Your go-to source for news and information. Support WOSU Public Media.

Written by: Tom Rieland
Date: July 24, 2018

The U.S. Ballon Corps train with A WWI Type R observation balloon at Ross Field in Arcadia, California. Photo: Courtesy of UCLA Library

The U.S. Ballon Corps train with A WWI Type R observation balloon at Ross Field in Arcadia, California. Photo: Courtesy of UCLA Library

Imagine for a moment floating above a fierce battle in a tethered wicker basket about a half mile above ground. The only thing keeping you afloat is a massive balloon filled with flammable hydrogen, an excellent target for enemy aircraft.

Anyone want that job?

Some did. The officers of the Army Balloon Corps were trained on the Ohio State campus a century ago as part of the new Military Aviation School. The school focused on a range of training from airplane repair to wireless communications, but the Balloon Corps was its most unique unit.

Using balloons as a strategy to observe enemy territory dates back to  the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s.

In WWI, the mission of the Corps was to locate targets and report on enemy activity behind enemy lines. The balloons were placed behind the front lines, but at an altitude to observe enemy movements. Though they were guarded by anti-aircraft guns, enemy pilots loved the challenge of taking them down.

Among the many achievements of America’s WWI Ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker of Columbus was taking down four German observation balloons.

Herbert Hudnut enlisted in the war in Cleveland and became part of the Balloon Corps in August of 1918. Lucky for him, parachutes had started to become mandatory for balloon pilots, following the lead of the Germans. One morning in September, he was joined by Lt. Cleo Ross in the basket and they were suspended over 1,000 meters in the air during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France.

Hudnut wrote that a German Fokker fighter plane “came out of the sun” that afternoon to shoot at their balloon and both he and Ross jumped as it exploded. Ross’ chute caught fire and he died in the fall. Hudnut’s chute opened safely. Twelve other observers in balloons also jumped that day, as many were hit by the same enemy pilot. Ross would be the only one to perish. A few months later, on November 11, 1918, WWI was over with the signing of the armistice.

The military aviation school would disappear after the war.  The school building on 19th avenue on the OSU campus would be used by the department of electrical engineering for experimental radio broadcasts in 1920 and those activities would evolve into the birth of WOSU radio.