Air University Review, May-June 1980
Patricia Turner Schriver
THOUGH he was mostly joking, the World War I balloon observer had sufficient cause to sing this theme song. Aside from the hazards of his balloon tethered in the air by a single 5/8-inch steel cable at 4000 feet altitude--a rubberized cotton bag filled with 32,200 cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen directly over his head--the observer had many other things to worry him. He knew his great flabby gas bag was such an important target that balloon kills were rated as 1'/2 airplane kills to enemy aviators. The balloon was also a favorite objective of German artillery; when the airborne observer saw a muzzle flash on a distant hillside, he had several seconds to wonder about the gunner's accuracy. If his balloon was hit by gunfire or shelling, only 15-20 seconds would elapse before it might begin to burn fiercely. In this brief time the observer had to check his parachute harness attachment and jump over the side of the basket without becoming entangled in the balloon's numerous ropes and cords. Even once bailed out, he was not necessarily safe, as it was possible that pieces of the burning balloon might ignite his parachute.
These risks seemed justified on the basis of the balloon's unequaled ability to "see" behind the enemy's front line. During World War I, aerial photo reconnaissance was in its infancy, and observation by heavier-than-air planes was both inaccurate and awkward due to the lack of suitable air-ground communication other than prearranged signals or dropped messages. From a stationary balloon, the observer could see as far as ten miles, note changes behind enemy lines over a period of hours or days, and be in constant telephone contact with the ground for directing artillery fire or transmitting intelligence information.
Many American World War I balloon observers never fully appreciated the vast improvement of their Caquot (Cah-kōh) balloons over earlier observation balloons' designs. The first captive balloons were spherical and tended to revolve slowly around their tethering lines. Later balloons were roughly cylindrical with rounded ends; a long, tube-shaped lobe was attached to the underside, curving up around the end of the balloon. This lobe, which acted like a rudder, was open-ended and not filled with gas. It hung limply when the air was calm but filled with wind and helped stabilize the balloon when it was breezy. Umbrella-shaped "tailcups," strung on a line from the rear of the balloon like a kite's tail, helped prevent the balloon from swinging back and forth. This kite-like type of balloon, known as the drachen, had been developed in Germany, but it was being tested by both France and Great Britain when World War I began. It proved to be relatively unstable in high winds and was virtually uncontrollable. If the tailcups tore loose during a storm.
While trying to improve the drachen, Captain Albert Caquot of the French army developed the first streamlined captive balloon early in World War I. The major design changes in addition to the streamlining, which decreased air resistance, were the relocation of the inner air chamber (balloonette) from the rear to the nose of the balloon near the underside and three air-filled lobes spaced evenly around the tail. The balloonette was separate from the main gas envelope and filled through an exterior air scoop; it helped keep the outer envelope taut when the volume of hydrogen fluctuated because of differences in atmospheric pressure, temperature, and seepage through the rubberized fabric. The new location of the balloonette resulted in greater stability, lessened tension on the cable, and permitted the balloon to ride nearly horizontally above its mooring, regardless of the winds. With these improvements, the Allies had found a practical captive airborne observation platform, which operated successfully in winds as high as 70 miles per hour.
The Caquot balloon had a capacity of 32,200 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, giving it sufficient lifting power for the mooring cable, basket, two passengers, and necessary equipment in good weather, the balloon could ascend to more than 4000 feet altitude with operations normally conducted at between 1000 and 4000 feet. Although fire was a constant danger, the highly flammable hydrogen was essential there was no quantity process for manufacturing helium at that time. By Armistice Day, however, American engineers had developed a process for extracting helium from liquefied gas and had readied 147,000 cubic feet of the nonflammable gas for shipment to the front.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, an observation balloon school was rather hastily established at Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Training encompassed far more than handling the balloon. Since his main purpose was regulating artillery fire, the observer had to be familiar with artillery operations, signals, maps, and instruments. He was in direct telephone communication with all batteries in the sector, often handling as many as three divisions, corps artillery, and G-2 (intelligence). From his vantage point, the observer could report enemy activity, troop concentrations and the location of food and ammunition dumps and could direct artillery fire precisely onto these targets.
The use of parachutes was essential. Even though the powerful truck-mounted gasoline winch could reel the balloon to earth in a few minutes, the safest course for the observers when the balloon was attacked was "over the side". The parachutes most commonly used were mounted outside the basket in inverted cones and attached to the observers by ropes. Later in the war, a "basket parachute" was developed and tested that separated the entire basket from the balloon and floated it to the ground, thus saving the maps, charts, instruments, and telephone equipment. Although this type of parachute was tested at the front, Americans relied on the one-man chutes for operations.
Enlisted men learned how to make balloon "beds"; to inflate, handle, and maintain the balloon; to maneuver the balloon in air; and to move the balloon to another area while inflated.
General John J Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, had requested that 125 balloon companies be shipped overseas as soon as possible, but the first American balloon unit did not reach France until 28 December 1917. On arriving, the group was separated into four companies and assigned to either an artillery training center or a balloon school. Here they were taught French balloon procedures and equipped with French Caquot balloons, parachutes, winches, and other equipment, as American equipment was not yet available.
