THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, February 16, 1997 TAG: 9702140069 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY EARL SWIFT STAFF WRITER LENGTH: 288 lines
WHERE THE THICK COLUMN of smoke rose into the Norfolk sky that afternoon, tractor-trailers rumble today, and containers wait for their ships in long ranks.
Amid the smell of diesel fuel and sea salt, the round-the-clock bustle, floats a small, grassy island, at its center a white headstone.
Few of Norfolk International Terminals' longshoremen and truckers notice it. Fewer still have stopped to read its painted inscription, flaked and faded over the years. Those who have likely fail to recognize the name it bears, the event it commemorates.
Yet it was at this spot, beneath a criss-cross of power lines a short distance from Hampton Boulevard, that disaster came to pass 75 years ago this week.
The smoke that rose here on Feb. 21, 1922, marked the scene of the country's worst aviation accident of the time - an explosion that killed 34 men, dominated the front pages of newspapers worldwide, plunged the region into mourning.
Fifteen years before newsreels burned the image of the dying Hindenburg into the planet's memory, another massive, hydrogen-filled airship - the largest of its kind ever built - fell victim to a similar fate right here.
Its name was the Roma.
Dawn that Tuesday came wrapped in a damp, frosty caul.
A steady drizzle plinked onto the big hangar's roof at Langley Field, a sodden aerodrome built on the marshes along Hampton's Back River, as the Roma crew arrived, shivering, for a battery of preflight inspections - on their airship's engines, its patchy gasbag, the purity and pressure of the hydrogen in the dirigible's cells.
The craft around them was almost inconceivably big, and by the standards of the day, breathtakingly fast: 410 feet long, 92 feet tall, capable of hauling passengers and cargo at a mile a minute.
Built in Italy in 1919, its speed, its payload and its range had drawn attention throughout Europe before its purchase by the Army in 1921.
Now the airship was ready for the first test of six new, American-made Liberty motors, replacements for the balky Italian powerplants that had so far pushed it through the sky.
At 12:45 p.m., the preflight checks complete, 45 souls on the manifest - the crew, a few civilian mechanics, government observers - stepped aboard. The rain had stopped. The temperature had warmed to 46 degrees. Northerly winds were mild. Capt. Dale Mabry, the Roma's skipper, ordered the ship walked from the hangar.
Allen P. McFarland, a visiting Army captain, welcomed Maj. John D. Reardan into the passenger cabin, joshingly asking whether he planned to stow away.
Reardan, a last-minute addition to the passenger list, replied that he was delighted to be a crew member in good standing.
``Let's hope,'' McFarland cracked, ``that you'll still be delighted when the flight is finished.''
Gallows humor was rife among early airmen, whose daily survival relied on quick wits, kind fortune and primitive machines of canvas, wood and wire.
Still, whether McFarland's comment was typical preflight bravado is open to question.
The Roma's crew was a troubled one, its members uneasy about the airship's poor manners in the air, its anemic power, its vulnerability in bad weather.
Its weaknesses had been apparent for nearly a year - since March 1921, when a reporter accompanied American officers on an Italian test flight. The ship failed to climb high enough to fly, as planned, over Mount Vesuvius, and ``two or three'' of its engines, he later wrote, ``are usually on strike when they are supposed to be running.''
The Army had overlooked those problems. Its Air Service was desperate to maintain a grip on the nation's budding lighter-than-air program in the face of great Navy success, and the Roma could be had quickly and cheaply. The Army bought it and shipped it home.
When Langley crews unpacked the crated airship that August, they found its fabric skin mildewed and weakened. The Air Service ordered it patched. In November, during its first American test flight, an aluminum door came loose from the Roma's cabin and fell into one of its propeller blades, and three crewmen blacked out while trying to repair damage to the gasbag. The Air Service dismissed the incident as minor.
Langley brass were forced to scrub one attempt to fly the Roma to a Washington christening ceremony when, after 3 1/2 hours of toil, the crew failed to get two of its six engines started. When it actually made the flight, it again experienced engine trouble - and barely made it back to Langley intact.
``It was some trip,'' Army Cpl. Virgil Hoffman, the Roma's chief rigger, wrote home. ``We almost lost the ship several times. . . ''
Staff Sgt. Marion J. Beall was more emphatic. ``This ship is a death trap,'' he wrote to an old Army buddy. ``It's going down one of these days and only three or four of us are coming out alive.''
No one in Washington, and few at Langley, showed concern at what, today, impresses most as the Roma's greatest flaw: The airship was filled with hydrogen. The gas was abundant, cheap and provided great lift, but it was frightfully explosive - and, pumped into the big ship's 11 gas cells, it traveled within a few feet of six spark-throwing piston engines and the gasoline tanks that fed them.
The Air Service brass ordered the motors replaced, but urged Langley to get the dirigible back into the air. ``Every day lost in the use of the Roma in actual flight is a handicap upon lighter-than-air airship development,'' Washington wrote that Dec. 30.
``Minor difficulties may be solved later and refinements of design may be made as time permits. The thing is to get the motors on the Roma so that she can participate in flights.''
