Jump to content
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Deafness and Balloonatics


Puddinhead
 Share

Recommended Posts

First of all, thanks. Thus far, this forum has been an invaluable resource for these types of questions. I'm writing a book and could use more specific information regarding the prevalence of deafness amongst balloonists. I’ve read that they ‘tend to go deaf’ from several sources, including Godric Hodges MEMOIRS OF AN OLD BALLOONATIC, but I can’t seem to find a ‘why.’ I talked to an Ear/Nose/Throat Doc and he suggested it was due to the rapid depressurization, but when I asked on a parachuting forum, they assure me this isn’t the case. I spoke with someone who worked with weather balloons and he told me that ‘old timer’ weather balloon workers were often deaf due to not wearing hearing protection while filling balloons. That the sound hydrogen makes while filling a balloon is similar to an ear-splitting scream.

I’ve looked through Centurion’s excellent series

If anyone has any insight (or anything on ballooning generally), I’d appreciate your thoughts. Thanks!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Balloon observers often originally came from the artillery so perhaps they had already sustained some damage to their hearing. It was by all accounts very quiet up in a balloon above the noise of battle.

Trying to think of possible causes.

  1. Effect of cold but then you'd expect pilots and observers in aeroplanes to be equally affected and Zeppelin crews who got very cold indeed don't seem to have been affected
  2. Something to do with exposure to hydrogen but again Zeppelin and blimp crews don't seem to have been affected
  3. Decompression should not be a problem, crews in aeroplanes probably suffered more decompression and compression effects climbing to and diving from much greater heights and do not seem to have had a problem
  4. The noise made when inflating balloons is stuff and nonsense as firstly this was done by the ground crews, done as infrequently as possible (it cost moolah to produce hydrogen in the quantities required and balloons were only topped up when needed - they were not inflated/deflated before and after each flight) and the hydrogen in the balloon was at ambient pressure anyway. Modern weather balloons inflated from modern gas cylinders is a different case, Such high pressure cylinders did not exist then (this much I learnt working with British Oxygen)

If balloon crews tended to deafness (and I have to say this is the first time I have heard of this) I can only think it was due to previous exposure to artillery fire at close quarters.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I would agree, If it was related to their role in the balloon why would they be anymore prone to hearing problems than aircraft pilots and observers?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

According to The Royal Flying Corps Handbook 1914-1918, it was a result of forgetting to keep their mouths open during descent.

It also says that deafness wasn't the only side effect of a quick descent - "One officer surprised himself with a flow of obscene language that he freely used for some five minutes after landing, this being accompanied by a pronounced stammer".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

How high did observation balloons go, 4 or 5000 feet? I wouldn't have thought altitude problems would occur at that height no matter how fast the descent.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"a free balloon is exempt from such disadvantages, and at moderate heights not the smallest feeling of nausea is ever experienced. The only unpleasant sensation, and that not of any gravity, ever complained of, is a peculiar tension in the ears experienced in a rapid ascent, or more often, perhaps, in a descent. The cause, which is trivial and easily removed, should be properly understood, and cannot be given in clearer language than that used by Professor Tyndall :behind the tympanic membrane exists a cavity, the drum of the ear, in part crossed by a series of bones, and in part occupied by air. This cavity communicates with the mouth by means of a duct called the Eustachian tube. This tube is generally closed, the air space behind the tympanic membrane being thus cut off from the external air. If, under these circumstances, the external air becomes denser, it will press the tympanic membrane inwards ; if, on the other hand, the air on the other side becomes rarer, while the Eustachian tube becomes closed, the membrane will be pressed outwards. Pain is felt in both cases, and partial deafness is experienced. By the act of swallowing the Eustachian tube is opened, and thus equilibrium is established between the external and internal pressure."

