In the early morning of January 19 to 20, 1915, a balloon, or more precisely an airship, flew over the United Kingdom, in the Norfolk region, dropping bombs on British territory for the first time.
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Another airship nearby also dropped bombs. A silent, undetectable threat in the dead of night. Sure, the blimps of 1915 weren’t exactly high tech compared to today, but the planes were even worse.
Biplanes with engines that could barely lift the plane off the ground took forever to reach the altitude of the balloons. A Sopwith Camel, launched in 1917 and one of the best planes of the War, had a rate of climb of 300 meters per minute. To reach a balloon at 3000 meters, it took ten minutes. Then, the second part: The poor biplane, flying at the limit of its capacity, had a few seconds to face the airship, which received it with dozens of anti-aircraft guns.
Target in sight, it was time to put your finger down and fill that monstrous balloon with bullets, in a beautiful explosion, like in Battlefield 1. The pilot squeezed the trigger, the Lewis machine gun spit fire. Sure enough, the hail of bullets hit the airship and… nothing happened.
Despite being filled with Hydrogen, a projectile from a machine gun is a small piece of lead, which goes through the airship and leaves two small holes. The gas leaks, but unless someone goes down with a lighter, nothing happens, compared to the size of the airship the leak is minimal, easily compensated by the tanks on board.
The British tried everything, but they only managed to shoot down the first German airship on April 1, 1916. It was the L-15, a zeppelin that was not from Zeppelin, but from Schütte-Lanz, another company that manufactured airships.
It was only shot down with the invention of incendiary ammunition, which at the time was equivalent to the ammunition we now call tracer, the projectile carries a small pyrotechnic charge that ignites during the journey to the target, this is important for you to have an idea of the trajectory of your shots.
In airplanes it was common to place a tracer projectile every five conventional ones, so the pilots knew where their shots were hitting.
Here we see a shot of a .50 caliber shell with tracer ammo, and a nice ricochet:
In this other video, a night demonstration with tracer ammunition, by the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces:
The downside to tracer ammunition is that it works both ways, but it didn’t help the Germans much, who in total lost 30 airships in 51 attack missions, which killed 557 British. There were 5,806 bombs, and the attacks only ceased in 1917, when it became clear that airships were no longer invulnerable.
Even so, balloons were widely used in World War I as observation vehicles. In general, an enthusiastic volunteer corn-digo was chosen, placed in a small basket attached to a huge balloon filled with hydrogen, and released into the air, attached by a rope and a telegraph cable. The guy would stand with binoculars, watching enemy troop movements and waiting for the first plane to show up and blow up his final home.
This wasn’t exactly new. Observation balloons were used by Napoleon, in several European wars and in the Civil War in the United States. We even use it, during the Paraguayan War Brazil was the first country in Latin America to use observation balloons, with American technicians hired to deal with the high technology of Hydrogen.
In the interbellum (period between wars, MeioBit is also culture) airships were modernized, and militarily they were more focused on observation, even so they suffered many accidents and were more vulnerable than ever, so much so that in World War II, they were left out.
Balloons, however, were too fragile, too vulnerable. It was much safer to do reconnaissance using airplanes, with cameras. The balloons were reserved (with one exception told later) the job of serving as protection against enemy dive bombers and fighters in low flight. It was the famous barrage balloons, and if a Stuka got stuck in the middle of one filled with hydrogen, that was more of a problem for him than for the British.
Other than that, balloons were good for a lot more than taking Simony from one place to another. They were, and still are, essential for scientific observations. Scientists launch balloons every day to measure atmospheric conditions.
A simple $20 balloon can prevent a $2 billion launch. Before any launch, several small balloons with meteorological instruments are launched, to measure data such as wind speed in the upper atmosphere. If they are out of bounds, in the best Captain Nascimento style, the Meteorology Officer says: “nobody will go up”.
These small balloons, closed, explode above a certain altitude, because as they do not have escape valves, with the lowest atmospheric pressure they expand too much.
Long duration balloons, used for more complex scientific missions, have “zero pressure”, or controls to relieve the pressure if it exceeds the limits. It sounds complex, but it is a very old technique.
It was automated in World War II, when Japan discovered the Jet Stream, an atmospheric river that flows from west to east, and used it to attack the US.
In total 9300 balloons with explosives were launched from Japan to the United States. It took them three days to cross the Pacific Ocean. Altimeters detected when the balloon rose too high, and released hydrogen. If he descended beyond the account, ballast was released. Clocks determined when night fell, and released ballast, as the hydrogen cooled, the balloon shrank and lost attitude.
This story I told in this article here.
During the Cold War, balloons were widely used for espionage, but were eventually replaced by airplanes. Balloons have an irritating habit of going where the wind wants them to go, not where you want them to spy.
