military balloon history
Aircraft

Military Balloon History: 1850 – 1900

In Europe, the use of balloons for military purposes began around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Hot air balloons were first developed in the western world by the Montgolfier brothers in the late eighteenth century, but they were not used in warfare until 1849, when Austrian forces attempted to utilize them against Italy.

The Austrians used about 200 paper balloons for this offensive, each one equipped with a 25 to 30-pound bomb on a timer fuse.

The plan was for each balloon to drop a bomb on Venice, but only one of the 200 balloons is known to have hit its target.

The others, launched mostly from land and a few from the side-wheel steamer Vulcano, were blown off-course when the wind changed direction. Many wound up back over Austrian forces or the Vulcano.

After that, the concept of using balloons to deliver bombs on a time fuse was mostly abandoned until World War II, when the Japanese took it up again. Meanwhile, later versions of balloons were used for bombing.

In 1884, the French military used them in the capture of Dien Bien Phu near the Vietnam-Laos border.

Both Japan and Italy used balloons for bombing against the Russians in the early twentieth century, in direct violation of the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, which banned discharging explosives from balloons.

In America, balloons were first used for warfare during the Civil War.

After an exhaustive search by President Abraham Lincoln for a Chief Aeronaut, Professor Thaddeus C. Lowe was chosen to head the Union Army Balloon Corps.

They initially used balloons inflated with coal gas, but this was problem as the balloons had to be carried back to town every few days to be reinflated.

After some experimentation, the Balloon Corps started using hydrogen gas generators.

These were designed with a complex system of tanks and copper plumbing that converted iron fillings and sulfuric acid into hydrogen.

Although the generators were easy to move around and made reinflating the balloons easier, they also drastically reduced the balloons’ lifespans, due to small amounts of sulfuric acid getting into the balloons with the hydrogen.

Lowe’s first excursion with a balloon was on October 1, 1861, when he took off from Washington D.C. for a 12-hour, 12-mile trip that came to an abrupt end when a gale-force wind ripped off the aerostat.

The balloon was sent reeling to the coast, and balloon activities were suspended until all the balloons and generators were finished.

Ultimately the Union Army used the balloons for reconnaissance and cartography. Lowe was able to observe the battlefield from his balloon the Washington, and this was the US military’s first claim of an aircraft carrier.

The balloon corps conducted free flights, using sandbags to dump ballast and fly higher, then lowering the craft by venting hydrogen.

The Confederate army also experimented with balloons, but was limited by supply embargoes and ended up using dressmaking material to build theirs.

By 1863, both armies had given up on using balloons.

Aside from reconnaissance and delivering bombs, military balloons had a third use: communication. One strong example occurred during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

Because the Prussians had surrounded Paris, the French were unable to get information in and out of the city easily.

French aeronauts advised the Post Office that balloons could be used to get messages out to the provisional government set up at Tours.

On September 20, 1870, aeronaut Jules Durouf left Montmartre in a balloon called Le Neptune, with 220 pounds of mail.

During the flight, Durouf sprinkled visiting cards over the enemy, as their weapons fire couldn’t reach the balloon.

A little more than three hours after takeoff, Le Neptune touched down behind enemy lines at Chateau de Craconville.

Although Durouf’s trip was successful, early balloons could not be steered, so due to wind direction, they only went one way—out of Paris.

Later versions hauled both mail and carrier pigeons, which were expected to fly back to Paris with reply messages.

The French also had to manufacture new balloons in a hurry since none of them returned with the pigeons.

Often they ended up using inexpensive materials that didn’t hold up well, and many of the pilots were new to flying.

Despite the challenges, the French government’s new minister, Leon Gambetta, escaped from Paris in a balloon and set up a provisional capital at Tours on October 7.

Rumors that the Prussians had developed an anti-aircraft gun led the French government to insist all balloons were launched at night.

Unfortunately, this added even more difficulties for inexperienced pilots.

Because the balloons weren’t controllable after launch, they could go off-course.

One even wound up in Norway after going 800 miles off-target. Others disappeared and were never recovered.

In total, 66 balloons flew out of Paris during the war, and 58 made it to the ground safely.

Balloons carried more than 102 people out of the city and delivered more than two million pounds of mail.

Because they were generally successful, France established the “Commission des Communications Aeriennes” in 1874.

Then in 1877, they formed a military aeronautical establishment that still exists today.

Other nations, including Germany, Austria, and Russia, also formed organizations dedicated to aeronautics.

The British were a little slower to accept balloons for military usage. It wasn’t until 1879 that the British army used its first balloon, when Captain J. L. B. Templer provided his own, the Crusader.

Due to his observations, the British army decided to use compressed gas and designed a gas-tight valve for the crafts.

By 1890, the British military said it could fill a small balloon in fifteen minutes. Templer also wanted lighter fabrics, and eventually hired a family to make goldbeaters’ skin (from the intestines of oxen) for this purpose.

The British military began training with balloons in 1880, eventually using them for aerial observation, including free flights.

These were sometimes dangerous, and a member of parliament who was riding along was killed when weather conditions suddenly worsened.

Templer almost died in the same flight. The British later used four balloon sections during the South African War in the late nineteeth century.

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Rob V.
Rob V. founded Century-of-Flight.net in October of 2019. He holds commercial single and multi-engine instrument ratings, and is a licensed CFI / CFII for both single and multi-engine aircraft. Rob currently has 1,500+ hours of flight logged, 1,000 of which is dual-given as an instructor. Learn more about him in his full bio here.

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