But the crew's misgivings persisted. At a dance held at Langley's Officers Club the night before the new engine test, Capt. George D. Watts told other officers that he wished the Roma were filled with nonflammable helium.
That same Monday night, Robert Hanson, a civilian airplane mechanic attached to the Roma crew, wrote an aunt in Ohio: ``I might come home in this airship, but let me tell you I am not very anxious to go that far.''
And Ira Koenig, a student in Langley's airship training course, had a dream in which he saw the Roma dive to the ground and crash.
One hundred fifty men gripped lines holding the airship to earth as the Roma's crew completed last-minute preparations for launch. In the passenger cabin, McFarland and another man adjusted each other's parachute harnesses, while others searched for their own parachutes from an onboard cache. The Libertys were fired up, then idled. All six worked.
Alberto Flores watched the preparations from a small trapdoor above the Roma's nose. The Army corporal's perch was the loneliest in the airship - its crow's nest, separated from the keel by a long, narrow tunnel that ran through the gasbag. Flores' job was to keep an eye on that bag, and to report any in-flight trouble to the crew below.
Now the skipper, Mabry, relayed a question to his lookout: Was everything all right topside? Flores' reply - yes - was passed back down through the tunnel and keel, and Mabry ordered the Roma aloft.
Lines dropped away. The airship swept upward, tail first, then leveled. At 500 feet, Mabry ordered cruising speed and, engines roaring, the Roma began making for the Chesapeake Bay.
It reached it near the mouth of the Back River. Mabry ordered the ship south along the shoreline, toward Old Point Comfort. The crew waved to people below at Fort Monroe, looked down on the site of the burned Hotel Chamberlin, at crowds on the government pier.
All was well. Astern, Priv. 1st Class Virden T. Peek, an engineer, was admiring the competent clatter of the Liberty he oversaw. The ship, it seemed to him, was, for the first time in American hands, behaving as advertised.
In the control cabin, Army 1st Lt. Walter J. Reed, a World War I Balloon Corps veteran with a degree in architecture, sat in the pilot's seat. The Roma was responding quickly, surely, to his commands.
Lt. Byrum G. Burt Jr. sat across the narrow cabin at the elevator controls. He, too, found the ship's behavior remarkably good.
The Roma headed out over the water toward Willoughby Spit, and Mabry tapped his friend Reed on the shoulder, asked to take the helm himself.
Reed, recovering from a nasty bout with the flu, didn't argue. The Roma now literally passed into the hands of one of the Air Service's most promising young officers - commander of a World War I balloon company in France, a disciple of the visionary Billy Mitchell, and a popular, swashbuckling bachelor.
The spit was dotted with waving Norfolkians agog at the mammoth craft overhead. Mabry steered the Roma toward the Navy base. As he did, almost unnoticed at first, a fatal chain of events began to unfold.
The Roma was semi-rigid, a compromise between zeppelins, which owed their distinctive cigar shapes to a light metal skeleton beneath their fabric skins, and blimps, which depended on the pressurized gas within their skins to maintain their form.
The Italian airship lacked a skeleton, but its gasbag was held somewhat in shape by a metal-ribbed nose cap and a rigid keel that ran along the bag's underside, from nose to tail.
This keel housed the control room, navigation space, passenger cabin, the outriggers on which the engines rode, and - far astern - a huge, box kite affair that served as the ship's rudder and elevator.
The gasbag itself was unpopulated, with the exception of Flores' station above the nose. In addition to the 11 cells of hydrogen within its skin, it housed six cells of air, called ballonets, into which additional air could be pumped if the gasbag drooped or flattened.
But now something went wrong with a valve controlling air intake into one of these ballonets. Master Sgt. Roger C. McNally, manning the valve, found he could not add air to the cell.
At about the same time, Flores noticed that the upper curve of the gasbag's nose was flattening. He tried crawling down the tunnel to the keel, but found it pinched shut. The nose cap appeared to be collapsing, the tunnel with it.
The Roma, cruising over the Norfolk Naval Station, pitched nose-first toward the ground.
In the passenger cabin Ray Hurley, making his first dirigible flight as a civilian observer with the National Advisory Committee on Aviation - the forerunner of NASA - felt the tilt, but figured it was normal.
The reaction in the control room was not nearly so calm. Burt, manning the elevators, struggled to level the ship. He succeeded, but within seconds the nose dived again.
Mabry called for elevation. Burt put all his weight on the lever, but it did no good. ``It will not respond!'' he cried.
From far astern came a cry: The keel was slowly buckling. Then another: The tail assembly was coming loose. The Roma began to bullet earthward at a 45-degree angle.
On the ground, sailors and civilian base workers watched the ship's nose tilt, and warehousemen at the Army's nearby Quartermaster Depot stepped outside to witness what was, clearly, an airship in trouble.
Mabry and Burt could see the greens and fairways of the Norfolk Country Club ahead, beyond the depot and the Lafayette River. If they could get the Roma that far, they could put it down somewhat safely.
