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Posted on Jun 10, 2011 in War College

‘Watch for Burning Balloons’ – Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., WWI Ace

By Sally Benford

Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., could be brash and arrogant but was also one of the most daring pilots of WWI.On August 16, 1918, Major Harold Hartney landed roughly on the primitive runway of the Army Air Corps’ American Expeditionary Force near the small village of Saints in northeastern France after narrowly escaping several German Fokkers. Just before banking left to make his way back to the aerodrome, the World War I flying ace had seen another U.S. plane out of the corner of his eye. After landing, with all other pilots and planes accounted for, Hartney knew that last plane had covered him when the Fokkers were on his tail, but he didn’t know who the pilot was or if he would make it back alive. Then, in the distance the drone of a SPAD engine could be heard. Squinting toward the horizon, Hartney saw the pilot who had saved his life coming in for a landing.

That pilot—new recruit, Lt. Frank Luke Jr.—bounced his plane along the bumpy airstrip, pulling up short next to the men of the 27th Aero Squadron. Bounding out of his plane, Luke boasted that he had shot down a German Fokker that had been trailing Hartney, but because there was no confirmation, few of his fellow pilots believed him. But Hartney knew that he had been pursued and that something—or someone—had forced the Fokker from his tail. Brash and arrogant, Luke had alienated his fellow pilots from the moment he arrived at the air base the month before, and this night was no different.

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Maybe it was because Luke was from Arizona, where Old West tales of cowboys pulling six-guns out of their holsters to face their enemies head-on seemed more romantic than real in the early days of flight. One of nine children born to German immigrants, Frank Luke Jr. enjoyed a happy childhood. He was a popular student at Phoenix Union High School where he excelled in sports. During summers, Luke worked at the Cornelia Copper Mine in Ajo, Arizona, but soon after graduation, he left his underground job for loftier ambitions—flying.

Luke enlisted in the Signal Corps’ Aviation service as a private first class. He received flight training at the University of Texas’ School of Military Aeronautics in Austin and later at the Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego. He accepted an officer commission in January 1918 and departed for Cazaux, France, for additional flight training. In July, Luke arrived at the 27th, ready for action. He announced to the other pilots, “I’ll get them Germans.” Veteran pilots who had already risked their lives in the skies over France without a victory didn’t think much of this cocky young officer from Arizona or of his boastful predictions.

Flying biplanes presented a multitude of problems for the pilots. Bitter cold, poor cockpit visibility and strong winds made flying a risky proposition. The planes were constructed of wood and canvas and could literally be flown to pieces if the pilot didn’t pay attention. Flying too low could cause the engine to stall, and diving too steep or turning too quickly to avoid enemy fire could mean disaster. With each breath, icy cold air and grease-laden smoke filled the pilots’ lungs, and often castor oil sprayed their faces, entering their mouths.

These men had to be athletes and possess nerves of steel. Luke was just such a flyer. While his confidence rankled his fellow pilots, Luke didn’t know how to act any differently. Soon after he started flying with the 27th, he would often drop out of formation claiming “engine trouble” to strike out on his own. Many of the pilots thought that either his engine trouble excuses were rebellious attempts to fly independently or a cowardly attempt to avoid the enemy. In the coming days, they would discover that Luke was no coward.

At the end of August, Hartney was promoted to colonel with command over the entire First Pursuit Group (comprised of the 27th, 94th, 95th, and 147th Aero Squadrons). Lieutenant Alfred Grant took over the 27th. Grant was a strict disciplinarian, unlike Hartney who had realized that fliers didn’t always display military behavior. Luke had already alienated Grant, so neither pilot was much enamored of the other.

The front was moving rapidly, and in the first week of September the pilots of the 27th moved from their comfortable quarters at Saints to the aerodrome at Rembercourt. The move allowed the planes to reach the front line quickly, giving the pilots more fuel to fly longer or safely return to the base if they became lost.

