Product Reviews

Published on June 18th, 2020 | by Guy Warner

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Book Review – Balloons and Airships

Balloons and Airships – A Tale of Lighter-than-Air Aviation by Anthony Burton, 208 pages HB, 16 colour, 33 B&W illustrations, Pen & Sword £25 ISBN 1526719495

Having written quite a number of books and articles about lighter-than-air aviation, I came to this title with a reasonable degree of knowledge. I was therefore delighted to learn something new right away – on the family background of the Montgolfiers. With my attention pleasantly engaged, I read on. Next I was educated on the technical details of the first hot air and hydrogen balloons, which were explained concisely. The author surveys all the main developments and adds accounts of the activities of the early seminal figures in the late 18th century in an entertaining and informative way, putting some flesh onto bones of the familiar (and some less familiar) names – Pilatre de Rozier, Lunardi, the Charles brothers, Tytler, Sadler, Elisabeth Thible, Coutelle, Garnerin, Blanchard (Jean Pierre and also Sophie) and Jeffries.

Moving into the 19th century, he describes long distance flights and scientific experiments by Green, Coxwell and Glaisher, military use in the American Civil War and the Siege of Paris (from which my great-great grandfather’s business there sent out lightweight messages written on rice paper), aerial photography, the work of Captain JLB Templar in England and the establishment of the Balloon School. This is not an exhaustive (or indeed exhausting) history – it is a light read, a series of interesting snapshots, giving a flavour of these challenging and daring exploits.

The early experimental work developing powered flight over the course of a century – the airship – is well-covered from Meusnier in the late 18th century to Giffard, the Tissandier brothers, Renard and Krebs, Woelfert and Knabe, Schwartz and Santos-Dumont. The remarkable achievements, and sheer dogged persistence in the face of setbacks, of Count von Zeppelin are covered in some detail.

I was less happy with the short survey of British pre-First World War activities – Spencer, Willows, Usborne and Capper but given that this is my particular area of interest, I am perhaps being too picky. Similarly the war years are really given less than their due and I would have liked to have seen this section expanded considerably. It is lacking in detail and some of the facts were simply incorrect. For example, the Astra-Torres, HMA No 3, was not a rigid airship, neither was the Parseval, HMA No 4. The first British aircraft to be launched from underneath an airship was not until 6th November 1918 from R.23, so had no wartime use.

Moving to the 1920s and 1930s all the key events and disasters are noted in Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Norway and the USA – the trans-Atlantic crossing, the Polar flights, the round-the-world voyage. The US blimps in the Second World War are also given due mention. The final chapter covers modern ballooning as a sport, record breaking and atmospheric research, as well as 21st century airships.

The selection of images is very good and they are reproduced on good quality paper. All in all, this book is a decent primer for the general reader and, hopefully, would inspire some to a more detailed study of this fascinating branch of aviation.

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