cylinder Italian Ansaldo engines tended to run oily; a concern for freezing while in flight.

Normally filled with hydrogen gas, the ROMA’s gas bag was filled with air to allow workmen to repair any leaks. (U.S. Air Force photo)

By Dec. 21, the original ceremony was abbreviated to a simple ceremony at Bolling Field in Washington D.C. when temperatures in the Nation’s Capital began dipping into freezing. The guests waited patiently in the cold, looking to the skies for ROMA; but she was nowhere to be seen. Search planes were sent out to find the wayward dirigible but her whereabouts were still a mystery.

Finally, a few hours after she was originally set for arrival, ROMA broke through the gray December clouds. She was shimmying from side-to-side; moving wildly erratic. Ironically, the halyard that held the American flag to her box-kite, triplane rudder had snapped and the flag was hanging upside-down; an international sign of distress.

Grounds crew rushed to grab the ropes dropped from the ship and struggled to pull ROMA to the ground. Once she was finally moored, ROMA‘s commanding officer, Major John G. Thornell reported that, mid-air, four of the six engines froze and ceased. After some boiling water encouragement from one of his engineers, they managed to revive one of the four but arrived on only half the engines still functioning.

The ceremony, though abbreviated, was not without event. While representatives from the United States and Italy pontificated over ROMA‘s symbolism of the enduring friendship between the two nations, the tired dirigible was caught in a gust of wind; rolling her to her side. Tears were torn in the thin, deteriorating silk-cotton bag and repairs had to be made.

Recently retired U.S. Navy Lt. Clifford Tinker, a former public affairs officer and advocate of the use of helium in airships after witnessing the catastrophic death toll of the British-built R38/ZR-2 rigid dirigible, watched the entire affair unfold and used the argument to his advantage as to the dangers of using hydrogen as the inhalation gas for the ships.

That night, ROMA limped into Langley Field with only one of six engines still operating. After the somewhat embarrassing spectacle at Bolling Field, attention was drawn away from the deteriorating gasbag and use of hydrogen and, instead, focus was placed upon replacing the Ansaldo engines with refitted Liberty V-12s.

New Engines

Following the somewhat disastrous christening ceremony at Bolling Field, ROMA was grounded for several months. Major John G. Thornell was slated to change stations to Washington D.C. but received permission from the Army to stay as an observer for the upcoming February 21, 1922 flight. His second in command, Capt. Dale Mabry of Tampa, Fla. was promoted to commanding officer of ROMA.

Capt. Mabry issued a request for a new gas bag, knowing the fragile state she currently was in. While the War Department obliged, the six-month lead time to create, let alone ship, the bag from Italy was entirely too long to ROMA from flying. The department instructed Capt. Mabry to get her in the air as soon as the new engines were ready.

Sgt. Marion “Jethro” Beall standing with one of ROMA’s engines on a test block. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Many of the enlisted crewmen were more than wary of the ship, with some coming together in creating the rather tongue-in-cheek club named, “The Graveyards’ Club.” Sgt. Marion “Jethro” Beall wrote to several friends, telling them how he was advocating to be transferred off the ship as he predicted it was destined to go down one day. However, the Army couldn’t let the best and brightest they had off duty from ROMA.

Not long after the new year, civilian engineers from McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio arrived to Langley with six, twelve-cylinder Liberty V-12 engines. These engines had many benefits to them including that they were lighter and faster than the Ansaldos that ROMA flew with.

After training the crew on the refitted engines and installing them aboard ROMA, the trial flight was scheduled to test how ROMA would perform. Walter McNair, a physicist from the Bureau of Standards, arrived to fly onboard to test the speed of the new engines. The day of the trial flight held so much promise.

February 21, 1922

The night before the trial flight was scheduled to commence, all of the officers, crew, and their loved ones gathered at Langley Field’s Officers’ Club. There they regaled of tales of their previous flights and, with a stalwart sense of carpe diem and an unflappable conviction that ROMA was a safe ship, the officers engaged in merriment. Meanwhile, the timbre was slightly less convinced amongst the crewmen.

With destiny set in motion to bring them all together to possibly make history the next morning, Sgt. Virgil Hoffman danced with his fiancée, Phoebus-native Stella Hoover, and his fellow crewmen gathered round to toast the unknown of the next day.

The next morning, the forty-five men slated to board ROMA were met with windy, overcast conditions with the heavily clouded sky threatening cold drizzle in the February morn. As everyone gathered at ROMA‘s hangar, Capt. Mabry wasn’t even sure if his men would be able to fly that day. Still, the crew prepared ROMA for flight, all feeling a collective apprehension for the flying conditions.

At lunchtime, Capt. Mabry dismissed his men temporarily while he assessed the conditions. Corporal Irbey Hevron turned to his friend, Cpl. Nathan Curro, a nonflying member of the crew and, half jokingly said, “If something happens to me, you take me home.” Cpl. Curro agreed to his friend’s request.

When everyone returned to the hangar, the sky had cleared enough to let the flight move forth that day.

No one could have predicted what would happen just a short time later.

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