Friday, January 21, 2011

Get to Know Virginia Aviation History: The Roma Disaster

Recently I discovered a scrapbook at the Virginia Aviation Museum. Glued inside a bound ledger of the “Southern Fire Insurance Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, VA”, were newspaper clippings spanning from the early 1920s to the late 1930s describing various advancements and events in the progress of aviation technology. Eighty-two of the pages are filled with descriptions of Amelia Earhart, the Zeppelin, and Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition (even with a photo of the Stars and Stripes!). In addition, a few pages were devoted completely to the Roma disaster that occurred over the Norfolk Army base in 1922.

The Roma was a dirigible, or a lighter-than-air airship, that was purchased by the US Army from the Italian government in 1921. The ship was taken apart and shipped to Langley Field, Virginia where its steel skeleton and fabric exterior reassembled. The airship was able to fly at 60 miles per hour and was the largest semi-rigid dirigible at that time at 410 feet long and 90 feet in diameter. An interior gas bag filled with hydrogen gas kept it in air. The Army made three successful test flights with the Roma before disaster stuck.

On February 21st, 1922, the crew made a fourth test flight and flew for forty-five minutes without incident. They flew from Langley Field to Hampton, to Newport News, and finally to Norfolk. It was above Norfolk that the rudder (a device that allows for control over the direction of the nose of the airplane) malfunctioned. The exact cause of the rudder’s failure was never determined other than that it, in most simple terms, structurally failed. This failure caused the nose to dip downward, causing the Roma to descend slowly. Because of this slow glide, there may not have been such a catastrophe had the ship not touched electrical wires. However, the contact with the electricity caused the hydrogen in the ship to explode as well as the gasoline tanks. Thirty-four of the forty-five man crew would perish in the accident over the Norfolk base.
This was the last dirigible used by the US Army, and the last time hydrogen was used in dirigibles. This scrapbook documents the worst and most deadly aircraft accident the US military had seen at that time and an important, but unfortunate moment in Virginia Aviation history.
[Top photo courtesy the National Museum of the US Air Force.]

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