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Over the Front in World War 1: How Hard Can It Be to Shoot Down a Balloon?

Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.

The Balloon is Up

Not the prettiest of aircraft, observation balloons were a tempting target to an aircraft, but deadlier than they looked.

Not the prettiest of aircraft, observation balloons were a tempting target to an aircraft, but deadlier than they looked.

WW1 Ace Respected Balloons

WW1 observation balloons were basically gigantic, explosive targets, right? Yes and no. One interesting side note in the autobiography of America’s top WW1 ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, explains that balloons are not as simple to shoot down as you would think. Rickenbacker himself thought it would be simple until he and a group of other pilots tried it one day, and none succeeded. Rickenbacker came to consider shooting down a balloon more dangerous than shooting down another airplane.

What Were Observation Balloons?

First of all, balloons are not dirigibles. Balloons and dirigibles are very different, though they often had similar shapes. A dirigible is a rigid airship; it has a structure even when empty. That structure and an engine allow it to travel in a different direction from the wind. A balloon is just a sack to hold something lighter than air, such as hydrogen, helium, or heated air. A blimp is in between balloons and dirigibles: a sack of something lighter than air, with an engine. A zeppelin is a dirigible built by the Zeppelin company. (Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a military observer during the American Civil War, where he saw Union army balloons.)

Balloon technology was much older than airplanes. Airplanes were the new, untested technology of WW1 (powered, manned, heavier-than-air flight – what the Wright brothers started – was just over a decade old), but other means of getting an aerial view of the battle have been around at least since Chinese armies a few centuries BC found a way to fasten a soldier to a kite and send him up to observe. Even Ben Franklin had theorized about the military uses of balloons, including using them for troop movements. By the time of WW1, military observation balloons were about as old a technology as airplanes are today.

WW1 observation balloons allowed a man to sit a few thousand feet above the battlefield with a telescope and a telephone, so he had direct communication with a truck on the ground (an airplane had to land for the pilot to report what he had seen, in the days before aircraft radios). From the balloon, the observer could see for a radius of ten miles or so. Of course, the quality of observation depended on the weather; haze or smoke could make observation useless. One thing balloons were used for was telling their own gunners whether they were hitting their targets, and when the targets were destroyed.

The truck allowed the balloon to move horizontally (following a road) far enough and quick enough to confuse the range for enemy gunners, but of course that wasn’t a help against an airplane.

Observation balloons are still in military use today.

Balloon Observer Insignia

Simple but expressive insignia - "o" for observer and wing.  The "o" can (and did, in later versions) also represent a balloon, but this insignia was also originally used for observers in airplanes.

Simple but expressive insignia - "o" for observer and wing. The "o" can (and did, in later versions) also represent a balloon, but this insignia was also originally used for observers in airplanes.

Balloons, Airplanes, and Parachutes

Observers in balloons had parachutes, in contrast to pilots early in the war for the German side, and all through the war for the Allies.

The lack of parachutes for fighter planes was partly because parachutes at first were so big and bulky. But there were other reasons. Airplanes were new and valuable, and a captured airplane could and did give the enemy a lot of design information. Pilots were also new and therefore less valuable - nobody knew much about flying, so it didn’t take long to train a pilot. The conventional wisdom was that a pilot with a parachute might be tempted to abandon a perfectly good airplane, and the airplane could be harder to replace than the pilot. Eventually, experience showed that a parachute could be very useful in saving the lives of the experienced pilots whom all the others were learning from. On the German side, Ernst Udet was one of the first to survive because of a parachute, while on the American side, Raoul Lufbery jumped to his death rather than burn alive in his airplane. It became clear that jumping was hazardous and not something a pilot would do casually, and the passionate statements of men like Eddie Rickenbacker obviously changed minds on the subject of parachutes before the next war.

An observation balloon, on the other hand, was less limited by space and balance, and it was not going to crash just because the observer bailed out, so balloon observers had parachutes, and many used them.

Eddie Rickenbacker

Read it in Rickenbacker's Words

Well-Protected Balloons

The balloons looked easy to attack, and they cost much more than an airplane, so they seemed like a worthwhile target.

In order to have the telephone cable connection, balloons were sort of stuck in one place. Though it sounds like a disadvantage, it meant the guns to protect the balloon already knew the approximate height an aircraft would have to be at to attack the balloon. Also they knew the balloon’s approximate horizontal location, and could make a curtain of gunfire around the balloon, far enough away to keep from hurting the balloon. Airplanes in a dogfight were on their own except maybe for help from other pilots.

