Spy Baskets! The dangling Torpedo of Zeppelin Navigation
Posted on 07 April 2016
By WWI, the Germans had developed fairly sophisticated passenger Zeppelins. It took them pretty much no time to figure out that it would be easy to rain bombs down on enemy cities using these quiet airships capable of carrying an impressive payload. One of the problems with using a Zeppelin in war was that they were basically just floating bombs themselves, being that they were full of hydrogen gas. If a ship could be kept above the clouds, it would be difficult for men on the ground too shoot it down, though this made it nearly impossible for the Zeppelin to locate its targets.
Airships communicated using radio. During this era, if a radio was to receive messages from long distances, it needed a substantial antenna. The solution was to dangle a long wire from the airship with a weight on the bottom to keep it from flapping around. Some inventive German came up with the idea of dangling a man in a basket in leu of a weight at the end of the antenna.
The antenna wire was constructed of three layers: steel on the outside, then a rubber layer, then brass. The layered wires were connected to a telephone at both ends allowing the man in the spy basket to communicate with the pilot of the airship. In this way, the airships were able to cruise above the cloud line with only the small, man sized basket dangling up to 750 meters below, directing the crew above as to what direction to fly and when and where to drop bombs. Although it was a lonely and uncomfortable job, it was still somewhat desirable as the spy basket was the only place the crew was permitted to smoke while in flight.