A Brief History
On June 26, 1794, the army of the First Republic of France (the result of the French Revolution) made the first use of balloons in combat at the Battle of Fleurus against the forces of the First Coalition.
The French army under Jean-Baptiste Jourdan had seized upon the new technology pioneered by the French Montgolfier Brothers to create an observation/reconnaissance balloon that could give military commanders and observers much greater fields of view of battlefields and their approaches, a distinct advantage in battle.
Originally, the Montgolfier Balloons were of the hot air variety, but French scientists quickly realized the dangers and limitations of using open flame to raise balloons. Hydrogen gas was found to be much more buoyant than hot air, and no open flame was needed to keep the balloon aloft. Balloon construction switched from the coated paper shells used by hot air balloons to rubberized silk gas bags. In the absence of radio or telephone communications, information would have to be shouted down to personnel on the ground by the aviators or written messages dropped to waiting hands below. Normally the balloon would be tethered, tied to a rope or cable so that it would not blow away.
The vagaries of the wind stifled early balloonists in their efforts to make the military balloon a form of transportation, so the balloons were limited to the observation role. Perhaps in part because of the eyes in the sky, the French won the Battle of Fleurus, and development of lighter than air balloons continued after the Napoleonic Wars. During the American Civil War observation balloons were used by both sides, and the observation balloon reached its high-water mark during World War I, when both sides made extensive use of balloons to observe and direct beyond the line of sight artillery fire. Powered airships were used as early forms of bomber aircraft, but were highly susceptible to interception by fighter planes.
Hydrogen was cheap and plentiful, and continued to be used to fill lighter than air balloons, but its highly flammable nature made the more exotic and harder to come by Helium the superior gas for ballooning. When the world militaries began using Zeppelins or airships as powered aircraft that could be propelled by engines driving propellers, the United States controlled most of the world’s supply of Helium, and most other countries were forced to use dangerous Hydrogen, which is why the spectacular fire on the German Zeppelin Hindenburg took place.
Allied forces made extensive use of balloons during World War II in England and around landing beaches during invasions to foil the enemy use of low flying attack aircraft. African American troops often manned the American balloon units. Blimps and airships were used for anti-submarine patrol, but advances in airplanes pretty much relegated manned balloons to recreational devices by the end of World War II (the exception being as camera platforms for outdoor events and as advertising platforms). Japanese use of balloons during World War II included using (not really successful) unmanned balloons released in Japan carrying incendiary bombs all the way to the Western United States in order to create panic and start forest fires.
The Cold War brought a resurgence in blimps and airships for anti-submarine patrol, as the balloons could stay aloft for extended periods of time and their modest speed was sufficient for chasing submarines. The idea of using lighter than air aircraft for search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare just never seems to go away.
Note: A “balloon” has virtually no directional control and goes pretty much where the wind takes it, making most military balloons used as tethered observation posts. A “blimp” is merely a gas bag with no internal structure that has crew compartments and directional power. An “airship,” “dirigible,” or “Zeppelin” has a framework covered by a gas containing fabric, and sometimes has multiple separate compartments so as not to lose all the gas at once if a leak develops. These “rigid airships” are likewise crewed and powered by propellers.
Today, the use of military balloons is still in vogue, often as in carrying weather instruments aloft or in aiding long distance radio communications. Hot air balloons, the original form of lighter than air aircraft, are today purely recreational, and can be seen in large events such as the annual Ashland, Ohio Balloonfest held every 4th of July weekend, and even larger events out West. Question for students (and subscribers): Have you been to a balloon event? Ever flown in a balloon or blimp? If so, tell us about your flights in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Thiers, M. Atlas Pour Servir a L’Intelligence Des Campagnes de La Revolution Francaise. Furne et Cie, 1846.