Necessity has been deemed the mother of invention, and nothing seems to escalate innovation like war. Be it hot or cold, wartime sees a need for bold new ideas, and that need is usually accompanied by an injection of funds that allows many a hair-brained scheme to actually see the light of day. Between AT’s very own Fodder and engineerd™, we have been enlightened to many a kooky WWII and Cold War creation, and I know we can count on more to come.
This post opens an occasional series to explore the original ’War to End All Wars’, and look at some technological developments arising from that conflict. Let’s kick it off with the Zeppelin manned observation basket!
The Germans called these spy baskets “Spähgondel” or “Spähkorb”, and their initial development arose from the work on weighted radio antenna for military airships. It was found that the free streaming antenna hanging below the airship was too light, and would move so much that it would interfere with communication. A weighted plumbob called a “Peilgondel” reduced movement of the wire in the wind. It was a small matter of time before this idea was extended to a manned spy platform.
The German airships, the Zeppelins and the lesser known Schütte-Lanz, utiliized these baskets throughout the war, although the exact number is unclear. The basket could be lowered down below a cloud deck, allowing the observer to steer the airship while it remained unseen by gunners on the ground. Sometimes refered to as ‘sub-cloud cars’, the baskets were equipped with a wicker chair, chart table, electric lamp, compass, telephone, and lightning conductor. The telephone was connected back to the airship by way of the suspension cable, which was high grade steel with a brass core insulated with rubber, and typically as long as 750-1000 meters.
I did not see the preparations, but they must have been bungled somewhere. When the airship had reached a sufficient height Strasser got into the little car and gave the signal which would lower it a half mile below the ship. About 300 feet down, while the winch was allowing the cable to unwind slowly but steadily, the tail of the car became entangled with the wireless aerial. It caught the car and tilted it upside down. The cable meanwhile continued unwinding from the winch above and was beginning to dangle in a slack loop below Strasser, who only saved himself from being tipped out by clinging to the sides of the car with a deathlike grip. Suddenly the aerial gave way, sending the car and Strasser plunging down until it brought up at the end of its own cable with a sickening jolt. It was not a propitious introduction for the new device.
Despite this inglorious start, with modifications like a motorized winch, and more substantial cars with better aerodynamics, the “Spähkorb” would become a common piece of equipment in wartime Zeppelins.
Despite the isolation of the bomb shaped spy basket, it was found to be a crew favorite, being the only place on the hydrogen filled airships where smoking was allowed.
After the Great War, the idea continued briefly. The United States also built a protoype observation basket for use with their rigid framed airships the Akron and the Macon, but it was quickly abandoned after unsuccessful testing.
Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark its distinguished passengers, Akron took off again to conduct a test of the “spy basket”—something like a small airplane fuselage suspended beneath the airship that would enable an observer to serve as the ship’s “eyes” below the clouds while the ship herself remained out of sight above them. Fortunately the basket was “manned” only by a sandbag as the contraption proved “frighteningly unstable”, swooping from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gazes of Akron‘s officers and men. (Wikipedia)
During a separate test with the Macon in 1934, the basket was recorded on video by a following aircraft, and the two images below were taken from this video.
Images, in order of appearance, are from Wikipedia (first 2), Alex Drennan’s Flickr, the Flickr of Watson Class, airshiphanger.com, debooks4u.com, armchairgeneral.com, modernmechanix.com and Wikipedia (combined into 1 image), history.navy.mil (2 images), and armchairgeneral.com. Information from invisiblethemepark.com, armchairgeneral.com, and Wikipedia. Thanks to cavemanengineer for the tip!