This seems to have escaped the people of Google during the Loon Project, that wild idea of using balloons to provide internet in remote communities and disaster areas. They planned thousands of balloons around the world, what they managed to do was scare some people and give material to sensationalist journalists writing clickbaits about mysterious objects fallen from the sky.
But what about the Chinese Balloon?
The Chinese balloon shot down on the coast of North Carolina after crossing the US is something unusual. It is not the first, reports have started to appear of other similar balloons that in the past passed through Japan, and even through the USA.
China says it was a scientific, civil balloon and that the US threw an unnecessary tantrum. The last part is true, the rest is pure currant. The balloon was packed with monitoring equipment, presumably doing all sorts of electronic spying, from radar monitoring to wardriving of WIFI networks. In addition to copying everyone’s nudes with a cell phone made in china.
The big question was: Why did they let the balloon cross the country?
The official explanation is that they wanted to avoid the risk of the balloon falling on someone’s house, or causing any damage to some industry. On paper it makes sense, in practice we are talking about a country with 9.8 million km2there are immense deserts, open fields, forests and farms in the path of the balloon.
The real reason was much simpler: First, the US wanted to study the balloon as much as possible. A photo was released of a U-2 spy plane circling the balloon. The U-2 probably carried a ton of monitoring instruments to discover every sensor and transmitter in the balloon.
According to him, it was not designed to spy on the continental United States. The simulations showed that it was launched to fly over Guam or Hawaii, unexpected winds took it off course, and even though it had a propeller and rudders, the balloon was unable to return to its original course.
The final act, the shooting down of the balloon, was to show that the US had the power to shoot it down whenever it wanted, and chose the most cinematic moment.
Even so, they had to send their most advanced fighter, the F-22.
Something as simple as a balloon is capable of reaching great heights. In this case, the Chinese balloon was at 60 thousand feet, or 18 km of altitude. Few things can fly so high. A 737-800 has a maximum altitude of 41,000 feet. The Gripen fighters that Brazil bought from Sweden reach 50,000 feet. Maverick’s F-14? 53 thousand feet.
Above that, only for high-performance aircraft. The U-2 is capable of flying at 70,000 feet. The SR-71, over 100 thousand.
The F-22 has an official operational ceiling of 60,000 feet, which means it goes above and beyond. How much? Classified.
But flying at these altitudes is not so simple. You are flying very fast, very high, in extremely thin air. Any sudden maneuver and you cut the air to the engines. Bank angle a little more pronounced, and you lose lift on one of the wings, and enter a spin.
At 80,000 feet the SR-71 had a turn radius of 145 miles, or 268km. In other words: A Blackbird flying over the Ibirapuera in a west direction, if it makes a 180 degree turn, it will end up over Mangaratiba.
The above information, and other equally juicy ones you find in the SR-71 Flight Manual, Yes, kids, It’s not top secret anymore, anyone can read it..
Even an F-22, although it is operational above 60,000 feet, cannot play Top Gun, it has to fly in the shoe, at the tip of the fingers, which creates new problems:
How to shoot down a balloon?
It’s not that simple. Shooting won’t work, even with tracer ammo, Hélio has the irritating (in this case) habit of not catching fire. This was proven in 1998when a Canadian scientific balloon malfunctioned, it did not release its instrument load over the sea, and became a risk if it reached inhabited areas.
At 100 meters tall and nearly 90 meters wide, it was a prime target, and Canadian CF-18 fighters followed. They fired over 1000 shots, and nothing. The balloon continued, serelepe towards Europe.
The British mocked Canada, with headlines like “The Top Guns Who Can’t Pop a Balloon”. Eventually flights were diverted, the balloon caused inconvenience until it entered Russian territory, where it is estimated that the Siberian cold eventually made it land.
The solution, in the case of the Chinese balloon, was clear: Missiles, but missiles capable of reaching 60,000 feet are expensive, in the millions. Better to use the fighters.
Again, problems. The AIM-120 AMRAAM, the US standard Air-to-Air missile, in addition to costing $1,000 per unit, doesn’t work very well with balloons. It is designed to understand, identify and ignore all kinds of decoys and misdirection techniques, such as chaffthat foil cloud that confuses radar, and towed decoys.
One of the most basic techniques is to measure the Doppler of the radar signal. If the missile identifies that the target is stationary, it is probably a decoy. And a windblown balloon is basically static compared to an enemy fighter.
The solution was to use an AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-guided missile.
Theoretically the Chinese balloon was electric, with very little heat, but the missile’s sensor was comparing it to outer space, so the contrast was more than enough.
Everything worked perfectly, the F-22 achieved its first combat victory, the US shot down the first enemy plane over its territory since World War II, and it was the highest-altitude kill ever recorded. The US has recovered nearly all of the balloon’s electronic equipment, and is learning horrors about Chinese electronic intelligence capabilities.
In the end, it was fun, despite the hysteria caused by amateur and meteorological balloons that had nothing to do with the case, and were chased, shot down or mistaken for aliens.