Fremont County, Iowa

"The Roma Airship"
by Evelyn Birkby
View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of September 1, 2016

Recently a new book came to my kindle, entitled The Airship Roma Disaster on Hampton Road written by Nancy E. Sheppard. It immediately caught my attention because the story of "the Roma" talks about one of our citizens from Fremont County, Major John G. Thornell. The name Thornell was very well known in southwest Iowa. The Thornell families were lawyers and judges in Fremont County. John Thornell was only 17 when he was appointed as a candidate for a West Point cadetship. He there became a major in the United States Air Force.

In 1920, the United States Air Service bought a semi-rigid dirigible from Italy, named the “Roma”. It was 410 feet long, 92 feet tall, and capable of carrying 100 passengers and cargo at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. The semi-rigid airship was a cross between a zeppelin and a blimp. The “Roma” was so large it had to be broken down and boxed up to be transported here by ship. It was brought to the United States under Major Thornell’s command. Once it arrived in the United States it was taken on many trial flights. In February 1922, Major Thornell, the original commanding officer of the Roma, was busy preparing for his new assignment to Washington D.C. but, he chose to fly one more time. Major Thornell and a crew of some 45 men took the Roma up for his last flight. During the flight, the nose structure collapsed, jamming the controls, sending it toward the ground. It settled on some electrical wires which instantly ignited its flammable hydrogen gas in a tremendous explosion.

Eleven men survived by jumping to the ground, three of them unharmed and the thirty four crew members died, among the dead was Major Thornell. His body was shipped back to Sidney, Iowa where it rests today in the Sidney cemetery. The funeral was held at Sidney Presbyterian Church. It was the largest funeral ever held in Sidney. Even all businesses closed for the day of the full military funeral. His simple tombstone reads “Major John G. Thornell Commander of the Roma.”

After an extensive inquiry it was determined that it was the use of hydrogen gas that caused the greatest damage. Other less volatile gases were available at that time but they were more expensive. So Congress declined to fund the more expensive gas. In 1937, when the air ship Hindenburg exploded it proved the death nail of the lighter than air dirigibles. But, whenever I see the Good Year Blimp flying over the sports field I’m reminded of the "Roma" and the gallant crew who flew it, including Sidney’s own Major Thornell.

Side Note: Copies of the book “The Airship Roma Disaster on Hampton Road”can be found in the Fremont County Historical Museum Research Library and at the Sidney Public Library. Copies are available to the public.

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