from ‘the Sphere’ February 2, 1916
In an Observation Balloon
by Mr. Irvin S. Cobb, American journalist
who accompanied a German observer during his daily work near the Aisne


Up in a Sausage

photo from a German war-time newsmagazine 'Deutschlands Weltkrieg'


The modern observation balloons present a big target for the bomb-dropping aviator. It is therefore necessary to have an apparatus for rapidly hauling them to the ground. No matter how quick the apparatus, the position of the observer is a very exposed one. It was, therefore, an interesting experience for Mr. Irvin S. Cobb, whose very informing narratives have appeared from time to time in THE SPHERE, to make an ascent in one of the German observation balloons when in use. His narrative is, moreover, of especial interest as coming from a well-trained civilian observer. Mr. Cobb was at the time with the Germans as a neutral war correspondent, and he was permitted to make an ascent in one of the military observation balloons along the Teuton lines north of the Aisne. Mr. Cobb describes his experiences in his book, The Red Glutton, published by Hodder and Stoughton. He came upon her in a well-hidden hollow bounded by woods. She was swaying gently to and fro, drooping weakly amidships, and the bottommost extremity, which was filled with air to give it weight, dipped and twisted within 50 to 60 ft. of the grass. The upper end underwent convulsive writhings as the intermittent breeze came over the tree-tops. Six big waggon horses were attached in pairs to a stout frame connected with a huge wooden drum.

The observation car was in this case a small one; there was really only room for one, so Mr. Cobb and Lieutenant Brinkner had to stand back to back. There was a little canvas saddle stretched across the top of the basket on which the operator could sit, and a telephone apparatus was fixed to one side of the car, the wires from it escaping through a hole in the bottom and running down to earth to a concealed station at the far side of an adjacent field and so to the main telephone head-quarters.

"It is an exciting life a balloon operator in the Germany army lives, but it is not as a rule a long one. Lieutenant Brinkner was successor to a man who was burned to death in mid-air a week before, and on the day before a French airman had dropped a bomb from the clouds that missed the same balloon by a margin of less than 100 yards — close marksmanship considering that the airman in question was 700 or 800 ft. aloft and moving at the rate of a mile or so a minute when he made his cast.

"An officer had stepped up alongside to tell me that very shortly I should undoubtedly be quite seasick—or rather skysick—because of the pitching about of the basket when the balloon reached the end of the cable, and I was trying to listen to him when I suddenly realised that his face was no longer on a level with mine. It was several feet below mine. No ; it was not—it was several yards below mine. Now he was looking up towards us, shouting out his words, and at every word he shrank into himself, growing shorter and shorter."

The balloon went up and up until .finally in about two or three minutes it fetched up with a profound and disconcerting jerk. "If we should break away—but I don't think it likely—you should really be wearing military uniform. However, we should probably both be killed before we reached the earth." Although the new kite balloon is so much steadier than the old, there are still disconcerting movements which make the landscape appear to slant and bend in a highly unpleasant manner. "On a clear day," said Lieutenant Brinkner, "one can see the Eiffel Tower in Paris and, of course, the cathedral at Rheims."

The terrace from which the balloon was started was fully 500 ft. above the bottom of the valley, and, says Mr. Cobb, "We had approximately ascended a further 700 ft, giving an altitude of, say, 1,200 ft. in all above the level of the river." One obtained a superb bird's-eye view of the whole battle trenches. One could perceive the movements of men in the nearer works.

The telephone suddenly gave a brisk sign. The lieutenant clapped his ear to the receiver; an answer was snapped back. "I think we had better return at once," said the lieutenant. The car jerked and heeled over. The balloon resisted the pressure from below and curled up its tail like a fat bumble-bee trying to sting itself. But the six-horse team was pulling hard, and the sergeant who was looking after the twin telephone wires was put to it to keep his wires from being entangled.

Soon Mr. Cobb was being helped out from between the stay-ropes. An aeroplane had been observed for a moment or two, but it had then suddenly disappeared. The lieutenant jumped into the basket again, the balloon re-ascended to a height of some 500 ft., when from every side of the field there suddenly came shouts. The six horses galloped. "Flyer ! French flyer !" shouted every- one. A monoplane had just emerged from a cloudbank to the southward. Down came the balloon with a run, the basket hitting the earth with a bump. The German anti-aircraft guns began to bark at the oncoming aviator. He turned, however, when he met the increasing fire from the guns. One shot very nearly upset the pilot's balance, but he managed to get away, and an adventurous day closed.

see also : Spotting in an Observation Balloon


from a German regimental history


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