The spy gondola, spy basket, observation car or sub-cloud car (German: Spähgondel or Spähkorb) was a manned vessel that an airship hiding in cloud cover could lower several hundred metres to a point below the clouds in order to inconspicuously observe the ground and help navigate the airship. It was a byproduct of Peilgondel development (a gondola to weight an airship's radio-locating antenna). They were used almost exclusively by the Germans in the First World War on their military airships.
The Peilgondel was developed by Paul Jaray to act as a heavy plumbbob for an airship's radio antenna. A free-hanging antenna wire would move and flex in the wind hindering communications; the added weight reduced this movement. Jaray then developed the Peilgondel further into a manned spy gondola.
Spy baskets were used on, among others, Schütte-Lanz and Zeppelin airships. As of 1937[update], it was not always certain which airships used them: the blueprints for LZ 62 (L 30) and LZ 72 (L 31) included the spy basket operating plant but the German Navy was no longer installing them at that time; however a fish-shaped spy basket can be seen on photographs of the German Army LZ 83 (tactical number LZ 113).After the war the Americans briefly experimented with a spy basket on the USS Akron.
Zeppelin spy basket development and use
Captain Ernst A. Lehmann, the German airship captain, described in his book The Zeppelins how he and Baron Gemmingen, Count Zeppelin's nephew, had developed the device. To test the prototype he blindfolded the helmsman of the airship and allowed himself to be lowered by a winch from the bombroom in a modified cask, equipped with a telephone. Hanging some 150 metres (500 ft) below the airship using a compass he could tell the blindfolded helmsman which bearing to take and effectively drive the airship. He later recounted how, while returning from the aborted raid on London in March 1916 in the Z 12, Baron Gemmingen insisted on being the first to use it on their secondary target, Calais. The basket was equipped with a wicker chair, chart table, electric lamp, compass, telephone, and lightning conductor. With the Zeppelin sometimes within, sometimes above the clouds and unable to see the ground, Gemmingen in the hanging basket would relay orders on navigation and when and which bombs to drop. The Calais defenders could hear the engines but their searchlights and artillery fire did not reach the airship.
LZ26's basket was lowered from the airship on a specially constructed tether 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) long; other airships may have used one approximately 750 metres (2,460 ft) long. The tether was high grade steel with a brass core insulated with rubber to act as the telephone cable.
Despite Gemmingen reporting a feeling of loneliness while being lowered and losing sight of the airship, crewmen would nevertheless volunteer for this duty because it was the one place they could smoke.
The Imperial War Museum in London exhibits a Zeppelin observation car that was found near Colchester after the Zeppelin air raid on the night of the September 2–3, 1916. It is believed to have been carried by the LZ 90 and was being deployed unmanned when the winch accidentally ran out of control. It was found along with 1500 metres of cable. The winch was jettisoned near Bury St. Edmunds.
The spy basket's use is dramatized in the 1930 film Hell's Angels. In the long-running British comic Charley's War, a ruthless German airship commander orders the jettisoning of his ship's cloud car (with the observer still in it) in order to save weight when his airship comes under attack.
- Guillaume de Syon (2001). Zeppelin!: Germany and the Airship, 1900–1939. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6734-7.
- Horn, Andreas (1997). "L-30" (in German). Zeppelin-Gruppe Tondern. Retrieved 2009-05-11.
- Lehmann, Ernst A.; Mingos, Howard.  archived from Zeppelin3. The Zeppelins. Chapter III REASONS FOR THE LONDON RAIDS