Observation balloon
Observation balloons are balloons
Balloon (aircraft)
A balloon is a type of aircraft that remains aloft due to its buoyancy. A balloon travels by moving with the wind. It is distinct from an airship, which is a buoyant aircraft that can be propelled through the air in a controlled manner....

 that are employed as aerial platforms for intelligence gathering
Military intelligence
Military intelligence is a military discipline that exploits a number of information collection and analysis approaches to provide guidance and direction to commanders in support of their decisions....

 and artillery spotting
Artillery observer
A military artillery observer or spotter is responsible for directing artillery fire and close air support onto enemy positions. Because artillery is an indirect fire weapon system, the guns are rarely in line-of-sight of their target, often located tens of miles away...

. Their use began during the French Revolutionary Wars
French Revolutionary Wars
The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states...

, reaching their zenith during World War I, and they continue in limited use today.

Historically, observation balloons were filled with hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

. The French colonel Renard developed a mobile system with a trailer in 1880. Effectiveness was considerably improved with a new more aerodynamic design in 1914, by French engineer Albert Caquot
Albert Caquot
Albert Caquot was considered as the "best living French engineer" during half a century. He received the “Croix de guerre 1914-1918” and was Grand-croix of the Légion d’Honneur...

. During World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, from 1914 to 1918, both the Allies and Germany employed balloons, generally a few miles behind the front lines. The balloons were fabric
A fabric is a textile material, short for "textile fabric".Fabric may also refer to:*Fabric , the spatial and geometric configuration of elements within a rock*Fabric , a nightclub in London, England...

 envelopes filled with hydrogen gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

, whose flammable nature led to the destruction of hundreds of balloons on both sides. Observers manning these observation balloons frequently had to use a parachute
A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag, or in the case of ram-air parachutes, aerodynamic lift. Parachutes are usually made out of light, strong cloth, originally silk, now most commonly nylon...

 to evacuate their balloon when it came under attack. To avoid the potentially flammable consequences of hydrogen, observation balloons after World War I were often filled with non-flammable helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...


Typically, balloons were tethered to a steel cable attached to a winch
A winch is a mechanical device that is used to pull in or let out or otherwise adjust the "tension" of a rope or wire rope . In its simplest form it consists of a spool and attached hand crank. In larger forms, winches stand at the heart of machines as diverse as tow trucks, steam shovels and...

 that reeled the gasbag to its desired height (often above 3,000 feet) and retrieved it at the end of an observation session.


The first military use of observation balloons was by the French Aerostatic Corps
French Aerostatic Corps
The French Aerostatic Corps or Company of Aeronauts was the world's first air force, founded in 1794 to use balloons, primarily for reconnaissance.-Experimentation:...

 during the French Revolutionary Wars
French Revolutionary Wars
The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states...

, the very first time during the Battle of Fleurus (1794)
Battle of Fleurus (1794)
In the Battle of Fleurus on 26 June 1794, the army of the First French Republic under General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan faced the Coalition Army commanded by Prince Josias of Coburg in the most decisive battle of the Flanders Campaign in the Low Countries during the French Revolutionary Wars...

. The oldest preserved observation balloon, L'Intrépide
L'Intrépide was a hydrogen balloon of the French Aerostatic Corps and is the oldest preserved aircraft in Europe.L'Intrépide was the larger of two observation balloons, the other being Hercule , issued to the Aerostatic Corps in June 1795...

, is on display in a Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

 museum. They were also used by both sides during the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 (1861–65) and continued in use during the Franco-Prussian War
Franco-Prussian War
The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, often referred to in France as the 1870 War was a conflict between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was aided by the North German Confederation, of which it was a member, and the South German states of Baden, Württemberg and...


On 8 July 1867, Argentine Army Aviation
Argentine Army Aviation
The Argentine Army Aviation is the army aviation branch of the Argentine Army...

  Staff Sergeant Roberto A. Chodasiewicz used a balloon on the War of the Triple Alliance
War of the Triple Alliance
The Paraguayan War , also known as War of the Triple Alliance , was a military conflict in South America fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay...

 during the battle of Humaitá.

Balloons were first deployed by the British Army's Royal Engineers
Royal Engineers
The Corps of Royal Engineers, usually just called the Royal Engineers , and commonly known as the Sappers, is one of the corps of the British Army....

 during the expeditions to Bechuanaland and Suakin in 1885. They were also deployed during the Second Boer War
Second Boer War
The Second Boer War was fought from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902 between the British Empire and the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State...

 (1899–1902), where they were used in artillery observation at the Battle of Magersfontein
Battle of Magersfontein
The Battle of MagersfonteinSpelt incorrectly in various English texts as "Majersfontein", "Maaghersfontein" and "Maagersfontein". was fought on 11 December 1899, at Magersfontein near Kimberley on the borders of the Cape Colony and the independent republic of the Orange Free State...

 and during the Siege of Ladysmith
Siege of Ladysmith
The Siege of Ladysmith was a protracted engagement in the Second Boer War, taking place between 30 October 1899 and 28 February 1900 at Ladysmith, Natal.-Background:...

