The past six decades of helicopter history has seen its fair share of triumphs – but sadly has also borne witness to far too many tragedies. The entries on this list rank among the most tragic incidents in helicopter history.
Table of Contents
- 1. 1968 – Vietnam: CH-53A Sea Stallion
- 2. 1977 – Israel: CH-53D Sea Stallion
- 3. 1981 – England: Westland Wessex 60
- 4. 1983 – England: Sikorsky S-61
- 5. 1986 – Scotland: Boeing 234LR Chinook
- 6. 1997 – Israel: Sikorsky S-65C-3
- 7. 2002 – Russia: Mil Mi-26
- 8. 2007 – Sierra Leone: Mil Mi-8
- 9. 2009 – Venezuela: Mil Mi-35
- 10. 2020 – USA: Sikorsky S-76B
As this list demonstrates, there are myriad potential causes of a helicopter crash, each of which can say something about the regions and social conditions and times in which they took place.
Some incidents on this list are confirmed as or are suspected to be the result of terrorist activity or of ongoing regional conflicts. In instances such as this, justice can sadly be elusive.
On the other hand, other incidents on this list are the result of mechanical failures, pilot error, improper safety conditions, or a mixture of the three. In some cases, this has led to investigations into and changes within a nation’s aviation practices.
Sometimes a tragedy is marked by immense loss of life – and sometimes it is a specific person or the unique nature of the crash that makes a tragedy register in the public consciousness.
This is a top 10 of the most tragic helicopter crashes in history.
1. 1968 – Vietnam: CH-53A Sea Stallion
Perhaps no conflict has been as famous (or, to take a page from Apocalypse Now, perhaps infamous) for its use of military helicopters as the Vietnam War. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the war had its fair share of helicopter-related crashes and tragedies.
One of the most notable of these came on January 8, 1968, when a CH-53A Sea Stallion crashed in the Hai Long Forest, resulting in the death of all 46 people onboard.
Later, SAR crews found the heavily-charred remains of the wreck 10 days after the crash. The incident occurred during a routine transport operation, and poor weather was eventually labeled as the cause of the tragedy.
2. 1977 – Israel: CH-53D Sea Stallion
Another CH-53 tragedy, on May 10, 1977, a Stallion crashed during an exercise in the Jordan Valley, resulting in the death of all 54 onboard. The tragedy has lingered in the collective Israeli consciousness, with the incident becoming known as “Ason Hanun-dalet,” the “Disaster of the 54.”
The CH-53D Sea Stallion in question flew into a hill in the West Bank. Adding to the sense of tragedy is the fact that, like so many of the entries on this list, the ultimate cause of this crash has never been definitively proven.
However, Palestinian or Jordanian terrorist activity were mentioned as possibilities by the IDF at the time. According to news reports, the aircraft rose a few hundred yards into the air before suddenly losing altitude.
3. 1981 – England: Westland Wessex 60
This helicopter in question in this incident was a British variant of the Sikorsky H-34. On August 13, 1981, flight G-ASWI lost power to its main rotor gearbox, resulting in the pilots losing control of the plane near Bacton, Norfolk. Two pilots and all 11 gas workers onboard were lost.
Recovery efforts were delayed, which resulted in the wreck being beyond the possibility of recovery by the time salvage operations were begun. As a result, the cause of the crash was never definitively proven, and a formal inquest resulted in an open verdict on the matter.
On August 13, 2014, a memorial to the tragedy was unveiled, with the Eastern Daily Press the following month running a story reviewing the effects of the crash over three decades later.
4. 1983 – England: Sikorsky S-61
Another British helicopter tragedy came just two short years later when, on July 16, 1983, a commercial helicopter crashed in the southern area of the Celtic Sea while traveling from Penzance to St Mary’s off the coast of Scilly near Cornwall. Of the 26 people onboard, 20 lost their lives.
An investigation was immediately conducted by the Accidents Investigation Branch, which ruled that the incident was the result of pilot error resulting from the failure to notice and compensate for poor weather conditions. A failure to monitor flight instruments properly and a lack of height warning equipment onboard were also cited.
In the wake of the crash, a review of helicopter safety was undertaken, with the AIB making eight recommendations, seven of which were adopted. The incident was the worst helicopter incident in Britain until the Boeing Chinook disaster three years later.
