Military Wiki

L'Entreprenant at the Battle of Fleurus (1794).

Balloons were the first mechanisms used in air warfare. Their role was strictly recognized for reconnaissance purposes. They provided humans with the first available method of elevating themselves well over the battlefield to obtain the proverbial "birds-eye view." They were an early instrument of definitive intelligence collection, and were also particularly useful in the preparation of accurate battlefield maps, before which time this rudimentary craft had led to many a battlefield failure.

Kongming lantern

Kongming lanterns were used as military signalling. The lantern was invented in late Han dynasty, when the Han dynasty chancellor Zhuge Liang (Kongming) was surrounded by Wei dynasty General Sima Yi at Pinlo, Sichuan. Zhuge Liang used paper made "lanterns", or hot balloons, to signal the rescue forces. The Kongming lantern become a common military signal in China, and it was inherited by the Mongolian troops, seen in the Battle of Legnica. Flying the Kongming lantern is now a civilian festival of memorizing chancellor Zhuge Liang in the Lantern Festival.

Early French balloons

Balloons escaped from the Siege of Paris (1870–1871)

The first successfully flown balloons were made in France by the Montgolfier brothers in 1782-1783. They were rigid-style spheres made of cotton or silk stretched over a simple light wood frame resembling a large egg. These rigid balloons were held up over a fire so that the smoke billowed well into the cavity of the sphere. It was thought that the smoke made the balloons rise, but actually it was the hot air of the smoke that caused the elevating. The first decisive use of a balloon for aerial observation was performed by the French Aerostatic Corps using the aerostat l’Entreprenant ("The enterprising one") at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. The following year, during the Siege of Mainz an observation ballon was employed again. However, the French military use of the balloon did not continue uninterrupted, as in 1799 Napoleon disbanded the French balloon corps.[1]

American ballooning

American ballooning began in the early half of the 19th century using light coke gas for inflation. This gas, if inflated into a relatively well-sealed silk envelope, could sustain flight nearly indefinitely. Balloons were mainly used as amusement rides, so initially the military had no use for them at all.

Balloons in the American Civil War

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln did consider the possibility of an air-war mechanism. This had some of the top balloonists in the country vying for position as chief aeronaut of a would-be aeronautics division. The scientific community as well showed great support in influencing Washington to consider the use of balloons. Eventually it was Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe who would be awarded the title Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.

First balloon assignments

Intrepid being cross-inflated from Constitution in a mad-dash attempt to get the larger balloon in the air to overlook the imminent Battle of Fair Oaks.

First military assigned to the Army Signal Corps' ballooning program

The first assignment for military balloons was given to the Union Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers for mapmaking. Up until that point, maps were made from ground level perspectives and their innate inaccuracy led to many a battlefield failure. The aerial perspective ostensibly improved mapmaking, especially when combined with the use of photography.

General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Army of the Potomac, called on the balloon to perform aerial observations of enemy encampments and movements in the First Battle of Bull Run. With Lowe’s techniques proven to the top commanders, he was eventually tasked to build seven balloons and a series of hydrogen gas generators to inflate them in the battlefield. Even though Thaddeus Lowe was Chief Aeronaut, his bitter rival John La Mountain is credited with having made the first aerial observations of intelligence value while stationed independently at Fortress Monroe.

The balloon, under flight direction of Prof. Lowe, was also used to direct artillery fire from an unseen location onto a Confederate encampment. The balloon, Eagle, was ascended with tether and telegraph from Fort Corcoran north of Falls Church, Virginia. (The use of a telegraph to a balloon was previously successfully tested by Lowe on June 18, 1861.[2]) An artillery battery was located at the easterly Camp Advance. With a series of predetermined flag signals, Lowe directed fire onto the Rebel encampment until the shots were landing on target. This first-used concept was the predecessor to the Forward Artillery Observer (FAO) and revolutionized the use of artillery even to modern day.

Prof. Lowe was once approached by the young Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1863, who was at the time acting as a then-civilian observer for the Union Army, about possibly serving as an aerial observer with Lowe, but this was forbidden by Union military authorities during the Civil War years, due to von Zeppelin's then-civilian status. The future rigid airship pioneer was instead directed to the camp of John Steiner, a German aeronaut already in the United States, to get his first flight experience in a balloon, which von Zeppelin was able to do at a slightly later time while he still was in the US.

The first aircraft carrier

Balloons and generators were loaded onto the USS George Washington Parke Custis, a converted coal barge. The balloons were towed down the Potomac River and were able to ascend and make observations of the battle front as it moved toward Richmond. On November 11, 1861, Lowe made the first observations from a balloon based from a ship. This is the first ever recorded observation from an aerial station by water, essentially the first-ever aircraft carrier (balloon tender).

Lowe went on to make observations at Fair Oaks, Sharpsburg, Vicksburg and Fredericksburg before political ambush both from within the military and in Congress forced him to resign in April 1863 at which point he returned to the private sector. The Balloon Corps all but ceased to exist by August 1863.

Confederate ballooning

The Confederates tried their hand at ballooning as well, more only to counter the balloons of the Federals. One type of balloon was a Montgolfier style of a rigid, cotton, “hot smoke” balloon. The attempts worked, but their handling techniques were poor at best and the balloon was easily lost and captured by the North.

Another style is referred to as the “silk dress balloon,” aerostat envelopes made of multicolored dress making silk (not actually silk dresses) which, when gas was available, were used effectively over Richmond. Again, these were easily lost, destroyed or captured, and the lack of supply made it impossible to replace them. They were relieved when the Union Army had discontinued the use of balloons.

The Confederate Balloon Corps also made use of an aircraft carrier, the CSS Teaser. The Teaser transported and launched one of the Confederate balloons to several observation posisitions before being captured by the Union Navy in July 1862.

