Vice President of Collections and Senior Curator Christopher Warren reveals the Museum and Memorial's latest acquisition: a WWI observation balloon basket used by a training battalion in Virginia during the Great War.
World War I was the pinnacle of the use of observation balloons in warfare. Attached to large observation balloons, baskets like this one remained tethered to the ground and could raise one to three soldiers and their equipment up to 6,560 feet in the air. From that vantage point, a trained observer could make detailed notes on enemy positions and artillery, draw rough maps of trenches and structures, take photographs and even look out for submarines. Observers using binoculars could see up to 11 miles from the basket, and telephones allowed communication directly to an operator on the ground.
Balloons were easy and valuable targets, and airplane pilots took the title of “balloon busters” for shooting them down. Knowing they were likely to be fired upon, observers had to be prepared to make a quick escape. Unlike airplane pilots, observers wore a harness that attached to a parachute mounted outside of the basket. Deploying it required the observer to simply jump out of the basket and let their weight pull the parachute open.
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