Jun 28

Here’s How the French Created Military Aviation

Thursday, June 28, 2018 8:28 AM

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On June 26, 1794, the French army launched their military balloon, L’Entreprenant, for reconnaissance during the Battle of Fleurus — the first use of an aircraft for military purposes.

L'Entreprenant was the first ever military aircraft (Photo: data.abduledu.org).

L’Entreprenant was the first ever military aircraft. (Photo: data.abduledu.org)

The Committee of Public Safety approved the creation of the French Company of Aeronauts in 1794 and sponsored the development of the hydrogen that would be used to raise the craft. After much testing and experimentation with gases and structures, L’Entreprenant was born [1].

 

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L’Entreprenant’s intelligence was vital for French success at the Battle of Fleurus. (Photo: PBS Learning Media)

Following a brief debut during a bombardment on June 2, L’Entreprenant was used to report enemy movements during a conflict with Austrian forces [2]. At Fleurus, the balloon was operated for nine continuous hours above French and Austrian forces. No attacks were made from the craft, but its operators were able to observe and report enemy movements from their unique vantage point. They notified others of their findings through signal flags or with messages that were lowered in weighted bags. Although the French were victorious at Fleurus, military balloons didn’t catch on, and the Company of Aeronauts was discontinued [3].

 

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The Intrepid was one of many aircraft used in the Union Army Balloon Corps. (Photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

The idea of military aircraft returned during the American Civil War. The creation of a balloon corps had been suggested but not implemented for numerous American conflicts, from the Second Seminole War to the Mexican-American War, until Abraham Lincoln approved the establishment of the Union Army Balloon Corps for reconnaissance and intelligence. The information provided by the Balloon Corps proved to be essential at locations like Falls Church and Four Oaks and gave the Union critical intelligence concerning the direction of ordnance and the prediction of enemy movements [4].

 

The USS Shenandoah was the U.S.'s first airship.

The USS Shenandoah was the U.S.’s first airship. (Photo: USNI Archives)

Military balloons led to a desire for aircraft that were not dependent on the wind, which led to the eventual creation of La France, the first functional airship [5]. The U.S. launched its first airship, the USS Shenandoah, in 1923. Modeled after the Zeppelin L-49, the Shenandoah was used primarily for pilot training. Some consideration was given to involving the airship in underway replenishments, but its untimely crash in 1925 led many to question the practicality of rigid aircraft [6]. The USS Los Angeles found more success than its predecessor and toured extensively across the mainland until its decommissioning in 1932 [7]. Following the end of the airship program in 1961, the navy briefly revived its blimp program in 2011 with the MZ-3 airship and used the craft for reconnaissance and observation during events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill [8].

 

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An FA-18 Hornet readies for launch on Cat 3. (Photo: USNI Archives)

While the operation of hot air balloons in today’s military may not be completely viable considering modern threats, these observational aircraft paved the way for airships and planes. The very tactics and laws of warfare were transformed to account for aircrafts’ increasing mobility and observational ranges. Tethered balloons encouraged innovation in the aeronautical field well through the late 1800s, and the incredibly swift and powerful fighter jets of today owe their existence to the humble hot air balloon. Even the missions of many current naval aviation units are centered on ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) like balloons of old.

Citations:

[1] Murphy, Justin D. Military Aircraft, Origins to 1918: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

[2] Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association. The Aerospace Year Book. New York, NY: Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association, 1919.

[3] Wagner, CAPT Arthur H., et al. Birth of a Legend: The Bomber Mafia and the Y1B-17. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2012.

[4] Murphy, Justin D. Military Aircraft, Origins to 1918: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

[5] Murphy, Justin D. Military Aircraft, Origins to 1918: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

[6] http://www.airships.net/us-navy-rigid-airships/uss-shenandoah/

[7] http://www.airships.net/us-navy-rigid-airships/uss-los-angeles/

[8] http://www.jacksonville.com/military/jax-air-news/2011-04-06/story/navy-brings-blimp-squadron-back