Imagine being thousands of feet above the ground, passing through the clouds at a relatively gentle pace – floating as much as flying. This was the reality of air travel during the golden era of the great airships. In the early 20th century, these behemoths ruled the skies – and yet they will forever be associated with calamity.
It all began in 1852, when French engineer Henri Giffard attached a small steam-powered engine to a propeller. This was later followed by the first gasoline-powered airship, built by Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1898. However, the trend for airships brought on a series of tragic accidents – most memorably, the Hindenburg disaster, and the fate befallen by the USS Akron, which resulted in the highest death toll.
Airships played a vital part in the First World War and early commercial passenger travel. Nevertheless, the combination of flammable gasses, faulty design and difficult maneuverability meant that all too frequently they became flying deathtraps. We list the ten worst airship crashes of all time.
10. July 6, 1960: U.S. Navy ZPG-3W
The 403-foot-long N-Class ZPG-3W was the largest non-rigid airship ever built. Manufactured by the Goodyear Aircraft Company, it served in the U.S. Navy from 1958 until 1962.
N-Class airships were primarily used as part of the North American early warning system during the first half of the Cold War, their purpose being to fill in radar gaps. Ironically, the ZPG-3W that crashed on July 6, 1960 was on a rescue mission off Long Beach Island, New Jersey, searching for a missing yacht.
The commander of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, captain Marion H. Eppes, described the crash that occurred as “violent”. Moments after the airship plunged into the water, only the tail could be seen. According to journalist Andrew Meisels, who was present at the scene, bits of the crashed blimp “floated on the water like pieces of a toy balloon.” The cause of the crash is still disputed. What is clear, though, is that 18 sailors were killed, and this contributed to the end of the Navy’s airship program.
9. November 10, 1915: Imperial German Navy Schütte-Lanz SL6
At the beginning of the 20th century, Ferdinand von Zeppelin had one competitor in the airship-building business: the Schütte-Lanz Company. Made of wood and plywood, instead of alloys like the Zeppelins, Schütte-Lanz airships had some distinct disadvantages. For one, the glue binding their joints together was susceptible to moisture. What’s more, the entire ship itself was compromised if water penetrated its outer waterproof layer. And for an airship that did maritime service, this was not good news.
Yet it was not sodden wood that brought down the Schütte-Lanz SL6 (the predecessor to the SL7, pictured here) shortly after it took off from the Seddin Airbase in Pomerania, on November 10, 1915. Instead, it was an explosion, the cause of which remains a mystery – but an explosion that destroyed the airship and killed all 20 on board.
8. April 7, 1918: Imperial German Navy L 59 (Zeppelin LZ 104)
The Zeppelin LZ 104 airship, also known as the “Africa Ship”, was operated by the German Navy. The Zeppelin’s nickname stemmed from its best-known attempted mission – to resupply the German garrison in East Africa in 1917. The mission was aborted before the Zeppelin reached the garrison, and it returned to base in Jamboli, Bulgaria after almost four grueling days of flight. Amazingly, the ship had enough fuel for another 64 hours in the air – an airship record at the time.
Yet the airship would soon be associated with catastrophe. On April 7, 1918, the LZ 104 was dispatched to Malta to attack the British Naval base there. A German submarine watched the ship fly overhead. Then, after two fire bursts were observed on the Zeppelin, it was seen engulfed in flames and nose-diving into the ocean. All 21 on board the ship were killed. The cause of the crash is thought to have been an accident.
7. October 17, 1913: Imperial German Navy L 2 (Zeppelin LZ 18)
Zeppelin LZ 18 was one of 14 Zeppelins purchased by the German Navy ahead of WWI. Up until this time, Zeppelins were operated by the world’s first commercial airline company, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), and were used to transport paying passengers.
When catastrophe struck the LZ 18 on October 17, 1913, it went down in history as one of the first multiple-death air disasters the world had witnessed. The accident occurred during a test flight, after hydrogen gas was sucked into the engine of the aircraft. Sure enough, the gas ignited and caused an explosion.
The airship came down close to Johannisthal Airfield, just outside of Berlin, and today the event is known as the Johannisthal Air Disaster. All 28 people on board the ship were killed. The disaster, along with another earlier Zeppelin incident, was a huge setback to the German Navy’s aviation program.
6. February 21, 1922: U.S. Army Airship Roma
Built in Italy in 1919 and purchased by the U.S. Army in 1921, the Roma airship was the last hydrogen-filled airship used in the US. Later balloon craft would be filled with the more expensive but less flammable helium.
Also known as the T-34, the 410-foot-long Roma was designed with trans-Atlantic travel in mind, and it was the world’s largest semi-rigid airship. Unfortunately, it was also doomed to be at the center of what, at the time, was the world’s worst air disaster.
Calamity struck on February 21, 1922, when the Roma hit high-voltage power lines over Norfolk, Virginia. A failure of the box rudder system was blamed for the accident, and the upshot was that the airship ignited and hit the ground nose-first.
The massive flames held back rescuers who rushed to the scene, and 34 people, including the captain, were killed in the disaster, with eight more injured. It’s a small miracle that three people managed to escape unharmed. The aluminum wreckage of the great airship is said to have glowed late into the night.
