The fire burned five hours. The giant steel girder skeleton glowed like campfire embers. ¶ The largest semirigid airship in the world, Roma, crashed 1,000 feet to the ground after a 45-minute test flight, killing 34 members of the crew including Florida native Capt. Dale Mabry. ¶ Between traffic jams, red lights and strip store retail, Dale Mabry Highway is a road often traveled, but how much is known of its namesake?
Mabry was a member of the Army Air Corps during World War I. After the Great War, the United States purchased the 410-foot Italian dirigible Roma. Mabry was part of the crew that boxed and brought the large airship across the Atlantic for testing at Langley Field Air Station in Norfolk, Va.
The dirigible was to be the darling of the Air Corps. The aircraft had a special rudder box system allowing it to maneuver in tight spaces. And the 45-member crew was trying out new, more efficient 400-horsepower Liberty motors on Feb. 21, 1922.
After reaching an altitude of 1,000 feet, Mabry began his descent. The new engines worked fine, so the initial test was a success. Shortly after circling back to the base the nose cone on the airship crumpled. The dirigible was going down. The crew started throwing ballast bags of sand overboard. The ship righted itself, only briefly. But it was too late.
According to some reports, part of the ship was already inflamed when Mabry started to make an emergency landing. It was at this time, the aircraft hit 2,300-volt power lines sparking the hydrogen filled inside the 1.1-million-cubic-foot gas bag. Survivors escaped by jumping 30 feet to the ground.
The fateful flight took less than 45 minutes.
Mabry's body was found, badly burned, his hands still clutching the control wheel. He was hailed a hero for his bravery. Years after the conflagration, a stretch of road linking MacDill Air Force Base and Drew Air Field (now Tampa International Airport) was named in Mabry's honor. He is also the namesake for an airport in Tallahassee and an elementary school in Tampa.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.