Since antiaircraft fire was only as good as its range, the pilots didn’t have much fear of it when attacking a moving target. But in Rickenbacker’s words,

When we came in to attack a balloon, therefore, we flew through a curtain of shells exploding at our precise altitude.

--Edward Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 153

That was just to get into the balloon’s area, and they had to fly out through the curtain again.

And it wasn’t just antiaircraft guns. Enemy airplanes, knowing balloons were good airplane bait, would hide on the sunward side of the balloon, where it was very hard to see them at any distance, waiting to pounce on the pilot who dared approach. Rickenbacker was almost shot down by the Flying Circus when a German plane attacked an American balloon and Rickenbacker attacked the plane, and was himself attacked by two more German airplanes.

Everyone tends to think of balloons as highly flammable from pictures of the Hindenburg Zeppelin disaster. They were filled with hydrogen gas, which exploded well, but ignition didn’t automatically happen just because they got shot at. Regular bullets would usually pass right through them, so balloons could be “shot up” without being shot down. Incendiary and explosive bullets worked often, but not always, especially if the air was moist, and it could take several seconds of firing to actually ignite the balloon.

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The cable anchoring a balloon could be on a motorized winch, drawing it down within a minute if a fighter was spotted. A good day for observing the battlefield would also be a good day for observing airplanes a long way away, and at the speeds airplanes flew in WW1, a minute to get down in the range of friendly ground fire was a pretty good safety factor.

Aircraft Attacks Observation Balloon

An airplane attacking its target; the balloon catches fire; and plummets to the ground

An airplane attacking its target; the balloon catches fire; and plummets to the ground

Balloons Versus Airplanes


Able to be moved vertically, and a little bit horizontally

Free motion in all three axes

Protected by antiaircraft guns

Protected by own guns (which might or might not mean firing only in the direction the plane was pointed)

Big, stationary target

Small, moving target

Killing the man in it doesn’t hurt the balloon

Killing the pilot practically always kills the airplane

Pretty much has to catch on fire to be shot down, which could take several seconds of fire with incendiary bullets

Any damage anywhere could down the airplane; damage from incendiary bullets, regular bullets, a brick, or a bird, or a balloon cable, damaging the engine, pilot, or flying surfaces

Almost instantaneous 360 degree view of battlefield from one position in 3D space

360 degree view-but might take a few minutes to turn around-of battlefield from any position in 3D space not being defended by the enemy

Immediate communication with ground

Communication with ground only after (successful!) landing

Could report on where troops were along the front lines and what they were doing at the moment

Could report on what was going on in the rear a short while previously

Behind the lines and too high for most ground fire; vulnerable only to aircraft and some artillery

Vulnerable to anything in the range it flew in

Stable technology with understood strategies for use

New technology, with capabilities and strategy that changed greatly during the few years of the war.

Lt Frank Luke

Luke AFB in Arizona is named for this "balloon buster", who, like Eddie Rickenbacker, was fighting the nation of his ancestry.

Luke AFB in Arizona is named for this "balloon buster", who, like Eddie Rickenbacker, was fighting the nation of his ancestry.

Balloon Attackers Get No Respect - Except from Aces

Rickenbacker talks with great respect about Frank Luke as “the most daring aviator of the entire war”, and the first flier to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, who shot down ten balloons, plus four other aircraft, in just 8 days. Not even von Richthofen had done anything like that in that time, and for a short time Luke became the American Ace of Aces. But like all the American Ace of Aces until Rickenbacker (a trend Rickenbacker was very aware of), Luke’s string of victories was interrupted by his death.

How to Shoot Down a Balloon

That first generation of fighter pilots was developing aviation strategy as they went along. One pilot's strategy for shooting down balloons, which fit in with Rickenbacker's experience, was to attack at dawn or dusk when it was harder to tell where an airplane was coming from, and also to fly as low as possible in the approach – that way, if the balloon was being hauled down, the airplane was coming up to meet it.

It's tough to be the one who succeeds at a job which is extremely dangerous and yet sounds faintly ridiculous to everyone who hasn't tried it. Here's to the "balloon busters" of World War 1.

Just to Show How it Worked: Balloon Shootdown (Post-WW1)

More Information on Balloons and Dirigibles


aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 11, 2015:

DWDavisRSL, so has everybody else, and understandably. You wouldn't want to be the artist given the job of drawing a balloon on an action movie poster, comic book cover, or anything else people associate with "exciting"!

DW Davis from Eastern NC on April 11, 2015:

I never realized the fight against balloons in WWI was quite so involved. I guess I've always just paid attention to more to the plane to plane action.

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 11, 2015:

Thank you, Blackspaniel1; there are actually so many more great stories I've learned about WWI aviation I am ashamed I haven't written any in a while. At least, other people are discovering some of these stories with the centenary of the war.

