We were having a discussion at work about airships (zeppelins, blimps, etc.) and someone spoke about them sinking when they crash. Someone else said they can't sink because they're not descending through water.

So we googled the definition of the word sink, and got this:

  1. go down below the surface of something, especially of a liquid; become submerged.
  2. descend from a higher to a lower position; drop downwards.

The second definition means that an airship sinks. Then the same person that said it wasn't descending through water asked if that means skydivers are sinking.

Is there a better word than sink to describe what an airship does when it falls from the sky?

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    I think an airship can "sink" (lower and lower, throgh the clouds, toward the ground) when it descends, but it sounds a bit awkward to my ear and does not imply crashing, just a reduction in altitude. – Nick Weinberg Jul 1 '16 at 13:12
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    Aircraft fall from the sky all the time. Usually they do this safely, and we call it a landing. Sometimes the impact is too hard, and it is called a crash. – Sumurai8 Jul 1 '16 at 14:30
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    Maybe comparing an airship to a submarine would be more appropriate. Is the question about the normal ups and (especially) downs of an airship, or catastrophic failure? – Eric Smith Jul 1 '16 at 15:24
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    I'd still say it sinks. The definition you linked says "ESPECIALLY through a liquid", implying that it's not just the liquid. I could also point out it's an airship, implying the same things as a ship. Furthermore, would the answer to this apply to submersibles, as it's the same concept, just underwater? I've hardly heard of a submarine crashing.... – Anoplexian Jul 1 '16 at 17:01
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    In casual usage, if you told me an airship had "sunk", I would picture it falling out of the sky, crash landing on water, then sinking through the water to lie on the sea floor. – TessellatingHeckler Jul 1 '16 at 18:17

11 Answers 11


'Descend,' 'dive,' 'drop,' and 'fall' are all perfectly fine and, in the case of an uncontrolled descent, 'crash' does indeed tend to be the end result (though this refers specifically to what happens when it stops falling due to an undesirable form of contact with terrain.)

However, 'sink' is still perfectly valid to describe the actual falling. Indeed, pilots use the term 'sink' (usually when descending faster than normal) and use the term 'sink rate' to refer to the rate of descent of an aircraft.

From Wikipedia:

The rate of decrease in altitude is referred to as the rate of descent or sink rate.

Similarly, Ground Proximity Warning Systems on newer aircraft use the term 'sink' when they produce automated callouts. When an excessive rate of descent is detected by the radio altimeter, the following callout may be generated:

Sink Rate! Pull up!

When altitude is lost after takeoff or with a high power setting, the following callout may be produced:

Don't Sink!

Source: Wikipedia. Also, I'm a pilot (of small airplanes) and hear the terms frequently used by other pilots.

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    @Anoplexian Yeah, that's another interesting point. Usually you'd only say a submarine "sank" if it was actually destroyed and became unable to surface. If it was intentionally "sinking" the word used would be "dive". – Ajedi32 Jul 1 '16 at 18:52
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    An airship is comparable to a submarine, but sinking a surface ship is usually irreversible because the upper deck is not waterproof. – AmI Jul 1 '16 at 21:04
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    +1, a boat sinks until it has sunk. An airship sinks until it has crashed. – DCShannon Jul 1 '16 at 21:21
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    @Insane If intentional, it would be more appropriate to say that the airship is descending, or diving, not sinking. – DCShannon Jul 1 '16 at 21:45
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    I just checked reirab's profile - he has 7k rep on Aviation.SE. I'm inclined to trust that. – Insane Jul 1 '16 at 21:48

Very simple, it crashes.

This word has been used throughout the history of airships. Most famously the Hindenburg.

An airship is just another form of aircraft. It is not a ship of the seas. The vocabulary of flight is applied.

  • Same thing as with a spaceship. – Panzercrisis Jul 1 '16 at 14:40
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    I may be mistaken, but I think this answer misses the point of the question. The first sentence contains "someone spoke about them sinking when they crash.". The question is about sink, so crash doesn't seem to be a problem. Maybe @DanTemple can clarify so we can be sure – Thomas Francois Jul 1 '16 at 14:41
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    "Crash" refers to a collision--a skydiver descends, a plane that loses air pressure makes a rapid descent, but neither crashes till it hits the ground. – user66965 Jul 1 '16 at 14:44

It plummets.

Plummets - A steep and rapid fall

  • Yes! I was thinking "hurtle", but that doesn't indicate direction. Plummet is perfect. – GreatBigBore Jul 2 '16 at 5:21
  • "Hurtled earthward" handles direction. – Dave Newton Jul 2 '16 at 10:00
  • Doesn't hurtle sort of implies that it was given direction by an external agent. – Clarskon Jul 2 '16 at 10:03
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    I believe this best describes an 'uncontrolled descent' which was the essence of the question. +1 – Jeeped Jul 2 '16 at 23:04
  • An airship can crash without ever having plummeted. One could descend in a very controlled manner and then get out of control only a moment before landing, with or without an impact with some object other than the ground. – nnnnnn Jul 3 '16 at 3:22

It falls

It's not part of the plan for a ship to sink and it's often due to unfavorable circumstances. An aerial craft in free-fall is the closest equivalent I can think of. On an airship this would like be cause by a puncture or any other escape of the gaseous body.