The Dominion of the Air -1903

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A parachute drop from a balloon was not fast or rapid (that's the point of a parachute). The Spencer chute was a static line device with a line (rope) of about 12 foot at maximum and a rapid deployment device so the furthest an observer could free fall was about 200 feet. If his parachute hadn't fully opened by then there was something badly wrong and damage to his ears was the least of his worries (which would soon be resolved).. Some men did find their first drop a traumatic event and a short term Tourets type response was quite possible which is why crews were not asked to ascend again the same day (and some requested a transfer to other duties which was always granted).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"a free balloon is exempt from such disadvantages, and at moderate heights not the smallest feeling of nausea is ever experienced. The only unpleasant sensation, and that not of any gravity, ever complained of, is a peculiar tension in the ears experienced in a rapid ascent, or more often, perhaps, in a descent. The cause, which is trivial and easily removed, should be properly understood, and cannot be given in clearer language than that used by Professor Tyndall :behind the tympanic membrane exists a cavity, the drum of the ear, in part crossed by a series of bones, and in part occupied by air. This cavity communicates with the mouth by means of a duct called the Eustachian tube. This tube is generally closed, the air space behind the tympanic membrane being thus cut off from the external air. If, under these circumstances, the external air becomes denser, it will press the tympanic membrane inwards ; if, on the other hand, the air on the other side becomes rarer, while the Eustachian tube becomes closed, the membrane will be pressed outwards. Pain is felt in both cases, and partial deafness is experienced. By the act of swallowing the Eustachian tube is opened, and thus equilibrium is established between the external and internal pressure."

The Dominion of the Air -1903

You are talking about a free balloon not a tethered kite balloon as used by observers. Given that a free balloon has reached the edge of space altitude problems are entirely possible

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks all. That the officers were told to keep their mouths open in the RFC handbook is something.

The partial deafness of my character isn't critical to the plot, but I wanted very much not to get anything wrong. Well, anything I could help, anyway. I will proceed cautiously and keep an eye to this thread. Deafness attribution can wait for now. Thank you again for your thoughts on the matter.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Medically speaking, there is no reason that balloonatics riding in tethered balloons at relatively low altitudes should suffer deafness. The only possible problem is if the person has a blocked eustachian tube (such as with a cold), they might have some temporary hearing problems, and a totally blocked tube could conceivably result in a blown out eardrum during a rapid ascent or descent (though descent would be more likely). Neither of these should ocur at the speeds and altitudes of tethered observation balloons. A blown ear drum could result in deafness in that ear. pressure changes could be sufficient to cause some reduced hearing levels without a blown eardrum, but that should be transient, and I would not consider it deafness.

Speed of ascent/descent would be critical, as normally, even a partially blocked eustachian tube can open enough to equalize pressure. Failure to allow equalized pressure could conceivably result in a blown ear drum-- I've seen this in unpressurised aircraft, but never in a balloon.

I suspect we are not really talking about deafness here, but of some temporary mild hearing loss due to a blocked eustachian tube, which should resolve spontaneously. Maybe the authors were using the term "deafness" to mean this.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Don't give up on it just yet. This is from 'Flight' dated 04/09/1909.

And this

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1909/1909%20-%200312.html?search=deafness

Again a free balloon ascent - totally different from a tethered kite balloon and therefore contributes nothing to the issue.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The airmen who experienced the most rapid climbs to extreme altitudes were the crews of Zeppelins, especially of the 'height climbers'. Whilst there are accounts of them suffering from frost bite and altitude sickness caused by the cold and rarefied atmosphere there is no suggestion of widespread deafness. One has to ask what would differentiate them and kite balloon crews? Both were equally likely to pick up colds etc that might cause eustachian tube blockages for example. It still comes back to one thing - many balloon observers originally served with the artillery and Zeppelin crews did not. Artillerymen were (and still are) known for having hearing problems.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Again a free balloon ascent - totally different from a tethered kite balloon and therefore contributes nothing to the issue.

What difference does a tethered and free ascent and descent make, they go up and they come down. The height of the balloon went up to 8,000 feet but I get the impression it didn't come down from that height immediately before landing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What difference does a tethered and free ascent and descent make, they go up and they come down. The height of the balloon went up to 8,000 feet but I get the impression it didn't come down from that height immediately before landing.

Simples - tethered balloons ascended quite slowly as the mooring was paid out ( the not inconsiderable weight of the cable acted as a brake on the rise as more and more was payed out and weighed on the balloon) and didn't go anywhere as high. For a normal winch down (the vast majority) the speed was also controlled by the speed of the winch and was much like that of a lift (elevator). Free balloons. went up much faster and could also drop faster and the "pilot" had much less control, Descent was made by venting gas (unlike hot air balloons where you stop heating the air which cools much more predictably) and one could find oneself dropping much faster than intended.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The following reference may be of interest. It is from War Surgery from Firing Line to Base - B Hughes & HS Banks 1918. It is under the heading Conditions peculiar to Airmen.

