Captain Dale Mabry was one of Florida’s very first aviation heroes. Due to an impressive family tree and a drive to experience flight, he enlisted and served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Balloon Company during the First World War. He came home to Tallahassee after the war, where he was promoted to Captain. This promotion came with the command of the Army’s newest airship, Roma. Captain Mabry reported to Langley, Virginia, as ordered to take his command.
Roma was a semi-rigid, dirigible airship manufactured in Italy. Its first flight from Rome to Naples occurred without incident in September of 1920 with the US Ambassador to Italy on board. Following the flight, the United States Army purchased the airship, disassembled it, and shipped it to Langley for immediate inspection and reassembly. Once state-side, it was fitted with 6 U.S. Built Liberty L-12 Engines capable of 400 horsepower each. The inspection found the covering of the airship had been weakened by mildew during its transit across the Atlantic Ocean.
By February of 1922, the new engines were fitted, and the airship was reassembled. The ship was filled with hydrogen, loaded with ballast, and crewed for the first time in the United States with Captain Dale Mabry at the helm. The rudder control box failed during a test flight with 45 people on board, compromising the Roma’s controllability. Some witness reports state seeing the entire rudder box shift sidewise, after which the entire airship descended rapidly into a set of unseen power lines. The highly volatile hydrogen filling the craft exploded into flames, killing 34 and injuring 8 of its crew and passengers, including its Captain.
This proved to be the single most costly incident in U.S. Aeronautics history up to that point. Dale Mabry has been memorialized by naming an airport after him in Tallahassee, though that airport no longer stands. Additionally, a school and a major highway have been graced by his namesake, ensuring his name sticks in our collective memory for generations to come.
Come see a 1922 Newspaper covering the Roma disaster, including a profile on the young Captain Dale Mabry in the Florida Air Museum today!