Corrected Answer - "Founder"

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    +1 for founder. I had someone tell me once that their project was "floundering" and was very confused what flat fish had to do with the matter... – Wolfgang Jul 1 '16 at 21:34
  • Founder was given as a first answer by slomobile. – Stan Jul 1 '16 at 21:57
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    @Wolfgang - Actually, either "foundering" or "floundering" can be appropriate, and sometimes both at the same time. "Floundering" means "flopping about", which is something that projects in trouble often do. – Hot Licks Jul 2 '16 at 2:53
  • When the answer was edited and flounder was suggested, and written in HUGE bold letters, 07-01 at 16.45, Racheet's answer founder had already been suggested on the same day but at 15.06. – Mari-Lou A Jul 4 '16 at 5:56

The reason that "sink" does not sound right when applied to an airship is because "2. descend from a higher to a lower position; drop downwards" can describe a normal part of airship operation. Therefore, it does not convey the same implication of unintended, uncontrolled, ominously doomed descent, as when applied to surface ships.

Plummet and fall, work in that sense, yet an airship might potentially recover unscathed from that condition with quick action(ie. engines restarted). For a surface ship, a sinking event is interpreted as its end, recoverable only as salvage. So in that sense crash is the correct word.

One word that does apply equally is founder.


Any aircraft losing altitude is typically said to be 'descending.'

de·scend dəˈsend/ verb

1. move or fall downward.

"the aircraft began to descend"

synonyms: go down, come down; drop, fall, sink, dive, plummet, plunge, nosedive

When it hits the ground in an uncontrolled way it has crashed.

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    This seems to imply that the aircraft is intentionally going downwards. – AMACB Jul 1 '16 at 23:05

I think maybe it drops.


to fall vertically; have an abrupt descent.

to sink or fall to the ground, floor, or bottom as if inanimate.

Source: Dictionary.com, definitions 33 & 34.

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    Hi, Kate. I added formatting to your quoted language and a citation (with link) to the source of it. This is important information to include in your answer when you quote content from elsewhere. – Sven Yargs Jul 2 '16 at 2:53

In the context of war, or it being crashed through forceful means, consider using the verb "down".


verb informal past tense: downed; past participle: downed

  1. knock or bring to the ground. "175 enemy aircraft had been downed" synonyms: knock down/over, knock to the ground, bring down, topple; More
  • Ships go down, airships also go down, and the captain goes down with his ship either way. – Separatrix Jul 4 '16 at 11:41

I think you can use dive:

  • To fall head down through the air. (AHD)

A dive

  • may technically be described as "a steep descending flight path". While there is no specific definition for what degree of steepness transforms a downward trajectory into a dive, it is necessarily a rapid, nose-forward descent.

  • Dives are used intentionally in aerobatic flying to build speed for the performance of stunts, and by dive bombers to approach a target quickly while minimizing exposure to enemy fire before the dive. A dive may also be used as an emergency maneuver, for example to extinguish an engine fire.


  • A dive need not be incipient. I have made dives to loose altitude quickly by choice and I'm still here keying this into a comment. – Stan Jul 1 '16 at 16:07
  • As per your own definition, dive implies a head down fall, which may not be the case at all when an airship crashes. – nnnnnn Jul 3 '16 at 3:33

"If a ship sinks, what does an airship do?"
It depends on whether the airship is roped to the ship or not! ;)
As others have pointed out, a ship moves in a two-dimensional space, the surface of the sea. If it sinks, that is the end of the ship! But an airship moves in 3-dimensional space: if it sinks, it merely loses altitude. Until, that is, it crashes (if forcible) or lands (if deliberate). I have observed that the word 'descends' most often denotes deliberate, intentional action, whereas 'sinks' may denote unintentional descending, e.g. as result of loss of air, but context would modify that observation.

  • In ATC parlance it makes an "uncommanded landing" – user23614 Jul 2 '16 at 11:41

I think one can legitimately talk of "sinking" in any fluid medium, not just water -- especially for descent because it's no longer less dense than the medium it's in.

Consider the behaviour of the little boat in this video -- it's a boat made of foil floating on sulphur hexaflouride gas. When the person uses the beaker to scoop up gas and fill the floating boat until it falls to the bottom of the tank, I think that sink is exactly the right word for what the boat does.

Similarly people often speak of helium-filled toy balloons that eventually lose enough helium to no longer stay up as "sinking" to the floor.

If a boat can sink in gas, and a toy balloon can sink in air, what is so different about an airship that comes down?

If it came down rapidly, that could be called a crash but if it descends so slowly that no damage is incurred ... "crash" would seem out of place, but sink would still be a reasonable description (among others).

protected by user140086 Jul 4 '16 at 13:13

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