5. 1986 – Scotland: Boeing 234LR Chinook
The deadliest helicopter disaster in European history, this incident on November 6, 1986 involved a Chinook crashing into the sea around Sumburgh Airport Shetland Islands, resulting in the death of all 45 people onboard.
The helicopter sank into the sea following the crash, approximately 2.5 mi away from the runway where it was to have landed. It had been on approach toward Sumburgh, carrying workers from an oilfield in Brent.
An investigation into the incident found that the Chinook in question suffered a catastrophic forward transmission failure, the result of which was a desynchronization of the twin rotors, thus causing the helicopter’s blades to collide.
6. 1997 – Israel: Sikorsky S-65C-3
Twenty years after the first incident, another Israeli CH-53 tragedy unfolded. On August 17, 1997, two Sikorsky S-65C-3s (an Israeli variant of the CH-53) crashed in the “security zone” of Israeli’s southern border with Lebanon, resulting in the death of all 73 Israeli military staff onboard.
The crash received national attention and mourning, and was a major reason for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon’s Southern border (a frequent hotspot due in part to Hezbollah terrorist activity) in 2000. An investigation was begun, but the cause of the crash has never been proven.
However, a governmental commission ruled out the possibility of a mechanical or technical failure in the two helicopters. The investigation did find that the main rotor of one of the helicopters struck the other as the first crashed and the second attempted to help.
7. 2002 – Russia: Mil Mi-26
Russia has a long and complicated relationship with many former Soviet states and territories with which it has had contact even before the USSR. The incident in question here took place during the Second Chechen War, the latest in a long and brutal series of religious and ethno-nationalist conflicts.
This crash took place just east of Grozny in Chechnya with a Mil Mi-26 (the largest military helicopter in the world) carrying a complement of between 140 and 152 soldiers and passengers. Worse, the helicopter didn’t “just” crash, but crashed on a minefield after it was struck by a shoulder-fired 9K38 heat-seeking surface-to-air missile fired by Chechen Separatists.
Two years later, a 27-year-old resident of Grozny who was thought to be connected to this case, was arrested for “an act of terror.” Sadly, this is just one of countless examples of the horrific violence that has colored a conflict that has traumatized generations of Russians and Chechens.
8. 2007 – Sierra Leone: Mil Mi-8
On June 3, 2007 an Mi-8 helicopter crashed in an area close to Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone. The incident is thought to have resulted in the death of 22 people.
Helicopter travel in the area is commonly utilized to move between the airport and Freetown, which are separated by the Sierra Leone River as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The passengers were Togolese football fans returning from a match, while the two pilots were Ukrainian. One Russian copilot survived.
The wreck burned for more than 40 minutes while firefighters struggled to get to the scene, as airport staff attempted to control the blaze themselves by dousing it with buckets of water. Two of Sierra Leone’s top aviation officials lost their jobs following an investigative commission on the crash.
9. 2009 – Venezuela: Mil Mi-35
One of the worst helicopter disasters in South American history occurred on May 3, 2009, when an Mi-35 military copter crashed near Táchira in Venezuela, resulting in the death of all 17 servicemembers onboard, including a brigadier general, as well as one civilian.
The cause of the crash remains the subject of speculation. However, as was the case with many of the entries on this list, poor weather conditions are cited as a possibility.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that the incident occurred days after Álvaro Uribe, President of Colombia at the time, requested Venezuelan assistance in dealing with guerilla forces on the Venezuelan side of their border.
10. 2020 – USA: Sikorsky S-76B
While most of the crashes on this list are notable in part for their high death toll, this crash will be remembered in large part due to a single death, that of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Adding to the tragedy, his daughter Gianna and several others also lost their lives.
The party lost their lives when their helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas on January 26, 2020. However, the helicopter in question, a Sikorsky S-76D is notable for being one with an exceptionally strong safety record. Poor visibility conditions have been cited as a potential cause of the tragedy.
The tragedy set off a wave of memorials, not just in the NBA but in the MLB, NFL, NHL, and European Soccer, with AC Milan honoring Kobe before a match days later. Presidents Trump, Obama, and Clinton, then-candidate Biden, and California Governor Gavin Newsom all commented on the tragedy.