Russia's Balloon Carrier
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Russian Navy’s interest in lighter-than-air
flight began in the late 1880s, with tethered
balloons lofted from shore bases to spot enemy
ships over the horizon. By the turn of the
century both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets
had small balloon establishments, and over
the next several years the navy began experimenting
with balloons launched from ships at sea.
Suggestions for a dedicated balloon ship first
appeared in 1901, and became serious in 1903
after the Russian balloon expert M.N. Bolshev
returned from an inspection of the French
balloon ship Foudre.
In early 1904, war broke out between Russia
and Japan, and both sides suffered losses
from mines. Russian army engineer Capt. Fyodor
A. Postnikov had been experimenting with locating
sunken ships by air, and suggested that balloons
might be very useful in mine detection. Count
S.A. Stroganov, a wealthy former Russian naval
officer then living in Paris, was anxious
to help his Tsar and country and offered to
present a balloon ship to the Navy.
Stroganov’s agents located and purchased
the German passenger liner Lahn, and
contracted for the conversion work to be done
in Bremerhaven. The count also purchased four
Parseval-Sigsfeld kite balloons, a spherical
observation balloon, winches and hydrogren-generating
gear from a German firm, and when the German
government refused to allow Stroganov to buy
guns for the ship, he acquired four 3-inch
guns and 10 six-pounders in Britain. Bolshev
went to Germany to supervise the work, and
a very sophisticated vessel emerged in late
A Parseval-Sigsfeld kite balloon. Rus carried four of these.
When aloft, the observer would communicate
with the ship by telephone. The ship carried
1,000 meters of line, and heavy steel cables
to hold the balloon. Winches would raise and
lower the balloon. An independent system of
steam engines and dynamos powered the gas
generation plant. Though the ship carried
five manned balloons plus two smaller ones
for communications, only one would be aloft
at any one time.
Lahn arrived in the Russian port
of Libau the next month, and per Stroganov’s
wishes was commissed as the cruiser Rus. She sailed for the Far East as part of
the Third Pacific Squadron in February 1905.
Five days into the voyage, off the northern
tip of Denmark, her troubles began.
Stroganov’s willingness to help the
navy only went so far. When presented with
several ships from which to choose, he had
picked the cheapest option. Lahn had
been launched in 1887 and served on the storm-tossed
North Atlantic route for 17 years. By 1904
she was a battered hulk, with weak machinery
and suffering from pervasive rust. When her
condensers broke down, her captain was ordered
to take her back to Libau for repairs.
Along the way, Capt. Kolyankovsky conducted
more tests of his balloons. One was damaged
by crashing into the hangar, and one of the
unmanned ballons intended to loft a wireless
antenna broke loose and floated off past the
Swedish coast, never to be seen again.
After repairs at Libau, Rus remained
in the Baltic to test her aviation component.
Her crew made 186 manned ascents during the
summer of 1905, and became quite good at their
tasks. But the constant sea haze over the
Baltic limited visibility, and the naval staff
decided to transfer Rus to the Black
Rus’ poor material condition
doomed this plan. Though the aeronautical
gear was top-notch, her officers reported
they did not believe she could survive the
journey around Europe and they suggested that
her balloons and gear be removed and transferred
to Sevastopol by rail for installation in
a better ship. The new Navy Minister, A.A.
Biriliov, had never been a supporter of aviation
and agreed. But in the cost-cutting mood that
followed the disastrous end of the Russo-Japanese
War, he apparently had no intention of following
through. The equipment was left in a warehouse,
while Rus went to the scrapyard.
Loft your balloons! Order Russo-Japanese War right now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.