National WWI Museum and Memorial acquires rare observation balloon basket


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.

Learn more about WWI balloons and dirigibles


More from the collection:


Black and white photograph of a WWI balloon basket tethered to the ground surrounded by smiling soldiers. The balloon pilot in the basket studies a large piece of paper.
Black and white photograph of a pilot in the basket of a grounded observation balloon surrounded by smiling American soldiers. The pilot views a large document, possibly a map. Entry in the Online Collections Database→


Black and white photograph of a WWI balloon basket tethered to the ground with two balloon pilots in the basket.
Image of two pilots in the basket of an observation balloon on the ground. Other soldiers stand around the basket. The pilots wear parachute harnesses. Entry in the Online Collections Database→