Burt ordered the engines cut to slow the ship's descent. Mabry called for the crew to lighten the Roma's load. Four engines stopped; the forward pair inexplicably continued to roar.
The passengers and crew, meanwhile, began to panic, to toss everything they could get their hands on through the keel's windows - tools, furniture, spare engine parts. People on the ground watched a shower of equipment fall to earth.
But the Roma's dive continued. Far astern, Virden Peek was ``too insane to think much of anything.'' Flores struggled to hang on to the edges of his trapdoor in the nose. And in the passenger cabin, 1st Lt. William E. Riley, overcome with panic and with a parachute strapped to his chest, screamed that he was going to jump. Others told him not to - the ship was now far too low - but he did it, anyway.
Mabry now saw that they wouldn't make it to the golf course, wouldn't even reach the river. The ground rushing to meet the falling ship was a scrubby field at the depot, split by a small road - and by a high-voltage electric line.
``My God, boys,'' he muttered.
The end came in a flash. The Roma's nose hit the ground, its massive girth brushed the electric line, and in an instant it was engulfed.
Its gas cells, loaded with more than a million cubic feet of hydrogen, blew to atoms. The blast set off the ship's gasoline tanks, creating a pyre of flame and smoke and din that leapt from the field and into the overcast sky.
Mabry was incinerated in his seat, his hands still gripping the helm. Maj. John G. Thornell, the Roma's first commander, died with him, along with some of the Army's most experienced airshipmen - McNally, who had struggled with the ballonet; Virgil Hoffman and and Marion Beall, who'd written of their fears; George Watts, who'd wished for helium; and Riley, who died on the depot road, his parachute unopened.
Depot workers and sailors rushed to the wreckage, but the flames kept them back. Three fire companies spent five hours quelling the blaze, and watched as the Army's greatest airship shrank to a pile of twisted aluminum that glowed red into the evening.
But in the heat and chaos, 11 men somehow survived. Flores, spit from his trapdoor like a watermelon seed, landed safely in the field. Virden Peek and Ray Hurley walked away without so much as a bruise. Reed and Burt, injured and burned, lived, too, and Reardon clawed his way from the fiery cabin to talk of it years later.
That morning, Langley airship student W.E. Kepner, due to fly on the Roma, had been walking toward his station when he'd been hailed by a colonel. Get the A-4 into the air, the senior man had ordered, pointing to a small blimp that shared the Roma's hangar. The bigger ship, he'd added, needed maneuvering room.
Kepner had balked. He had duty aboard the Roma, he'd said.
The colonel had repeated his order, and Kepner, cursing his bad luck, had headed for the puny airship, nicknamed a ``rubber cow.''
Now, just hours later, Kepner was called on to help identify the remains of the Roma's dead, many of them ``burned to a cracklin','' one skull ``shrunk in heat and burned away to the size of a fist.''
Even as he did, the Army launched an investigation into the accident - inconclusive, as it turned out - and a great public debate arose throughout the country over the safety of flight and the Roma's reliance on hydrogen.
``It was all over the place, talk about dirigibles and what made them blow up, how safe they were or weren't,'' recalled Carlton Macon, a 15-year-old Maury High School student at the time. ``Everybody had a story, it seemed like.''
The Chicago Daily Tribune perhaps best summarized the nation's struggle to make sense of the disaster. ``Uninformed people have no comment they can make upon the loss of the Roma,'' its editorial page advised, ``except as they may admire the fortitude and deplore the loss of the men who make the experiments with which the progress of man goes through its danger zone.''
No newsreel cameras were turning when the Roma exploded. No radio announcer sobbed of ``the humanity'' lost in its destruction.
The accident was, in terms of the images and sounds that preserve our memory of long-ago events, unwitnessed.
Newspapers stoked the story for a few weeks, but eventually the Roma slipped to the back pages, then out of print altogether. Accounts of its end were resurrected a few years later when the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashed in Pennsylvania, killing 14, and again when another Navy airship, the Akron, went down off New Jersey.
But as the world grew jaded to death tolls, whether in aviation, in war or in accidents, the Roma and its dead faded completely from America's consciousness. A transient population in the city that witnessed the disaster helped erase its memory even here.
Few clues to its existence remain, locally. Langley, now a major Air Force base, still refers to a parking lot where the Roma's hangar stood as the ``LTA area,'' an acronym for ``lighter than air.'' The base's Roma Road is nearby.
And there is the headstone at NIT. Its inscription tells nothing of the craft itself, nor the Army's zeal to fly it, nor of the lives lost aboard it.
``U.S. ARMY DIRIGIBLE ROMA,'' it reads. ``CRASHED HERE, FEB. 21, 1922.''
ILLUSTRATION: Photos courtesy city of Hampton
The 410-foot-long Roma exploded after hitting a high-voltage power
line near Hampton Boulevard.
The dead had to be identified through dental records or personal
effects. Firt Lt. Ambrose Clinton died in the blast, but his
medallion and silver bracelet survived.
CITY OF HAMPTON
A body is removed from the Roma. An Army investigation of the
accident was inconclusive.