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Over the Front in World War 1: How Hard Can It Be to Shoot Down a Balloon?
The Balloon is Up
WW1 Ace Respected Balloons
WW1 observation balloons were basically gigantic, explosive targets, right? Yes and no. One interesting side note in the autobiography of America’s top WW1 ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, explains that balloons are not as simple to shoot down as you would think. Rickenbacker himself thought it would be simple until he and a group of other pilots tried it one day, and none succeeded. Rickenbacker came to consider shooting down a balloon more dangerous than shooting down another airplane.
What Were Observation Balloons?
First of all, balloons are not dirigibles. Balloons and dirigibles are very different, though they often had similar shapes. A dirigible is a rigid airship; it has a structure even when empty. That structure and an engine allow it to travel in a different direction from the wind. A balloon is just a sack to hold something lighter than air, such as hydrogen, helium, or heated air. A blimp is in between balloons and dirigibles: a sack of something lighter than air, with an engine. A zeppelin is a dirigible built by the Zeppelin company. (Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a military observer during the American Civil War, where he saw Union army balloons.)
Balloon technology was much older than airplanes. Airplanes were the new, untested technology of WW1 (powered, manned, heavier-than-air flight – what the Wright brothers started – was just over a decade old), but other means of getting an aerial view of the battle have been around at least since Chinese armies a few centuries BC found a way to fasten a soldier to a kite and send him up to observe. Even Ben Franklin had theorized about the military uses of balloons, including using them for troop movements. By the time of WW1, military observation balloons were about as old a technology as airplanes are today.
WW1 observation balloons allowed a man to sit a few thousand feet above the battlefield with a telescope and a telephone, so he had direct communication with a truck on the ground (an airplane had to land for the pilot to report what he had seen, in the days before aircraft radios). From the balloon, the observer could see for a radius of ten miles or so. Of course, the quality of observation depended on the weather; haze or smoke could make observation useless. One thing balloons were used for was telling their own gunners whether they were hitting their targets, and when the targets were destroyed.
The truck allowed the balloon to move horizontally (following a road) far enough and quick enough to confuse the range for enemy gunners, but of course that wasn’t a help against an airplane.
Observation balloons are still in military use today.
Balloon Observer Insignia
Balloons, Airplanes, and Parachutes
Observers in balloons had parachutes, in contrast to pilots early in the war for the German side, and all through the war for the Allies.
The lack of parachutes for fighter planes was partly because parachutes at first were so big and bulky. But there were other reasons. Airplanes were new and valuable, and a captured airplane could and did give the enemy a lot of design information. Pilots were also new and therefore less valuable - nobody knew much about flying, so it didn’t take long to train a pilot. The conventional wisdom was that a pilot with a parachute might be tempted to abandon a perfectly good airplane, and the airplane could be harder to replace than the pilot. Eventually, experience showed that a parachute could be very useful in saving the lives of the experienced pilots whom all the others were learning from. On the German side, Ernst Udet was one of the first to survive because of a parachute, while on the American side, Raoul Lufbery jumped to his death rather than burn alive in his airplane. It became clear that jumping was hazardous and not something a pilot would do casually, and the passionate statements of men like Eddie Rickenbacker obviously changed minds on the subject of parachutes before the next war.
An observation balloon, on the other hand, was less limited by space and balance, and it was not going to crash just because the observer bailed out, so balloon observers had parachutes, and many used them.
The balloons looked easy to attack, and they cost much more than an airplane, so they seemed like a worthwhile target.
In order to have the telephone cable connection, balloons were sort of stuck in one place. Though it sounds like a disadvantage, it meant the guns to protect the balloon already knew the approximate height an aircraft would have to be at to attack the balloon. Also they knew the balloon’s approximate horizontal location, and could make a curtain of gunfire around the balloon, far enough away to keep from hurting the balloon. Airplanes in a dogfight were on their own except maybe for help from other pilots.
Since antiaircraft fire was only as good as its range, the pilots didn’t have much fear of it when attacking a moving target. But in Rickenbacker’s words,
When we came in to attack a balloon, therefore, we flew through a curtain of shells exploding at our precise altitude.
--Edward Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 153
That was just to get into the balloon’s area, and they had to fly out through the curtain again.
And it wasn’t just antiaircraft guns. Enemy airplanes, knowing balloons were good airplane bait, would hide on the sunward side of the balloon, where it was very hard to see them at any distance, waiting to pounce on the pilot who dared approach. Rickenbacker was almost shot down by the Flying Circus when a German plane attacked an American balloon and Rickenbacker attacked the plane, and was himself attacked by two more German airplanes.
Everyone tends to think of balloons as highly flammable from pictures of the Hindenburg Zeppelin disaster. They were filled with hydrogen gas, which exploded well, but ignition didn’t automatically happen just because they got shot at. Regular bullets would usually pass right through them, so balloons could be “shot up” without being shot down. Incendiary and explosive bullets worked often, but not always, especially if the air was moist, and it could take several seconds of firing to actually ignite the balloon.
The cable anchoring a balloon could be on a motorized winch, drawing it down within a minute if a fighter was spotted. A good day for observing the battlefield would also be a good day for observing airplanes a long way away, and at the speeds airplanes flew in WW1, a minute to get down in the range of friendly ground fire was a pretty good safety factor.
Aircraft Attacks Observation Balloon
Balloons Versus Airplanes
Able to be moved vertically, and a little bit horizontally
Free motion in all three axes
Protected by antiaircraft guns
Protected by own guns (which might or might not mean firing only in the direction the plane was pointed)
Big, stationary target
Small, moving target
Killing the man in it doesn’t hurt the balloon
Killing the pilot practically always kills the airplane
Pretty much has to catch on fire to be shot down, which could take several seconds of fire with incendiary bullets
Any damage anywhere could down the airplane; damage from incendiary bullets, regular bullets, a brick, or a bird, or a balloon cable, damaging the engine, pilot, or flying surfaces
Almost instantaneous 360 degree view of battlefield from one position in 3D space
360 degree view-but might take a few minutes to turn around-of battlefield from any position in 3D space not being defended by the enemy
Immediate communication with ground
Communication with ground only after (successful!) landing
Could report on where troops were along the front lines and what they were doing at the moment
Could report on what was going on in the rear a short while previously
Behind the lines and too high for most ground fire; vulnerable only to aircraft and some artillery
Vulnerable to anything in the range it flew in
Stable technology with understood strategies for use
New technology, with capabilities and strategy that changed greatly during the few years of the war.
Lt Frank Luke
Balloon Attackers Get No Respect - Except from Aces
Rickenbacker talks with great respect about Frank Luke as “the most daring aviator of the entire war”, and the first flier to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, who shot down ten balloons, plus four other aircraft, in just 8 days. Not even von Richthofen had done anything like that in that time, and for a short time Luke became the American Ace of Aces. But like all the American Ace of Aces until Rickenbacker (a trend Rickenbacker was very aware of), Luke’s string of victories was interrupted by his death.
How to Shoot Down a Balloon
That first generation of fighter pilots was developing aviation strategy as they went along. One pilot's strategy for shooting down balloons, which fit in with Rickenbacker's experience, was to attack at dawn or dusk when it was harder to tell where an airplane was coming from, and also to fly as low as possible in the approach – that way, if the balloon was being hauled down, the airplane was coming up to meet it.
It's tough to be the one who succeeds at a job which is extremely dangerous and yet sounds faintly ridiculous to everyone who hasn't tried it. Here's to the "balloon busters" of World War 1.