'As the airman climbs, the atmospheric pressure decreases, whilst his internal pressure remains for the time being the same: consequently the vessels of the skin and of the mucous membrane fill with blood, and whereas the intake of oxygen into the lungs is less, the output of carbon dioxide for the time being is proportionately greater, consequently a temporary change in the respiratory quotient is brought about. Turgidity of the mucous membrane gives rise to buzzing in the ears and deafness, the eyes become temporarily blurred, and haemorrhage may occur from the ears, nose, and other mucous membranes.

Spud

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The following reference may be of interest. It is from War Surgery from Firing Line to Base - B Hughes & HS Banks 1918. It is under the heading Conditions peculiar to Airmen.

'As the airman climbs, the atmospheric pressure decreases, whilst his internal pressure remains for the time being the same: consequently the vessels of the skin and of the mucous membrane fill with blood, and whereas the intake of oxygen into the lungs is less, the output of carbon dioxide for the time being is proportionately greater, consequently a temporary change in the respiratory quotient is brought about. Turgidity of the mucous membrane gives rise to buzzing in the ears and deafness, the eyes become temporarily blurred, and haemorrhage may occur from the ears, nose, and other mucous membranes.

Spud

And something recorded for Zeppelin crews when they dropped ballast and rose very quickly and was commented on by some of the Victorian free ballooning pioneers but tethered balloon crews ascended relatively gently and not too high. If this was a serious problem for hearing it would affect aeroplane crews much more and balloon observers very little if at all.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What head gear did they wear in the ballon? Wind in the ears could not of been good in an open basket. Compared to the more enclosed cockpit of a plane but that was still from perfect even with a flying helmet.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Judging by photos headgear varied considerably but usually some form of flying helmet with ear protection. For some reasons photos suggest that German observers tended to wear head gear less than Allied crews but the early Drachens and German Caquot copies had to be winched down at lower wind speeds than the more stable Caquots but in any case no observer was likely to be exposed to wind speeds of more than 50 mph much less than an aeroplane observer.

post-9885-0-42313800-1401093916_thumb.gi

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some variations

post-9885-0-27622900-1401098493_thumb.jp

Note observers in many aeroplanes were every bit as exposed as balloon observers - some more so FE2 observers for example

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have something in early volumes of the Journal of the RN Medical Service on medical aspects of aviation. Not in the office till Thursday afternoon but will try to remember to look it up for you then.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks seajane for the trouble. And centurion, I've not seen most of those photos before. Ta!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Another question, if you would be so good as to indulge me. Between the observer and the pilot, I presume the pilot is the one who has primary responsibility for communicating with the ground. Orders to jump would go from the ground to him as the observer would be far too occupied. Is this correct or did they share communication responsilblites equally?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There would be a senior crew member but both would be occupied with observation duties ( don't forget that a balloon might be serving several batteries and other units all at the same time).Balloons had quite an advanced switchboard on the ground side and both members could be making and taking calls. If for example an observer spotted significant enemy aircraft l activity he could put a call through to the nearest allied fighter field. In the other direction an aircraft having registered artillery onto a target could ask his controller to pass over control of the shoot to a balloon. However in accounts of a baleout the ground controller does seem to have passed the jump instruction onto the senior member of the crew who would pass it onto his number two but there seems to have been little discussion so that if the 2nd observer said "what ?" he was talking to empty air [tethered balloons did not have pilots only observers].

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks centurion. I'm basing my chain-of-command info on MILITARY OBSERVATION BALLOONS by Widmer (and presuming that England organized along similar lines). In chapter 3, under kite balloons, he lists the pilot as the person who controls the radio and the observer is to only observe. Sounds like duties were split more evenly in English units. It's my understanding that in German units the pilots were enlisted and the observers were the officers. In English balloon units, were both men in the balloon given the title of observer (and the requisite half-wing on their uniform)? I am giving them the rank of Lieutenant and Captain. Does that sound about right?

As far as the ground crew goes, what rank should be given to the commander of the balloon squad (and is he the same person as the commander of the ground station)? Major seemed a little too grand. And one final question - I've always been confused about firing on multiple targets. Since the telephone wire only runs from their balloon basket down to their own base unit, how is it that they can speak to multiple parties? Does the man on the other end of the phone line manage all these targets for them or are they speaking to several locations at once? To be honest, I didn't think telephones would have been quite so sophisticated in that time and place so I don't want to get that wrong.

I appreciate all your help in getting the details straight.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...