ROMA: A Forgotten Local Tragedy (Part 1)

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ROMA makes its first flight in the United States at Langley Field, Va., on Nov. 15, 1921. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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 (Va.) — The early twentieth century was a time defined by innovation, change and imagination. In the first two decades following the Wright Brothers first controlled flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C. saw rapid aerial development across the globe with birdmen (the nickname for aviators) ascending to the heavens in ways that once seemed the stuff of fiction.

In those decades, there was also the great debate as to what type of aviation technology would prevail: the planes or the airships. Like all eras of new technology, the Age of Early Aviation was pockmarked with tragedy with none so great on American soil as that of the disaster of the U.S. hydrogen airship, ROMA.

Heavier-than-Air versus Lighter-than-Air

To understand this early era of aviation, it is important to be familiar with the race to which technology would prevail.

“Heavier-than-Air” is a phrase used to refer to craft that relied on controlled lift, or, airplanes. The thing is with planes of this period, while they were fast and had a high ceiling (maximum altitude), they were not practical outside of combat and joy flying. They had a small payload limit (or weight) and, therefore, could not carry more than two people and definitely not any cargo/munitions.

The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” planes were used to train many heavier-than-air pilots during World War I (Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, “Lighter-than-Air” referred to crafts that relied on static lift, or, the airships. While these are not commonplace today and the idea of them is something out of a steampunk fantasy, these were a very practical and very real solution for the purposes of carrying a higher volume of people and cargo for long distances. The tradeoff? Lift at this time was reliant upon light gasses. Up until mid-1922, American airships used hydrogen as that lifting gas.

In retrospect, it seems absurd that such a volatile gas would be used but, at that time, the risk was worth it. After all, at one point during World War I, the shelf life of a heavier-than-air pilot was only two weeks. When hydrogen was properly monitored under and was used under the right conditions, it was actually quite safer than flying one of the early biplanes or triplanes. But the key to remember here is: right conditions.

Following World War I, the Rhineland was stripped of its aerial assets and the victors began studying the rapid innovations made in aviation technology by the former enemy. Airships were among the technologies that the Allies were clambering to use as their own.

Airships in the Sky

As previously noted, airships had many practical purposes. They could carry a larger number of people, cargo, engage in reconnaissance, and stay aloft longer than planes. One U.S. Navy admiral predicted that these crafts would someday take the place of the newly-introduced aircraft carriers.

The U.S. Navy was charged with developing a rigid airship program. Rigid airships are those that most think of with the behemoths such as the later Hindenburg-class (which were close to 1,000 feet long). These ships were massive with a skeletal structure that maintained the shape and integrity of the various passenger compartments as well as the gasbag itself.

The U.S. Navy’s nonrigid airship, C-7, was the first U.S. airship to fly using helium (Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army was left with just the nonrigid ships. These ships were significantly smaller than their rigid counterparts. For instance, the C-Class nonrigid airships were less than 200 feet long. They could only carry a small crew compliment and were primarily used for reconnaissance purposes. However, the U.S. Army wanted more; they wanted a large airship of their own.

When the U.S. Navy passed over on purchasing a secondhand semi-rigid dirigible from Italy, the aptly-named ROMA, the Army jumped at the opportunity to prove its worth in the use of a larger airship.

ROMA

Umberto Nobile was a visionary. Taking notes from other Italian as well as French airship engineers, he developed a new, semi-rigid dirigible that was meant to combine the best of the rigid and nonrigid airship technologies. In that was born ROMA.

She was originally developed for the Italians use during World War I, but when she wasn’t completed until after the Armistice, Italy needed to find a new purpose for the airship. She was 410 feet long, six Ansaldo six-cylinder engines that ran parallel to one another along the ship’s keel, and, while she had an articulated rigid keel, nosecone, and rudder (which resembled the surfaces of the wings of a box kite, triplane), her gasbag was reliant upon eleven smaller balloons (or ballonets) to maintain shape and, thus, structural integrity.

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)

The decision was made to use her as a passenger transport vessel, with the hope of taking people from Rome to Rio de Janeiro in South America. However, the Italians never used her as any more than a sightseeing vessel for small flights over the southern Italian landscape.

In 1921, the U.S. Army sent to Italy three of its best and brightest officers as well as five of its most promising enlisted to crewmen. Impressed by the possibilities of this large airship, the crew’s commanding officer, Major John G. Thornell, recommended ROMA for purchase by the Army. She was packed into crates and shipped to her new home at Langley Field (now known as Joint Base Langley-Eustis), where the Army’s balloon school was relocated from Lee Hall Depot in Newport News.

The Rebuild of ROMA

After much anticipation, ROMA arrived at Langley Field in August 1921. This would be the start of a several month process to not only rebuild what would be America’s largest airship to that point in history, but to prepare the crew for its first flight over Hampton Roads.

Like most summer months on the Hampton Roads Peninsula, ROMA was met with insufferable heat and humidity. Upon opening the pine crates that she was packed away in, the crew found her gasbag (which was made of a fine silk and cotton blend) tattered and covered in mildew as well as holes.

A semi-rigid airship, ROMA, used hydrogen for lift, and a metal keel supported the bag. This photograph shows the metal keel being assembled. Afterward, the metal framework was covered with cloth, giving the Roma its characteristic fin along the bottom. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The next few months, not only did ROMA‘s crew have to decipher the Italian schematics to reconstruct the airship, they had to deal with the tender balancing act of hydrogen purity in order to not only keep the ship inflated, but safe for flight.

The summer slipped into fall as the hangar log reported the constant challenges the crew had with patching the fragile gasbag, experimenting with hydrogen purity, and the inability to keep ROMA stable enough for flight.

But the pressure was put on Major Thornell from his superiors… There were several accidents in recent months involving hydrogen in airships and the U.S. Army needed a “win” in order to continue to prove the efficacy of just such an experimental technology to not only the taxpayers, but the government itself.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, ROMA was able to maintain hydrogen purity enough to schedule her first trial flight in the United States for Nov. 15, 1921.

The First Flight of ROMA

The morning of Nov. 15, 1921 was one of great excitement around Langley Field. Hundreds of people gathered around ROMA‘s hangar to watch the spectacle unfold. Cameras flashed and film rolled as the barn doors were slid open and the grounds crew began pulling the massive silver airship from her cocoon.

ROMA makes its first flight in the United States at Langley Field, Va., on Nov. 15, 1921. (U.S. Air Force photo)

She was an odd-looking ship. One onlooker described her as resembling a “pregnant elephant.” Still, she was the grand jewel of the American dirigible fleet.

With breaths held, the grounds crew let go of the tethers that held ROMA to the ground. With perfectly even horizontal static lift, she ascending to the sky. Once she reached the desired altitude, Major Thornell radioed to the ground, asking, “How did we look?”

After a pause and a few pops of static, a voice rang back, “Magnificent!” A cheer gave way from every corner of ROMA. Now, it was time to fly.

Soon after embarking on the short trip, Sgt. Lee Harris was standing just inside from one of the engines when he witnessed an aluminum door break away from the keel and smash into one of the wooden propellers. The shattered pieces cut open the gas bag and he knew he had mere minutes to save not only his ship, but his shipmates.

Harris climbed into the bag with two other men and patched the holes until they were overcome with breathing the hydrogen and passed out.

All three men were fine, and so was ROMA. Despite the incident, the first flight was hailed a success and now it was time to let ROMA officially join the American fleet.

It would be just a short time later when the true cost of hydrogen would prove itself in what would become the deadliest disaster of a U.S. hydrogen airship.

Check back next Monday (Nov. 21) for Part 2 of ROMA’s story.

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