The 17 Most Tragic Blimp Disasters In History

It's not hard to recount the many blimp disasters throughout history and realize why we don't use them anymore. Some of the largest aviation accidents throughout history involve a type of blimp or airship. No matter how much work was put into design or safety features, blimp accidents were common enough and serious enough to prevent them from becoming a routine part of air travel or military activity.

Below is a list of the worst blimp disasters throughout history. Looking at the list, it's easy to understand why we no longer utilize blimps as a mode of transportation. From the well-known Hindenburg explosion to the USS Akron tragedy, read on to discover the most tragic blimp disasters of all time. 

Photo: The British Library / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

  • Hindenburg Disaster
    Photo: Gus Pasquerella / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You can't have an article about blimp disasters without mentioning possibly the most widely known airship accident - the crash of the Hindenburg. It's not the deadliest blimp disaster in history, but it is perhaps the most well-known, thanks to the live radio broadcast of the Hindenburg's final moments in the air on May 6, 1937. On that fateful day, electrostatic discharge ignited leaking hydrogen, causing the blimp to go up in flames.

    All told, 36 people lost their lives (35 passengers and 1 ground crew member) and 62 survived. Despite 30 years of tens of thousands of passengers traveling millions of miles on commercial zeppelins with no injuries, the horrific Hindenburg disaster put an end to passenger airship travel. 

  • The USS Akron Tragedy

    The USS Akron Tragedy
    Photo: United States Naval Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Hindenburg is the most recognizable name in the annals of airship disasters, although the worst such tragedy of all time befell the USS Akron. The crash of the Akron on April 4, 1933, resulted in the deaths of 73 of the 76 men on board. The ultimate tragedy was that many of the deaths could have been easily prevented. 

    The Akron crashed off the coast of New Jersey. It's unknown exactly what happened, though the airship was flying too low for the poor weather conditions of the day, and it's possible that the navigators unknowingly drove it into the ocean. Despite being a Navy vessel, the Akron had no life jackets and only one raft. Most of the men who lost their lives drowned or died of hypothermia. In addition, one of the airships that went looking for survivors crashed, claiming the lives of two more men. 

  • The Experimental Zeppelin LZ 4 Explodes During A 24-Hour Test Flight

    The Experimental Zeppelin LZ 4 Explodes During A 24-Hour Test Flight
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    Were it not for stubborn and risk-laden perseverance, we may not have had airships or blimps at all, given the fate of the first few prototypes. One of the first experimental airships, the Zeppelin LZ 4, first launched on June 20, 1908. It was famous for making a successful 12-hour flight over Switzerland, after which the overseers wanted to test it more.

    During a 24-hour endurance test, the LZ 4 made an emergency landing on August 5, 1908, in a field. A sudden storm blew the blimp from its temporary mooring, causing it to crash and to massively explode. That could have been the end of airship development, but the German people continued to support the development of airships, bringing in enough donations to make sure the air program maintained its funding. 

  • The Helgoland Island Air Disaster

    The Helgoland Island Air Disaster
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On September 9, 1913, tragedy struck the first airship owned by the Imperial German Navy. Originally the LZ 14, the airship's name was changed to L-1 when transferred to the Navy. On that fateful day, the airship flew into a storm with 20 people on board and didn't make it very far.

    The L-1 crashed into the North Sea near Helgoland, off the coast of Germany and broke in two. Fourteen of its passengers drowned. The incident became known as the "Helgoland Island Air Disaster." 

  • The Johannisthal Air Disaster

    The Johannisthal Air Disaster
    Photo: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A little over a month after the Helgoland Island Air Disaster, another accident befell the German Navy - the Johannisthal Air Disaster. Despite its recent history with airship disasters, the German Navy forged full steam ahead with its airship program. 

    A new blimp, designated the L-2, was the second Zeppelin bought by the Imperial German Navy. On October 17, 1913, a test flight went horribly wrong when escaped hydrogen was sucked into an engine compartment, causing a massive explosion. All 28 people aboard the ship were killed. This disaster came so soon after the Helgoland accident that it caused the Navy to suspend its plans to expand its airship program.

  • The LZ 104 Blows Up Near Malta After An Unsuccessful Trip To Africa

    The LZ 104 Blows Up Near Malta After An Unsuccessful Trip To Africa
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    German Navy Zeppelin LZ 104 (nicknamed "The Africa Ship") was famous for attempting a long-distance resupply mission across the Mediterranean, over Allied-held African lands, and into German East Africa (what is now Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania). Because there was no hydrogen in German East Africa to refuel the airship, it would be dismantled and reused in various ways upon landing. The LZ 104 (military designation L-59) made it as far as Sudan before it was ordered to turn around, because Germans could find no suitable landing site for it in their African territory. 

    After traveling more than 4,000 miles in almost 100 hours, the airship landed in Yambol, Bulgaria, where Germany had established a base from which the airships could fly to German East Africa. There, the airship remained for use as a long-range bomber to hit various Allied points in the Mediterranean. Eventually, it was decided that it should be used to attack the British Naval Base on Malta. On April 7, 1918, the blimp exploded midair while en route to Malta, killing all 21 people on board.