In honor of the Centennial of World War I, Vintage Air will be posting a series of images from that conflict over the next few years. The article below was our inaugural post when the blog first started, and now has been updated with an additional recently-acquired image.
This image is from a stereopticon card that was published sometime late in World War I, and shows a scene of aerial combat between an American biplane and a German observation balloon. The back of the card describes the scene in rather sensationalistic terms:
"Far above the surface of the earth you can see one of the battles of the air, with the American aviator in his 'plane victorious over the German observation balloon. Swinging in the tiny wicker basket which to you seems just a dot beneath the balloon, a German officer has been watching the least little movement behind the lines of the American troops.
"His work done, the aviator is turning to journey back toward his own lines, three or four miles over enemy territory, to report: 'One "blimp" shot down.'"
I find it interesting how the text shortened the then-popular aeroplane to just 'plane, complete with apostrophe. The balloon's design itself shows that this image was taken sometime after 1916. The Germans' own design for an observation balloon (Parseval-Siegsfeld, nicknamed the "sausage"), was deemed inferior to the Allies', so when the Germans were able to capture a French Caquot balloon (which itself was based on an English design), they reverse-engineered it and immediately put it into production, designating it the Ae800, or Achthundert English 800. Unlike their own design, the Ae800 could be lofted to 5,000 feet above the ground, in winds up to 44 mph.
Because of the vulnerability of the Ae800 to attack from Allied aircraft, the balloons were attached by cable to engine-driven winches which could pull a balloon down from 1,000 feet in under a minute. In addition, the Germans usually surrounded their balloons with a ring of anti-aircraft machine guns and artillery Because of these measures, Allied pilots usually only went after balloons when they were above 1,000' AGL.
As mentioned in the text, the observer likely had a parachute on, as these officers were the only ones that were routinely issued such safety gear. Unfortunately, the parachute technology was rather immature, and they had a rather high failure rate, so they were used in only the most dire circumstance.
The second photo (right) has the following hand-written on the back: "A balloon shot down and falling. Observation balloon wich [sic] are roped to the ground." Although it's hard to tell because of the amount of destruction to the envelope, this one appears to be one of the earlier British balloons. Presumably, since the basket appears to be empty, the observer has already jumped.