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Photo of U.S. Army airship Roma lifting off from Langley Field in 1922

‘Remembering The Roma’

Airship Crashed 80 Years Ago
After Lifting Off From Langley Field

Special to the Researcher News

Ever since Langley Field was established in 1916, aircraft of all types have attracted the attention of anyone living in southeast Virginia. For those living on the Peninsula, it has been almost like a daily air show, year after year. Some recall airplanes that flew with wooden propellers. Some remember seeing aircraft that had open cockpits and waving at the pilots. And others recall a time when airships were commonly seen.

Eighty years ago this month, a special flight originated from Langley Field. On Feb. 21, 1922, at 1:30 p.m., the U.S. Army airship Roma was released from her moorings at Langley Field. Flight conditions were ideal. As the airship rose, it headed out over Back River before turning south toward Norfolk. Back River forms the northern boundary of Langley Field and the southern boundary of what was then known as York County’s Poquoson District.

Nothing like the Roma had ever been seen before. It was a giant. And anyone who spotted the Roma would make note of its odd flight signature: a forward slopping, nose down tilt.

At Langley Field, a specially designed hanger had been built to house the over 400-foot long, 90-foot diameter, Italian-built airship. The Roma filled the hangar. The Roma had the capability to lift 19 tons (crew, ballast and fuel).

Following its purchase from the Italian government in 1921, many repairs had been made to the Roma. More than 140 holes had been found in the fabric covering. And the Roma was equipped with six newly installed, state-of-the-art, Liberty engines. Each engine was rated at an astounding 400-horsepower that drove 11-foot diameter propellers.

Air Service Capt. Dale Mabry and Lt. Byron T. Burt Jr. were at the control wheel. Maj. J.D. Reardon and Lt. Welch were also in the control cabin while Cpl. Albert Flores had climbed into the observation pit located on top of the airship.

The Roma was performing magnificently. The test flight had been a complete success. In fact, Capt. Mabry had issued orders for the crew and passengers to make preparations for the scheduled landing at the Army Headquarters Base near Naval Air Station, Norfolk.

The clock was at 2:19 p.m. Forty-five individuals were onboard. Just before takeoff, eight civilians had been given the opportunity to ride along. Without hesitating, they climbed aboard.

The Roma was at an altitude of around 1,000 feet and only 30 miles from Langley Field. Suddenly, a vibration shook the Roma. Some individuals were thrown to the floor. In the control cabin commands were shouted: “She won’t respond!” “Cut the motors!”

At an altitude of no more than a few hundred feet, more than 1 cubic foot of the highly flammable hydrogen gas erupted like an approaching tidal wave. On the Peninsula, individuals working at Langley Field, along with many Poquoson watermen working their fish nets in Back River, would hear the explosion and didn’t have to be told what had happened. Other citizens thought the world was ending. The Roma collapsed onto itself in a ball of flames.

The next few hours were a state of confusion. At the end of the day, the numbers would reflect the disaster: 34 men trapped and killed — 13 officers, 16 enlisted men and five civilians. Only 11 individuals would be able to escape the death trap — many with terrible injuries.

Capt. Walter J. Reed, pilot of the Roma:

“I have no idea what caused the accident. I doubt if it will ever be known. Of course we have our own theories, but we are not certain which is correct. I know that there was trouble with the control of the ship and it was impossible to correct it after it was discovered. The first intimation we had that there was trouble was when we saw the nose of the ship down. We went back to see what caused it and found the control was not working. Everything possible was done to straighten the ship and get her on an even keel again. Capt. Mabry gave orders to shut off all motors. The last four were shut off. The forward motor was running. It is possible that the engineer was so thrown out of his position that he could not see the signals on his dial. Every effort to get the Roma on her keel proved useless and she pitched into the ground in a nosedive and turned over on her side. When the ship hit, I was thrown into the upper part of the cabin. I was shut in and got out only when a hole was burned into the cabin.

Maj. John D. Reardon, Army officer onboard the Roma:

“The wreck of the Roma undoubtedly was due to failure of controls to function properly. I was standing next to Lt. Burt, who was operating the elevator, and when we noticed the ship’s nose down he tried to elevate it. ... Everything was done that was possible to do, but the ship could not be put on an even keel again and we had to wait for the inevitable.”

Charles W. Dvorack, superintendent of Airship Construction at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio:

“I grabbed a piece of the ironwork and held on to it. When the nose struck the ground I was still holding on. I was soon covered with gas. I was between the fabric and the gas tanks and said, ‘God help us if she gets on fire.’ I had hardly spoken the words when I saw the whole ship in flames. I jumped and fell in a ditch and felt myself becoming unconscious. I made up my mind to stick it out. I knew my fate could be no worse than by staying where I was. ... The next I knew I was here in the hospital.”

U.S. Rep. Julius Kahn, chairman of the House Military Committee:

“The chances are that efforts will be made to prevent a recurrence of such a calamity. I feel, however, that so long as the other nations of the world continue experiments regarding flights in the air, our own country will have to keep up with the rest of the world in that regard.”

Maj. Gen. Patrick, Chief of the Air Service:

“The Roma disaster would have happened just the same had the ship been filled with helium instead of hydrogen. It is true, however, that in all probability the loss of life might not have been so great.

“A rigid investigation is now underway to determine the exact course of the accident. As soon as the board completes its work a public announcement will be made of its findings.”

Family members and sweethearts were notified. Many local and national tributes followed. During local funeral services, practically every store on the Peninsula was closed.

The investigation found that the probable cause of the accident came from broken altitude controls due to weak rudder supports that made the craft unmanageable. It was also noted that the Roma hit high voltage electrical wires when it was falling to the ground, followed by an instant explosion.

Airships would continue to be a familiar sight over southeast Virginia. Then, in 1937, when the airship Hindenburg broke into flames on approach to Lake Hurst Airfield, N.J., it brought an end to the airship era. It’s interesting to note that 15 years had passed since the crash of the Roma.

Eighty years ago this month, the crash of the Roma occurred. Today, the sacrifices made by the crew and passengers are remembered. In a moment, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, 1922, aviation suffered the worst aircraft disaster that had ever occurred in American military air service.

Editor’s note: This story is excerpted from a longer story researched and written by Leo C. Forrest Jr. Forrest, a mechanical engineer at Naval Weapons Station, Yorktown, wrote about the fateful test flight of the American Legion in the April 21, 2000, edition of the Researcher News.
To obtain a complete copy of the story, write to Forrest at 16 Church Street, Poquoson, VA 23662 or call him at 868-6043.

The NACA Connection ...

“In the 1920s and early 1930s, Langley conducted extensive experimental and theoretical work on lighter-than-air (LTA) craft. The army had assigned its 19th Airship Squadron to Langley Field at the end of World War I. From 1922 on, this outfit was stationed in a large hangar located on the northwest side of the airplane runway. NACA flight personnel assisted the squadron with the speed and deceleration runs for several classes of army airships and helped to determine improved takeoff, landing and docking procedures.”

— Excerpt from “Engineer In Charge”

Photo caption follows

The Roma crew included: (front row, left to right) 1st Lt. Walter J. Reed, Maj. John Thornell and Capt. Dale Mabry; and (back row, left to right) Sgt. Virgil C. Hoffman, Sgt. Joseph M. Biedenback, Staff Sgt. Marion J. Beall, Master Sgt. Roger C. McNally, and Master Sgt. Harry A. Chapman. All were aboard when the Roma crashed; only Reed, Chapman and Biedenbach survived.

Photo courtesy of City of Hampton

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