To shoot a balloon

Here is another Rickenbacker quote, which answers well a question of mine: why did observation balloons count in aces’ scores?  You would think for an airplane to shoot down a balloon would be about as easy and about as daring as for a tank to run over a sapling.  But not so.  Rickenbacker expains some details of air war in general and WWI air warfare in particular that change the whole picture.

People unfamiliar with air combat in World War I may understandably tend to minimize the hazards involved in shooting down observation balloons.  Hit one with an incendiary, and poof! It’s all over.  But give me an airplane as an adversary any day.

Balloons were important in World War I.  From an altitude of two thousand feet on a clear day an observer with a telescope, comfortable in his wicker basket slung from the balloon, could see many miles into the enemy’s rear.  He was connected with the ground by telephone, and within seconds after he had made an observation the news was on the way to headquarters.  The airplane observer, on the other hand, had to fly back to his field and land in order to report.

Balloons came complete with crews and trucks.  They were anchored by steel cables played out on winches.  They were usually let up in the morning and hauled down at night.  The observers rode with them.

Balloons were ringed with antiaircraft batteries.  It is true that pilots played down the effectiveness of antiaircraft.  I knew of only one man brought down by Archie [anti-aircraft fire], and that was a freak and tragic accident….we had little respect for antiaircraft – unless it was protecting a balloon.

For in that case, there was no guesswork about the proper altitude for which to time the fuses.  If the balloon was two thousand feet up, then any aircraft attacking it must also be at or near the same altitude.  When we came in to attack a balloon, therefore, we flew through a curtain of shells exploding at our precise altitude.  We had to fly at that altitude for several seconds, for it took a long burst to ignite the gas – often it would not ignite at all.  After the attack it was necessary to fly out through the wall of Archie on the other side.

Finally, balloons were of such military importance that, frequently, flights of Fokkers would be hovering above them, hiding up there in the sun.  Again, the fixed altitude of the attack added to the hazard.  They always had the advantage over us.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 152-154

This entry was posted in Eddie Rickenbacker and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.