A spy basket (also known as a cloud car) is a type of airship appurtenance consisting of a streamlined one-(usually)-person gondola attached to its host airship by a long cable; to use it, the host airship hides in or above a cloud layer, and the spy basket is then lowered, cum crewmember,1 from the airship down through the base of the cloud deck, and serves as an observation station in the (hopefully) clearer lower-altitude air, allowing the airship to know what happens to be below it without exposing its gigantic soft underbelly beneath the clouds.2
It was pioneered by the German armed forces during World War I, who used (or at least tried to use) it to drop bombs on Londoners3 without getting shot down; they eventually discarded the whole concept, but it was picked back up,
five seconds over a decade later, by the United States Navy (the only post-1918 military user of rigid airships),4 when the U.S.S. Akron (ZRS-4) was built with provisions for the fitting and use of a spy basket. The Akron’s spy basket was first deployed in April 1932.
Soon after returning to Lakehurst to disembark her distinguished passengers, Akron took off again to conduct a test of the "spy basket"—something like a small airplane fuselage suspended beneath the airship that would enable an observer to serve as the ship's "eyes" below the clouds while the ship herself remained out of sight above them. The first time the basket was tried (with sandbags aboard instead of a man), it oscillated so violently that it put the whole ship in danger. The basket proved "frighteningly unstable", swooping from one side of the airship to the other before the startled gaze of Akron's officers and men and reaching as high as the ship's equator. Though later improved by adding a ventral stabilizing fin, the spybasket was never used again.
This was not, so far as I can tell, a problem faced by the German airship bomber crews of World War I (who were blessed with spy baskets that dangled placidly from their mounts), and I’m having trouble seeing why the Akron’s spy basket would exhibit such remarkably unstable behaviour, unless the first (and only) trial of her spy basket was held in severe turbulence (which, given the purpose and method of use of the spy basket, I’m having great trouble believing that her commanding officers would have allowed). Can someone clarify this for me?
1: Presumably the one with the most favourable combination of good vision, non-acrophobia, and low rank.
2: It can also, if necessary, be used to determine if the cloud deck does, in fact, have a base, or if it extends all the way to ground level. Obviously, due to the likelihood of eventual ground/water/tree/automobile/watership/Paul Bunyan contact in the event that the cloud layer is continuous to ground level, this is only advisable when the airship is in a stationary hover, unless you really don’t like the person manning the spy basket.
3: And probably some other people, too.
4: The German military, having lost World War I fair and square, was forbidden to build, use, possess, rent, touch, or think dreamily about any sort of aircraft at all, lighter-than-air or heavier-than-air, while the British military, in order to save money, scrapped its fleet of rigid airships at the end of the war and cancelled all those not yet delivered (with the sole exceptions of one they were going to sell to the Americans but which, due to poor judgement on both the designers’ and the pilot’s parts, crashed while they were showing it off for its prospective customers and one which was hastily reconfigured for passenger service but proved too small for the role).