CHAPTER XVI. MINING THE AIR
While the anti-aircraft gun represents the only force which has been brought to the practical stage for repelling aerial attack, and incidentally is the sole offensive weapon which has established its effectiveness, many other schemes have been devised and suggested to consummate these ends. While some of these schemes are wildly fantastic, others are feasible within certain limitations, as for instance when directed against dirigibles.
It has been argued that the atmosphere is akin to the salt seas; that an aerial vessel in its particular element is confronted with dangers identical with those prevailing among the waters of the earth. But such an analogy is fallacious: there is no more similarity between the air and the ocean than there is between an airship and a man-of-war. The waters of the earth conceal from sight innumerable obstructions, such as rocks, shoals, sandbanks, and other dangers which cannot by any means be readily detected.
But no such impediments are encountered in the ether. The craft of the air is virtually a free age in the three dimensions. It can go whither it will without let or hindrance so long as the mechanical agencies of man are able to cope with the influences of Nature. It can ascend to a height which is out of all proportion to the depth to which the submarine can descend in safety. It is a matter of current knowledge that a submarine cannot sink to a depth of more than 250 feet: an aerial vessel is able to ascend to 5,000, 8,000, or even 10,000 feet above the earth, and the higher the altitude it attains the greater is its degree of safety. The limit of ascension is governed merely by the physical capacities of those who are responsible for the aerial vessel's movement.
It is for this reason that the defensive measures which are practised in the waters of the earth are inapplicable to the atmosphere. Movement by, or in, water is governed by the depth of channels, and these may be rendered impassable or dangerous to negotiate by the planting of mines. A passing ship or submarine may circumvent these explosive obstructions, but such a successful manoeuvre is generally a matter of good luck. So far as submarines are concerned the fact must not be over looked that movements in the sea are carried out under blind conditions: the navigator is unable to see where he is going; the optic faculty is rendered nugatory. Contrast the disability of the submarine with the privileges of its consort in the air. The latter is able to profit from vision. The aerial navigator is able to see every inch of his way, at least during daylight. When darkness falls he is condemned to the same helplessness as his confrere in the waters below.
A well-known British authority upon aviation suggested that advantage should be taken of this disability, and that the air should be mined during periods of darkness and fog to secure protection against aerial invasion. At first sight the proposal appears to be absolutely grotesque, but a little reflection will suffice to demonstrate its possibilities when the area to be defended is comparatively limited. The suggestion merely proposes to profit from one defect of the dirigible. The latter, when bent upon a daring expedition, naturally prefers to make a bee-line towards its objective: fuel considerations as a matter of fact compel it to do so. Consequently it is possible, within certain limits, to anticipate the route which an invading craft will follow: the course is practically as obvious as if the vessel were condemned to a narrow lane marked out by sign-posts. Moreover, if approaching under cover of night or during thick weather, it will metaphorically "hug the ground." To attempt to complete its task at a great height is to court failure, as the range of vision is necessarily so limited.
Under these circumstances the mining of the air could be carried out upon the obvious approaches to a threatened area. The mines, comprising large charges of high-explosive and combustible material, would be attached to small captive balloons similar to the "sounding balloons" which are so much used by meteorologists in operations for sounding the upper strata of the atmosphere. These pilot balloons would be captive, their thin wires being wound upon winches planted at close intervals along the coast-line. The balloon-mines themselves would be sent to varying heights, ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 feet, and with several attached to each cable, the disposition of the mines in the air in such an irregular manner being in fact closely similar to the practice adopted in the mining of a channel for protection against submarines and hostile ships.
The suggestion is that these mines should be sent aloft at dusk or upon the approach of thick and foggy weather, and should be wound in at dawn or when the atmosphere cleared, inasmuch as in fine weather the floating aerial menace would be readily detected by the pilot of a dirigible, and would be carefully avoided. If the network were sufficiently intricate it would not be easy for an airship travelling at night or in foggy weather to steer clear of danger, for the wires holding the balloons captive would be difficult to distinguish.