LANGLEY FIELD (Va.) – The turn of the twentieth century was a time of innovation, change and imagination. In the first two decades after the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina saw rapid aerial development across the world with birdmen (the nickname of aviators) rising towards the skies in a way that once seemed fictional.
During those decades there was also the great debate about what kind of aviation technology would prevail: airplanes or airships. Like all eras of new technology, the era of primitive aviation was marked by a tragedy with none as great on American soil as that of the disaster of the American hydrogen airship, ROMA.
Heavier than air vs. lighter than air
To understand this early era of aviation, it is important to become familiar with the race in which technology would prevail.
“Heavier than air” is a term used to refer to craft that relied on controlled lift, or airplanes. The thing is, with planes from this period, while they were fast and had a high ceiling (maximum altitude), they were impractical outside of combat and the fun of flying. They had a small payload (or weight) limit and therefore could not carry more than two people and certainly no cargo / ammunition.
Meanwhile, “lighter than air” referred to craft that relied on static lift, or airships. Although these are not common today and their idea is something of a steampunk fantasy, it was a very practical and very real solution to transporting a greater volume of people and goods on long distances. The compromise? The elevator at that time depended on light gas. Until mid-1922, American airships used hydrogen as a lift gas.
In retrospect, it seems absurd that such a volatile gas would be used, but at the time the risk was well worth it. After all, at one point in World War I, the lifespan of a heavier-than-air pilot was only two weeks. When hydrogen was properly monitored and used under the right conditions, it was actually safer than flying one of the early biplanes or triplanes. But the key to remember here is: the right conditions.
After World War I, the Rhineland was stripped of its air assets, and the victors began to study the rapid innovations in aviation technology made by the old enemy. Airships were one of the technologies the Allies attempted to use as theirs.
Airships in the sky
As previously stated, airships had many practical purposes. They could carry more people, cargo, reconnoiter, and stay in the air longer than airplanes. A US Navy admiral predicted that these devices would one day replace newly introduced aircraft carriers.
The US Navy was tasked with developing a rigid airship program. Rigid airships are the ones most commonly thought of with behemoths such as the late Hindenburg class (which were nearly 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 gas bag itself.
During this time, the US military was left with only non-rigid ships. These ships were significantly smaller than their rigid counterparts. For example, Class C non-rigid airships were less than 200 feet long. They could only carry a small crew and were mainly used for reconnaissance. However, the US military wanted more; they wanted their own airship.
When the US Navy abandoned the purchase of a used semi-rigid airship in Italy, the aptly named ROMA, the military jumped at the chance to prove their worth by using a larger airship.
Umberto Nobile was a visionary. Taking notes from other Italian and French airship engineers, he developed a new semi-rigid airship that was supposed to combine the best of rigid and non-rigid airship technology. In this was born ROMA.
It was originally developed for the Italians during World War I, but when it was not completed until after the armistice, Italy had to find a new purpose for the airship. She was 410 feet long, six Ansaldo six-cylinder engines that ran parallel to each other along the ship’s keel, and, while she had a hinged rigid keel, nose tip, and rudder (which resembled the wing surfaces of a boxed kite, triplane), its gas bag depended on eleven smaller balloons (or balloons) to maintain its shape and, therefore, its structural integrity.
The decision was made to use it as a passenger transport vessel, hoping to take people from Rome to Rio de Janeiro in South America. However, the Italians never used it as more than a tourist vessel for small flights over the landscape of southern Italy.
In 1921, the US Army sent three of its best and brightest officers and five of its most promising crew members to Italy. Impressed with the possibilities of this great airship, the crew commander, Major John G. Thornell, recommended ROMA for purchase by the military. It was crated and shipped to its new home at Langley Field (now known as Joint Base Langley-Eustis), where the Army Balloon School was transferred from Lee Hall Depot to Newport News .
The reconstruction of ROMA
After a lot of waiting, ROMA arrived at Langley Field in August 1921. It would be the start of a multi-month process to not only rebuild what would be America’s largest airship at this point in history, but also to prepare the crew for his first flight over Hampton Roads.
Like most summer months on the Hampton Roads Peninsula, ROMA encountered unbearable heat and humidity. Upon opening the pine crates in which it was stored, the crew found their gas bag (made of a mixture of silk and fine cotton) tattered and covered with mold and holes.
The following months, not only ROMAThe crew must decipher the Italian diagrams to rebuild the airship.
Summer slipped into fall when the hangar log reported the constant challenges the crew had in fixing the fragile gas bag, experimenting with the purity of hydrogen, and the inability to keep ROMA stable enough for flight.
But the pressure was put on Major Thornell by his superiors … There have been several accidents in recent months involving hydrogen in airships and the US military needed a “victory” in order to continue to prove the point. ‘effectiveness of such experimental technology not only to taxpayers, but the government itself.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, ROMA was able to maintain sufficient hydrogen purity to schedule its first test flight in the United States for November 15, 1921.
The first flight of ROMA
The morning of November 15, 1921 was a great excitement around Langley Field. Hundreds of people gathered around ROMA‘s hangar to watch the show unfold. The cameras flashed and the film rolled as the barn doors opened and the ground crew began to pull the massive silver airship out of its cocoon.
It was a strange ship. One onlooker described her as looking like a “pregnant elephant.” Yet she was the great jewel of the American airship fleet.
With breaths held back, the ground crew let go of the fasteners that held ROMA on the ground. With perfectly uniform static lift, it rises skyward. Once she reached the desired altitude, Major Thornell called the ground, asking, “What were we like?” “
After a pause and a few bursts of static, a voice rang out: “Magnificent! A cheer gave way from all corners of ROMA. Now it was time to fly.
Shortly after embarking on the short trip, Sgt. Lee Harris was standing just inside one of the engines when he saw an aluminum door come loose from the keel and crash into one of the wooden propellers. The shattered pieces opened the gas bag and he knew he only had a few minutes to save not only his ship, but his shipmates as well.
Harris climbed into the bag with two other men and plugged the holes until they were overwhelmed by the breath of hydrogen and passed out.
All three men were doing fine, as were ROMA. Despite the incident, the first flight was hailed as a success and now was the time to let ROMA officially join the US fleet.
It would only be a short time later that the true cost of hydrogen would be revealed in what would become the deadliest disaster of an American hydrogen airship.
Check back next Monday (November 21) for part 2 of ROMA story.
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