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Balloons and Airships

  BALLOONS (1900-1990)

At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.14 Discuss the use of balloons for scientific research.
5.15 Discuss the Explorer 2.

In the early 1900s, unmanned scientific balloons were reaching altitudes of 20 miles and increasing mankind's knowledge of Earth's atmosphere. Some of the first studies of solar energy were conducted at this time. Even though several unmanned balloons had reached into the stratosphere, this region of Earth's atmosphere during the 1920s and 1930s was an unknown and mysterious place.

A resurgence of high­altitude manned flights began in the 1920s. Although by no means free of risk, crude oxygen equipment made these flights safer than those of the nineteenth century. Two things made people want to risk their lives on the edge of space. One was for the scientific knowledge and the other was for the competition to reach the highest possible altitude, The flight of the Explorer 2, launched from the Stratobowl near Rapid City, South Dakota, marked another end to high­altitude ballooning until the late 1950s. The Explorer 2 reached an altitude of 72,395 feet, setting a record that lasted for 20 years. However, the lack of money and the limit of balloon technology caused the scientific community to revert again exclusively to unmanned stratospheric flights.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.16 Discuss the National Balloon Races.
5.17 Discuss the International Gordon Bennett Race.
5.18 Discuss the use of barrage balloons in World War II.
5.19 Summarize the Japanese balloon bombing of the United States during World War II.

The balloon corps of the United States Army in the early 1900s laid the foundation for America's military aviation. During World War I, all the major powers, Including the United States, used tethered observation balloons. These balloons were used to gather information on troop locations and movements, artillery spotting, and communications. So Important were these balloons (they were heavily defended by antiaircraft weapons), fighter pilots were given credit toward becoming an ace. In fact, Frank Luke, the American ace and Medal of Honor winner, was known as the "Arizona Balloon Buster."

Following World War I, a revival of sport ballooning began. In St. Louis, Missouri, on October 11, 1919, the National Balloon Races began. This race was the premier American balloon race which was used to send American balloonists to the International Gordon Bennett Race. The first Bennett race was held in 1906, halted during World War I, resumed on October 23, 1920, and continued until the late 1930s when war clouds started forming over Europe. The United States won ten of the races, followed by Belgium with seven, Poland four, Germany and Switzerland with two each, and France with one win.

During World War II, barrage balloons were tethered with strong cables to ships, buildings, and other structures to keep airplanes at a greater height thus making it more difficult to hit targets. If an enemy pilot did get too low, it was possible for the airplane to hit the cable which was holding the balloon down and damage the airplane or even cause it to crash.

Probably the least publicized use of balloons, but potentially one that could have caused great death and destruction, was when the Japanese used them to bomb the United States. Beginning on November 3, 1944, and ending in April 1945, Japan launched 9,300 balloons against the United States. Each balloon carried two to four incendiary bombs and one antipersonnel bomb. The objective was to start forest fires in the Western states and to cause fear and panic in the American public. The operation failed; a few small grass fires were started and six people in Oregon were killed. Due to wartime censorship, a great majority of the American population never heard about, let alone saw, an enemy balloon. Of the 9,300 balloons launched, 200 confirmed landings occurred in the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska), 78 in Canada, and 1 in Northern Mexico. Most of the balloons landed in Oregon, British Columbia, Montana, California, and Washington, with two balloons reaching as far as Michigan.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.20 Explain the purpose of the Man High Program, the Strato-Lab Program, the GHOST Program, and the Stratoscope II Program.
5.21 Explain the significance of ECHO I and a II.
5.22 Discuss the significance of the Double Eagle II and V.

After World War II, interest in high­altitude balloon research again surfaced. The high costs that helped kill flights In the 1930s were overcome with the use of the inexpensive l/1,000th-of­an­inch polyethylene. In the 1950s there were several important scientific experiments and findings in the areas of cosmic radiation, ozone concentrations, carbon dioxide, radioactive dust rallied from aboveground nuclear testing, long­range weather forecasting, and many others. Manned high­altitude balloon flights resumed. The Man­High I Program flights were designed to test high­altitude escape equipment and procedures that would be used in the new generations of high-altitude airplanes. In the Man­High II Program, experiments were conducted to investigate the near­space environment and Its effects on humans in preparation for spaceflight.

MANHIGH II Balloon Gondola

The Strato-Lab Program was designed to conduct aeromedical research on flight crews, astrophysical investigations, and geophysical observations. In addition, studies of air pollutants and spectrographic and photographic studies of the Sun and Venus were conducted.

Continuing into the decade of the 1960s, the use of balloons continued to expand scientific knowledge. The Global Horizontal Soundings Techniques (GHOST) Program was designed to trace global air circulation patterns by allowing balloons to drift with wind currents at various altitudes.

The Stratoscope II Program was designed to repeatedly launch and retrieve a 3 1/2­ton astronomical observatory. It obtained high resolution celestial photos and infrared spectral data on the Moon, Mars, and some red­giant stars.

Balloons went into space when the first one was launched by rocket on August 12,1960. Echo I was a 100­foot­diameter, aluminum­covered, spherical balloon that was put into orbit 1,000 miles above the Earth. This passive communications satellite was used to bounce voice, music, and pictures from one part of the United States to another. It was expected to stay up for one year but lasted for over eight years. Echo I was followed by Echo II and other balloon satellites.

By 1970, there were over 500 yearly scientific high­altitude manned and unmanned balloon launches in the United States. These flights were used to study aeronomy, solar physics, astronomy, magnetic fields, cosmic dust, biology, and other areas of scientific interest. The military again looked into using balloons for warfare. In the Pacific Northwest, balloons were and are still used in logging operations. With a combination of cables and pulleys, balloons are used to haul logs out of rugged and mountainous terrain.

Scientific balloon launch from Antarctica

The first successful transatlantic balloon flight occurred on August 10, 1978, when Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman flew in the Double Eagle II. It was launched from Presque Isle, Maine, and landed 3,120 miles and 137 hours later in Miserey, France.

Opening the decade of the 1980s, Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki made the first successful manned balloon crossing of the Pacific Ocean. The Double Eagle V was launched from Nagashima, Japan, and landed in Coorla, California, during the middle of November 1981. The flight lasted 84 hours and covered 5,070 miles.

The use of balloons in weather forecasting, science, and sports continued in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hot­air ballooning has become an extremely popular and safe flying sport. Tethered balloons are used to help stop drug smuggling in Puerto Rico and Texas. It appears that those devices that first took men into the air will continue to do so far into the future.


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Updated: 12 March, 2004