5. May 6, 1937: German Hindenburg
Illustrating the power of media, the best-known airship catastrophe, the Hindenburg disaster, is not the most devastating crash ever – but it was spectacularly caught on film.
These days, most people associate the name Hindenburg with the crashing fireball it became, but during its time, the airship was a marvel of comfortable and speedy air travel. It was the first airliner to regularly make commercial flights between the US and Europe. And another interesting, albeit spooky, fact is that the Hindenburg was partially constructed from metal salvaged from the British R-101 crash (see entry 2).
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was approaching Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Passengers were preparing for the end of their journey, when some heard a quiet explosion and felt a shock as the port trail rope over-tightened. Not long afterwards, the airship was engulfed in flames, the tail end hit the ground, and the nose exploded. This destructive sequence of events is believed to have taken just over half a minute. However, the wreckage continued to burn for hours because of the diesel fuel.
The exact cause of the initial explosion has never been determined and is the subject of several conspiracy theories. In all, 35 people were killed in the accident, including one unlucky crewman who was killed on the ground, in addition to all those who died on board.
The extensive media coverage meant that the incident marked the end of an era for passenger airships, as the public now began to question their safety.
4. August 23, 1921: British R38
Like many of the ships on this list, the R38 was a military aircraft – in this case, built by the British for the U.S. Navy. When it was constructed, it was the largest airship in the world. Size notwithstanding, the R38 (later called the ZR-2) made its first flight on June 23, 1921 – yet even then, there were those who questioned its design.
On August 23, 1921, the ZR-2 embarked on just its fourth flight – from Howden, England, where it was based. The destination was Norfolk, where it was to land at RNAS Pulham. However, prevented from mooring by foggy weather, the ZR-2 prepared to return to Howden, performing some tests along the way. It was during one of these tests that the airship appeared to crumple in the middle.
In total, 44 men were killed when two blasts rocked the front section of the airship and it crashed into the shallow water below. Five lucky crewmembers who were in the tail section at the time of the explosion survived the disaster. The crash was blamed on faulty design.
3. December 21, 1923: French Navy’s Dixmude
The Dixmude started out with the German Navy as the LZ-114, but was later given to the French as part of war reparations. Renamed by the French, the Dixmude was put through several rigorous test flights over the Mediterranean, including a record-breaking 118-hour flight to Algeria over the Sahara Desert.
The Dixmude‘s last journey began early on December 21, 1923, when it attempted a test flight between Sicily and Tunisia. The airship encountered a storm and is believed to have been struck by lightning, which caused it to explode. According to news sources, 48 men on board were killed.
It was a few days before the body of the lieutenant in charge of the airship was discovered. Shortly afterwards, parts of the ship’s cabin and a burned flag were found. The rest of the airship, though, was lost at sea forever.
2. October 5, 1930: British R101
At 731 feet long, the R101 was the world’s largest airship until the Hindenburg came along. This giant aircraft was built in the hope that it would be able to complete long-distance routes around the British Empire, including flights to Canada and India.
Unfortunately, the R101 only made one overseas flight – which also turned out to be its last. There were discussions beforehand about whether the airship had been tested sufficiently to attempt the long trip to India, yet a decision was made that it could make the voyage. So it was that on October 4, 1930, the R101 set out in wet and windy weather.
On October 5, the airship was flying over France when it suddenly took a dive and then a second dive, resulting in it hitting the ground. This forced landing is not what destroyed the ship, however. Rather, it was the exploding gasbags and the flames that proceeded to devour the aircraft. Of the 54 people on board, the lives of 48 were taken in the crash.
1. April 4, 1933: USS Akron
The biggest airship disaster by far occurred when the USS Akron crashed on April 4, 1933, off the coast of New Jersey. The Akron was a rigid airship belonging to the U.S. Navy, and along with the Hindenburg, to this day it holds the record as the largest helium-filled airship. It could store 20,000 gallons of gasoline, giving it a range of up to 10,500 miles. It was indeed a remarkable airship in many ways.
Before the fateful crash, the Akron had experienced three other more minor accidents, including one that occurred on May 11, 1932, when two crewmembers plunged to their death from mooring lines (pictured here).
On the day of the final disaster, the Akron took off and was soon in the midst of extremely bad weather. Yet matters were about to take a turn for the worse. Violent winds tore off rudder cables and pushed the airship down tail-first into the rough Atlantic, where it quickly broke into pieces and sank, killing 73 men. Just three lucky survivors were rescued from the sea. And in a further tragedy, a blimp sent out to look for survivors also crashed, causing the deaths of two more.
The USS Shenandoah, which crashed on September 2, 1925, killing 14 of her crew
The loss of the Akron marked the end of the era of Navy airships, in the same way the Hindenburg disaster spelled an end for commercial Zeppelins. Airplanes took over where airships left off and became the vehicles of choice for modern air travelers.
Even so, nowadays, with the high cost of fuel, people are again turning to these gas-filled craft, especially for cargo transport. Thus, there’s always the chance that these stately ships may someday grace the skies as they once did – albeit hopefully with less disastrous consequences.