Blackspaniel1 on April 11, 2015:

This is one of the most interesting hubs I have encountered. Voting it up.

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 23, 2015:

poetryman, LOL. UnnamedHarald, I did not know that. I should have known that; it is a great anecdote of the air war. And like much of what happened in the experimental years of air power, I'm sure it was not funny at the time, but from a distance of a hundred years it has its ridiculous side.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 22, 2015:

I just wanted to add that, not only were balloons hard to shoot down, the British actually rigged an aerial mine by packing hundreds of pounds of explosive in a balloon and detonating it when German pilot Rudolph von Eschwege tried to shoot it down. It worked. It was the only way they could bring him down.

poetryman6969 on February 22, 2015:

Shooting down a balloon sounds like a winning bar bet in the making!

Kenneth Avery on May 12, 2014:

Dear aethelthryth,

You are welcome. The comments were the truth. Oooh Raah! You are right. Of all the Armed Forces, the Marines and SEALS are my two favorites.

I appreciate your comments. Have a Great Day.


aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 12, 2014:

Kenneth Avery, thank you for your comments. I myself can't stand any version of Kool-Aid! But I think I'd agree with you about original things. The Marines have done very well by not "changing with the times."

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 10, 2014:

Hello, Aethelhryth,

You are very welcome. The comments were all truth. I am a radical I suppose. I still like regular Kool-Aid when everyone else goes for New and Improved. I stay with the original.

Thanks for liking my hubs. I look forward to seeing you soon as one of my followers.

God bless you in all of your writing projects.


aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 10, 2014:

Kenneth Avery, thank you for your comment; it is nice to know someone else found Eddie Rickenbacker worth talking about!

I just looked at your Hubs, and I really like the one about the Marine Corps DIs. I am not a Marine, but I am trying to write a book about an Iwo Jima veteran I know. I was pretty entertained by what he had to say about boot camp.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 10, 2014:


May I call you Audrey? I loved this piece. My dad was in the service and he talked of Eddie Riddenbacher so much. I loved my dad and his service stories.

I voted you up and away for this story. It was informative, interesting, and very colorful.

I left you some fan mail, and now following you.

Now if you would, I cordially invite you to check out a hub or two of mine and then be one of my followers.

I would sincerely appreciate that so much.

Kenneth/ from northwest Alabama

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on March 17, 2014:

Well, thank you, old albion. There are a lot of WWI aces with qualities worth imitating (and some not worth imitating!) but Rickenbacker is my favorite hero out of them all.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on March 13, 2014:

Hi aethelthryth. Brilliant you certainly know your Rickenbacker, I had not heard of Frank Luke neither had I knowledge of Zeppelin's background. First class all round.

'voted up and sharing'


aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on September 14, 2012:

Thank you, GetitScene. I approve of people saying "I shall return" instead of "I'll be baahck". It suggests the speaker might know actual history better than movies.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 14, 2012:

OK, I'm back. This is a fantastic hub. Bravo. It even got better on the second read.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 13, 2012:

.....WTH?! I'm going to have to come back and read this again later. Balloons more dangerous that other fighter planes??? My whole world has been turned upside down now. I shall return.

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on August 17, 2012:

Thank you, Judi Bee. I look forward to exploring more of your WW1 articles too.

Judi Brown from UK on August 17, 2012:

Well, how have I missed this gem? Great hub, very interesting!

Voted up and shared.

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on June 16, 2012:

shiningirisheyes, I don't know whether to write about WWI, which is comparatively unknown, and which we are coming up on the centennial of, and which there is a very good local museum about, or WWII, for which I know actual soldiers who were there, and who are still alive, but fading fast. So I am trying to write as much as I can about both, as fast as I can, which is not very fast.

I hope I can get as far as interviewing one of the first aircraft carrier pilots, whom I got to talk to a few weeks ago....

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on June 16, 2012:

I too, had no idea it was this difficult to shoot down a balloon. I would have thought a sling shot would do the job.

Great write and I have some new insight and added respect for WWI (although you are already aware of my favoratism of WWII).

Great job with this. Thanks

aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on June 15, 2012:

Thank you, UnnamedHarald. I just had to write about balloon busting when I found Eddie Rickenbacker, who flew the first airplanes and raced the first cars, thought it was dangerous.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 15, 2012:

What a great article! Count me in as one of the many who thought shooting down balloons was like... shooting fish in a barrel. Now I know the rest of the story. I also never imagined that planes were cheaper than balloons. And I also didn't realize they could be tethered to trucks and have limited horizontal movement. Voted up, interesting and shared.

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