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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Aviation: Early Military Use of Lighter-than-Air Aircraft

The Battle of Fleurus

Early Military Use of Lighter-than-Air Aircraft
by: Courtney Henderson

When we think of military aviation, we often think of bombers, jet fighters and cargo jets. Most people believe that the earliest use of aviation for military purposes took place during World War I. However, this is not true.

Although the use of heavier-than-air aircraft (or airplanes) did take off around the time of World War I, the use of aviation in the military began much earlier and involved lighter-than-air aircraft (hot air balloons and gas balloons).

Long before the Wright Brothers made the first successful airplane flight, balloon aircraft was used by the military in several countries for observation purposes. Due to its buoyancy, a balloon aircraft is kept afloat by the heavier air. There are three types of balloon aircraft; hot air, gas and Rozière.

Hot air balloons are able to rise and stay in the air by heating the air inside the balloon. Gas balloons use a gas of lower molecular weight than the atmosphere to inflate the balloon and send it upward. Today, the most common gas used to fill this type of balloon aircraft is helium. In the early days of gas balloon aircraft use, hydrogen and coal gas were the most commonly used gases. However, they were both found to be highly flammable and dangerous (the use of hydrogen was found to be the cause of the Hindenburg disaster of 1937). Ammonia and methane can also be used to lift a gas balloon. However, their lifting ability is limited. Rozière balloons are hybrid balloons that use both heated and non-heated lifting gases.
The first military use of a manned balloon aircraft was at the Battle of Fleurus on June 26, 1794, in Fleurus, Belgium. The balloon (named “L'Entreprenant”) was used by the French as an observational tool. They were able to win the battle by watching the movements of Austrian troops.

America has staked its claim, however, as the first country to use balloons as military aircraft on a large scale. During the American Civil War, the Union created a Balloon Corps just weeks after the war began in 1861. The balloons were originally inflated in Washington, D.C. and then walked out to the battlefield. This was a laborious process that required the balloons to be returned to the city and re-inflated every four days. This also limited balloon use to the Washington, D.C. area. Later, hydrogen gas generators were constructed and transported to the battlefield. This allowed for the balloon to be inflated on-site.

Figure 1 Photo of an observation balloon and gas tanks on a Civil War battlefield.
The Union Army used balloon aircraft for map-making, enemy reconnaissance and telegraph transportation. However, the Balloon Corps was disbanded in 1863 (the war ended in 1865). Reasons for its disbandment include cost and transportation time (it took a great deal of money, labor and time to successfully transport, inflate and use balloon aircraft in a battlefield that crossed so many state lines).
The Confederate Army also tried its luck at military aviation, but an embargo on supplies made it difficult to construct balloons.

Also in 1863, the British experimented with balloon use in military reconnaissance. Although the experiment was successful, the British Army concluded that it would be too expensive. However, they later used balloons for observation purposes during the 1885 Bechuanaland and Sudan Expeditions and the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Other military use of lighter-than-air aircraft for reconnaissance purposes include; the Paraguayan War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), World War I (1914-1918), the Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940), the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1945).

Figure 2 A World War I American Major observing front line territory from the basket of a military balloon aircraft. June 1918.
Courtney Henderson is writer and editor for  Airport Management Degrees.  In her spare time, she likes to write guest articles for various websites on various topics of interest.

 Works Cited:
1.       “Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War” by F. Stansbury Haydon. Published in 2000.
2.       “Aviation History: Hot Air Ballooning, Airships, Zeppelins and Blimps” by Grace Windsor. Published in 2011.