World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 was the highpoint for the military use of observation balloons. The British, despite their experience in late 1800s Africa, were behind developments, using spherical balloons. These were quickly replaced by versions of first Italian and then French designs, which were flyable and could operate in more extreme weather conditions. During World War I, artillery had developed to the point where it was capable of engaging targets beyond the visual range of a ground-based observer. Positioning artillery observers at altitude on balloons allowed them to see targets at greater range than they could on the ground. This allowed the artillery to take advantage of its increased range. The balloons were deployed on land and at sea for use in
  • Observing enemy troops
  • Locating submarines
  • Artillery spotting

The idiom "The balloon's going up!" as an expression for impending battle is derived from the very fact that an observation balloon's ascent likely signaled a preparatory bombardment for an offensive.

Examples of British Kite Balloon ships include HMS Manica
HMS Manica
HMS Manica was the first Kite Balloon Ship of the Royal Naval Air Service which saw active service in the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915 directing the fire of the supporting ships at Anzac Cove.Ships of the similar type included and .-Construction:...

, HMS Hector
HMS Hector
Eleven ships of the British Royal Navy have borne the name HMS Hector, named after the Trojan hero Hector in the Iliad.* The first was a 22-gun ship sold in 1656.* The second was a 30-gun ship sold in 1657....

 and HMS Canning.

Because of their importance as observation platforms, balloons were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

 and patrolling fighter aircraft
Fighter aircraft
A fighter aircraft is a military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat with other aircraft, as opposed to a bomber, which is designed primarily to attack ground targets...

. Attacking a balloon was a risky venture, but some pilots relished the challenge. The most successful were known as balloon busters, including such notables as Belgium's Willy Coppens
Willy Coppens
Willy Omer Francois Jean Coppens was Belgium's leading fighter ace and the champion "balloon buster" of World War I.-Background and Early Military Service:...

, Germany's Friedrich Ritter von Röth
Friedrich Ritter von Röth
Oberleutnant Friedrich Ritter von Röth was a German World War I fighter ace with 28 victories. He was the most successful German pilot at shooting down enemy observation balloons; 20 of his triumphs were against them.-Early service:Friedrich Röth served originally in an artillery regiment. He was...

, America's Frank Luke
Frank Luke
Frank Luke Jr. was an American fighter ace, ranking second among U.S. Army Air Service pilots after Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in number of aerial victories during World War I . Frank Luke was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor...

, and the Frenchmen Léon Bourjade
Leon Bourjade
Léon Bourjade , born Jean-Pierre Léon Bourjade, was a leading French fighter pilot in World War I, notable for being his country's leading balloon busting ace...

, Michel Coiffard
Michel Coiffard
Michel Joseph Callixte Marie Coiffard was one of the leading French flying aces of the World War I. He was notable for his success as a balloon buster shooting down enemy observation balloons, which were usually heavily defended by anti-aircraft machine guns and artillery and by fighter planes...

, and Maurice Boyau
Maurice Boyau
Maurice Jean-Paul Boyau was a French rugby union player and a leading French ace of the First World War with 35 victories, and one of the most successful balloon busters...


World War I observation crews, were the first to use parachutes on a wide scale, far before they were adopted by fixed wing aircraft. These were a primitive parachute type where the main part was in a bag suspended from the balloon with the pilot only wearing a simple body harness around his waist which lines from the harness attached to the main parachute in the bag. When the balloon crew jumped the main part of the parachute was pulled from the bag, with the shroud lines first, followed by the main canopy. This type of parachute was first adopted on a large scale by the Germans, and then later by the British and French for their observation balloon crews.
The type commonly used was the kite balloon. Its shape stabilised it by causing it to point into the wind.
Observation balloons also were used in substantial numbers during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, particularly by the U.S. Navy for anti-submarine work
Non-rigid airship
A blimp, or non-rigid airship, is a floating airship without an internal supporting framework or keel. A non-rigid airship differs from a semi-rigid airship and a rigid airship in that it does not have any rigid structure, neither a complete framework nor a partial keel, to help the airbag...

Observation balloons also played a role during the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

. For example, Project Mogul
Project Mogul
Project Mogul was a top secret project by the US Army Air Forces involving microphones flown on high altitude balloons, whose primary purpose was long-distance detection of sound waves generated by Soviet atomic bomb tests. The project was carried out from 1947 until early 1949...

 used high-altitude observation balloons to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.

They are currently used by US and coalition military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are tethered to outposts near bases with cameras attached to the underside.

See also

  • Balloon (aircraft)
    Balloon (aircraft)
    A balloon is a type of aircraft that remains aloft due to its buoyancy. A balloon travels by moving with the wind. It is distinct from an airship, which is a buoyant aircraft that can be propelled through the air in a controlled manner....

  • Barrage balloon
    Barrage balloon
    A barrage balloon is a large balloon tethered with metal cables, used to defend against low-level aircraft attack by damaging the aircraft on collision with the cables, or at least making the attacker's approach more difficult. Some versions carried small explosive charges that would be pulled up...

  • Espionage balloon
    Espionage balloon
    An espionage balloon is a balloon used for spying.Espionage balloons were a development of the observation balloons used even before the World War I behind the front line...

  • Kite types
    Kite types
    Kites are tethered flying objects which fly by using aerodynamic lift, requiring wind, , for generation of airflow over the lifting surfaces.-Kite types:...

  • List of American Balloon Squadrons
  • Surveillance aircraft
    Surveillance aircraft
    A surveillance aircraft is an aircraft used for surveillance — collecting information over time. They are operated by military forces and other government agencies in roles such as intelligence gathering, battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, observation , border patrol and fishery...

External links

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