CHAPTER II. THE MILITARY USES of THE CAPTIVE BALLOON
Although the captive balloon is recognised as indispensable in military operations, its uses are somewhat limited. It can be employed only in comparatively still weather. The reason is obvious. It is essential that the balloon should assume a vertical line in relation to its winding plant upon the ground beneath, so that it may attain the maximum elevation possible: in other words, the balloon should be directly above the station below, so that if 100 yards of cable are paid out the aerostat may be 100 yards above the ground. If a wind is blowing, the helpless craft is certain to be caught thereby and driven forwards or backwards, so that it assumes an angle to its station. If this become acute the vessel will be tilted, rendering the position of the observers somewhat precarious, and at the same time observing efficiency will be impaired.
This point may be appreciated more easily by reference to the accompanying diagram. A represents the ground station and B the position of the captive balloon when sent aloft in calm weather, 300 feet of cable being paid out. A wind arises and blows the vessel forward to the position C. At this point the height of the craft in relation to the ground has been reduced, and the reduction must increase proportionately as the strength of the wind increases and forces the balloon still more towards the ground. At the same time, owing to the tilt given to the car, observation is rendered more difficult and eventually becomes extremely dangerous.
A wind, if of appreciable strength, develops another and graver danger. Greater strain will be imposed upon the cable, while if the wind be gusty, there is the risk that the vessel will be torn away from its anchoring rope and possibly lost. Thus it will be seen that the effective utilisation of a captive balloon is completely governed by meteorological conditions, and often it is impossible to use it in weather which exercises but little influence upon dirigibles or aeroplanes.
The captive balloon equipment comprises the balloon, together with the observer's basket, the wire-cable whereby it is anchored and controlled, and the winding apparatus. Formerly a steam engine was necessary for the paying in and out of the cable, but nowadays this is accomplished by means of a petrol-driven motor, an oil-engine, or even by the engine of an automobile. The length of cable varies according to the capacity of the balloon and the maximum operating height.
The average British balloon is able to lift about 290 or 300 pounds, which may be taken to represent the weight of two observers. On the other hand, the French and German balloons are able to carry four times this weight, with the exception of the French auxiliaries, which are designed to lift one observer only. The balloons of the two latter Powers have also a greater maximum altitude; it is possible to ascend to a height of some 2,000 feet in one of these.
The observing station is connected with the winding crew below either by a telephone, or some other signalling system, the method practised varying according to circumstances. In turn the winding station is connected with the officer in charge of the artillery, the fire of which the captive balloon is directing. The balloon observer is generally equipped with various instruments, such as telescope, photographic cameras, and so forth, so as to be able, if necessary, to prepare a topographical survey of the country below. By this means the absence of reliable maps may be remedied, or if not regarded, as sufficiently correct they may be checked and counter-checked by the data gained aloft.
Seeing that the gas has to be transported in cylinders, which are weighty, it is incumbent that the waste of this commodity should be reduced to the minimum. The balloon cannot be deflated at night and re-inflated in the morning - it must be maintained in the inflated condition the whole time it is required for operation.
There are various methods of consummating this end. One method is to haul in the balloon and to peg it down on all sides, completing the anchorage by the attachment of bags filled with earth to the network. While this process is satisfactory in calm weather, it is impracticable in heavy winds, which are likely to spring up suddenly. Consequently a second method is practised. This is to dig a pit into the ground of sufficient size to receive the balloon. When the latter is hauled in it is lowered into this pit and there pegged down and anchored. Thus it is perfectly safe during the roughest weather, as none of its bulk is exposed above the ground level. Furthermore it is not a conspicuous object for the concentration of hostile fire.
In some instances, and where the military department is possessed of an elaborate equipment such as characterises the German army, when reconnaissance is completed and the balloon is to be removed to another point, the gas is pumped back into the cylinders for further use. Such an economical proceeding is pretty and well adapted to manoeuvres, but it is scarcely feasible in actual warfare, for the simple reason that the pumping takes time. Consequently the general procedure, when the balloon has completed its work, is to permit the gas to escape into the air in the usual manner, and to draw a fresh supply of gas from further cylinders when the occasion arises for re-inflation.