The 2d Balloon Company relieved a French balloon unit on 26 February 1918 at L'Ermitage Woods and began operations with the American First Division. Thus it became the first complete American Air Service unit in history to operate against an enemy on foreign soil. This was the first of 17 American balloon companies to see active service; six more arrived at the front shortly after the armistice.1
The first American balloon destroyed by the enemy belonged to the 4th Balloon Company, operating in the Toul sector. After building their camp. In late May 1918, members of the 4th put up their first balloon, only to discover that the Germans had also put up a balloon across the front directly opposite the Americans' position. "Every day thereafter a game of hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo ensued, with the two balloons going up and down like yo-yos on a string while the opposing observers [presumably] thumbed their noses at each other." The Americans went into gales of laughter during each of these routines and nicknamed the two balloons "Fatty" (American) and "Stinky" (German). These antics continued for several days but on 16 June, the day the Germans attacked Xivray, they moved Stinky and began firing shrapnel at Fatty and heavy explosive shells at its winch. After an hour's heavy shelling, members of the 4th finally pulled Fatty down to the balloon bed. Within a few minutes, a shell landed nearby, destroying the balloon.2
Only 12 U.S. balloons were lost to enemy shellfire, while 35 were destroyed by attacking aircraft. The average life of a balloon on an active sector of the Western Front was 15 days. However, only one observer was killed by enemy action: Lieutenant Cleo J. Ross, of the 8th Balloon Company, on 26 September 1918. When their balloon was attacked at close range by a German Fokker D.VII, both observers bailed out, but Lieutenant Ross jumped too late. Pieces of the burning balloon ignited his parachute, and he fell to the ground from 4000 feet. Ross was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In all, American observers made 125 combat jumps, 61 from burning balloons and 64 from balloons that did not burn. Numerous observers made multiple jumps during their service at the front, and eight bailed out twice in one day.
However, dramatic, these facts tell little about a balloon company's day-to-day operations. The company normally consisted of six officers and 170 enlisted men. Usually four of the officers served both as observers and section heads: the other two were the commanding officer and his adjutant, who was also the maneuvering officer. The enlisted men's duties included rigging, handling, and maneuvering the balloon; working in the chart room and mess tent; guarding against poison gas attack; driving the company trucks; and operating the winch, telephone system, and antiaircraft guns. Enlisted members of the company also served as buglers, tailors, carpenters, orderlies, and medical crewmen. Observation balloon crews lived much like infantry troops, usually operating during the day and moving from one site to another at night. Night flight operations could only be conducted when the moon was bright. Like the infantry, they dug their own trenches, worked and slept in pup tents in the mud, and endured the onslaughts of the enemy, the "cooties," (World War I slang for lice) and the Army's supply system. Unlike the infantry, they were not relieved at regular intervals; because of the shortage of balloon units, many operated almost continuously at the front from the day they arrived. The 2d Balloon Company was the most extreme example--from the time it was assigned in February 1918 until Armistice Day, it was relieved only once, and then for only seven days. In his Final Report of the Chief of the Air Service, General Mason Patrick stated:
It is doubtful if the combat troops of any other arm of the service have operated so continuously at the front. Whatever measure of success has been attained by American balloon troops with the armies has been due to the determination of the personnel to overcome all obstacles and to work to the limit of human endurance in order to do their share toward defeating the enemy.
SINCE 1971 officials of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, had tried to locate a World War I-era observation balloon. Members of the National Association of the American Balloon Corps Veterans (NAABCV), men who served in the U.S Balloon Corps during World War I, adopted the search for a balloon as a "crusade." In early 1975, the NAABCV, through contacts with British World War I balloon veterans, finally discovered a Caquot Type R in possession of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) of Bedfordshire, England. Although this balloon was manufactured in 1944, the Caquot design had remained the same since 1918. Used for noncombat aerial observation and photography and for parachute testing, this sole-remaining balloon had made its last flight in 1960. Once arrangements could be made, the Ministry of Defence, RAE, donated the Caquot to the USAF Museum for display.
Shortly after its arrival on 2 February 1976, the balloon was inflated with air to check for leaks Because of its immense size, 92 feet by 32 feet, overhead suspension seemed to be the only practical display method. Unfortunately, the balloon fabric had deteriorated through age, and a way had to be found to keep the balloon inflated. To the best of their knowledge, a Caquot balloon had never before been displayed in a museum, so there was no past experience to draw on. Museum officials considered several alternatives, including filling it with a three-inch layer of polyurethane foam that would harden sufficiently for the balloon to hold an inflated shape; lining it with a lightweight plastic balloon cut to the same size to minimize leakage and filling it with air or helium; and repairing the weak areas, filling it with air or helium, and reinflating it as needed. After weighing the factors of fire safety, cost, and ongoing maintenance, officials decided that the last alternative was the most practical.
In September 1977, the USAF Museum accepted an offer of technical assistance from a company that had manufactured the Caquot balloon for the US. government during World War I, the Goodyear Aerospace Corporation of Akron. Ohio Museum restoration personnel and Goodyear representatives subsequently patched weak interior areas and applied two coats of special rubber-based paint to the balloon's exterior. Staff members then designed and fabricated a suspension strap-cradle and air replenishment system. Three coats of paint, specially formulated and mixed for this purpose by Goodyear, brought the balloon back to the 1918 color and ready once again to "fly." Finally, in May 1979, the Caquot Type R was placed on exhibit over the World War I display area in the main display building.
U S Air Force Museum Wright Patterson AFB Ohio
All photographs are from the USAF Museum collection.
1. Craig S. Herbert, "Gasbags Preferred", Aerospace Historian, Summer 1968, pp. 41-43.
2. John H. Tegler, "The Humble Balloon Brief History--Balloon Service, AEF," Cross and Cockade Journal, Spring 1965, p. 24.
Patricia Turner Schriver (B.A., Cleveland State University) was a historian at the USAF Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, before leaving government service at the end of July to begin a new career as a free lance writer and farmer in Montpelier, Indiana.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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