Paraguayan War

In 1867 during the Paraguayan War, balloons were used in the fighting between Brazil and Paraguay.[3]

British ballooning

Between 1862–71 efforts by two Royal Engineers officers, were made to catch the attention of senior British officers to the potential use of balloons. In July 1863 experimental balloon ascents for reconnaissance purposes were conducted by the Royal Engineers on behalf of the British Army, but although the experiments were successful it was considered not worth pursuing further because it was too expensive. However, by 1878 a Balloon Equipment Store was established at Woolwich by the Royal Engineers.[4] By this time the limitations imposed by the need to produce hydrogen in the field by some portable apparatus and finding a suitable material for the envelope of a war balloon had been resolved.

In 1888 a School of Ballooning was established at Chatham, Medway, Kent. It moved to Stanhope Lines, Aldershot in 1890 when a balloon section and depot were formed as permanent units of the Royal Engineers establishment.[5]

Balloons were first deployed by the British Army during the expeditions to Bechuanaland and Suakin in 1885.[6] They were also deployed during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), where they were used in artillery observation with the Kimberley column and during the Siege of Ladysmith.[7][8][9][10]

On October 5, 1907, Colonel John Capper (late Royal Engineers) and team flew the military airship Nulli Secundus from Farnborough around St. Paul's Cathedral in London and back with a view to raising public interest.[11]

Late 19th century

Proposed dynamite balloon, 1885

The use of manned air-war mechanisms would not be seen for nearly 30 years after the Civil War when the airship (a dirigible, blimp, or Zeppelin) would come into existence with their motorized propulsion and mechanical means of steering. Up to this point, the idea of dropping ordnance on the enemy was not seriously considered, although there were mechanical drawings made up depicting bomb dropping devices that could be floated aloft by balloons. These depictions were paper theory at best designed by mechanical wizzes with no idea about aviation, in particular, balloons, and all that it takes to successfully launch gas-filled aerostats.

There weren't really any practical types of grenades or bombs to use during the Civil War. Weight was a great factor in determining the size of balloons to be used and the amount of gas they needed to ascend. Carrying heavy ordnance and ungainly mechanisms in balloons would have been out of the question. (And if Prof. Lowe thought that he would have to drop bombs on enemy positions, he would have never offered his services.) With the newer, larger and more manageable aerostats, and smaller munitions, the use of bombs would make aerial warfare much more appealing in later days.

Although there is no record of it ever having been deployed, during the 1900 Boxer Uprising in China, the French forces did bring a balloon with them.

World War I

German war plane brings down "enemy's" tethered kite balloon (1918)

Military observation balloons were used over the trenches of the Western Front. Germany used Zeppelins for aerial bombing and reconnaissance. One famous raid conducted by Zeppelin on London.

Inter-War Period

Zeppelin forces were established by Great Britain and the United States.

World War II

The United States Navy used its blimp force to hunt submarines. Barrage balloons were used by the United Kingdom to intercept air attacks by V-1 cruise missiles.

Japan used recently discovered high-altitude air currents to send fire balloons (or fu-go) carrying explosive payloads to the American mainland. About 300 make it across the Pacific, causing some property damage and at least six deaths. The US government calls for a press blackout on all balloon incidents, fearing what might happen if the Japanese start using fu-go to deliver biological weapons.

Post-War Period

The US military developed high-altitude ballooning programs for nuclear detection and surveillance, such as Project Mogul (linked to the Roswell Incident), Project Genetrix and Project Moby Dick.

They also worked on the E77 balloon bomb, refining the principles of the Japanese fire balloon explosive-delivery system.

(Note: Some historians have speculated that Japanese fu-go researchers were brought to America as part of an Operation Paperclip-style program, using Axis scientists to improve U.S. defense technology.[12] Since such a program would be highly classified, its existence has never been conclusively proven.)

Observation balloon over Afghanistan, 2011

Future of military ballooning

  • A DARPA project explores the possibility of using balloons as non-line-of-sight communication relay among ground units and between ground units and aircraft.[13]
  • As of 2013, military researchers are investigating lighter-than-air craft for carrying cargo and, possibly, troops in the Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS) and Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programs.

See also


  1. Joubert de la Ferté, Sir Philip (1955). The Third Service. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 1. 
  2. Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 184. 
  3. Joubert de la Ferté, Sir Philip (1955). The Third Service. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 2. 
  4. Fitzgerald, W. G. (July 1905). "War Balloons of To-Day". Chicago, IL: The World To-Day Company. pp. 740–756. Retrieved 2012 Jun 2. 
  5. Porter, Whitworth (1889). History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. II. London: Longmans, Green and Company. pp. 189–195. Retrieved 2012-06-02. 
  6. Hearne, R. P. (1909). Aerial Warfare. London: John Lane. pp. 60. Retrieved 2012-06-02. 
  7. Williams, Oakley (January 1908). "The Airship as a Destroyer". London. pp. 111–119. Retrieved 2012, Jun 2. 
  8. "How the British Hope to Prevent Majuba Hill Disasters in the Transvaal: Will Attack the Lurking Boers with Dynamite Shells Dropped by Their Balloon Corps". October 14 1899. pp. 2.,2130273. Retrieved 2012-06-02. 
  9. "Colonel Baden-Powell and His Military Kites". New York, NY. December 2 1899. pp. 15. Retrieved 2012 Jun 2. 
  10. Walsh, George Ethelbert (March 1900). "War Mechanism in South Africa". New York, NY: The Cassier Magazine Company. pp. 315–364. Retrieved 2012 Jun 2. 
  11. Raleigh, Walter (1922). The War in the Air. I. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. pp. 157–158. Retrieved 2012-06-02. 
  12. Nick. Body Snatchers in the Desert, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).