As commanding officer of the pilots, Hartney’s task was to attack and destroy German observation balloons. German observers in well-placed balloons near the front line could watch troop movements and then aim artillery fire with precision. For that reason, the balloons were a prime target—as well as the most difficult.

The tethered, sausage-shaped observation balloons, known as Drachen (dragon), may have seemed easy targets, but they were heavily defended from the ground by machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons and small-arms fire. From above, German Fokkers flew over the balloons to protect them from Allied pilots.

Attacking observation balloons was a dangerous mission, and every pilot knew that. To close in on a Drachen, pilots had to fly beyond friendly lines into enemy territory. The balloons were made of rubberized silk and filled with hydrogen; if a pilot succeeded in shooting down a “sausage,” he would have to guide his airplane to dodge the gas-filled plume that followed, which could also engulf him. But the danger didn’t faze Luke. For two weeks that September, he was the deadliest pilot in the sky.

On September 12, the opening day of the St. Mihiel offensive, Luke took off with his squadron, including one of his only friends, Joe Wehner. Ground observers reported that shortly after 8 a.m., Luke’s SPAD dropped from the cloud cover, surprising a German balloon crew. After several dives, Luke shot down the Drachen—it was his first confirmed victory. Headstrong and cocksure, in the four days of the St. Mihiel air battle, Luke and his flying partner Wehner shot down several observation balloons, as well as German airplanes.

Luke beside the wreckage of a balloon. National Archives.Unfortunately, the duo’s string of victories came to an end on the 18th, when Joe Wehner was killed. On that day alone, Luke had five confirmed victories, shooting down two balloons, two Fokkers and an LVG C.V observation plane within half an hour—a feat that no Allied pilot had ever achieved. He was now America’s Ace of Aces, but despite his success, Luke had a hard time with his friend’s death.

After several days rest in Paris following the loss of Wehner, Luke became restless and was anxious to “get more Germans,” so he returned to Rembercourt. On September 25, he was flying again, although his first mission was a goodwill flight over the U.S. trench lines.

When Luke took off on September 29 for what would be his last mission, it was against orders; he had been grounded by Grant for flying the previous day without permission. Shortly before sunset, Luke flew over the American 7th Balloon Company as he approached enemy lines near the Meuse River, where German balloons were tethered. As his SPAD crossed above, a metal cylinder with a white streamer attached floated to the ground. Inside the cylinder was a note that read, “Watch for burning balloons.” It was signed simply, “Lt. Luke.”

As the men of the 7th watched, an orange ball of flame and thick black smoke filled the sky above the village of Liny, and minutes later a second explosion ripped the quiet countryside near Briere Farm. Although Luke was wounded during the second balloon attack he wasn’t finished. He shot down a third balloon, and according to a signed affidavit from the townspeople of Murvaux, when landing his battered SPAD in a nearby field, Luke fired on German soldiers in the village, killing six and wounding many more. The villagers stated that as he climbed from his cockpit and walked toward a stream, he was pursued by German troops. Luke pulled out his pistol to defend himself. It was still in his hand when he fell to the ground, dead.

You had to be the best to be called the “Ace of Aces,” and Luke earned the title. In total, he had scored 18 confirmed victories—14 balloons and four planes. Most Americans think of only one U.S. World War I flying ace: Eddie Rickenbacher. But even Rickenbacher acknowledged that he merely inherited the title from Luke.

“He was the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life is one of the brightest glories of our Air Service. He went on a rampage and shot down fourteen enemy aircraft, including ten balloons, in eight days. No other ace: Britain’s ("Billy") Bishop from Canada, France’s (Paul Renee) Fonck or even the dreaded (Manfred von) Richthofen had ever come close to that. Had he [Luke] lived, he would have put me out of business long ago as America’s leading ace. I wouldn’t have had a show against him,” said Rickenbacher.

Luke’s commander, Maj. H.E. Hartney, said of him, "No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed. He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had any number of expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but the perfect combination, like the perfect specimen of anything in the world, was scarce. Frank Luke was the perfect combination."

In two-and-a-half extraordinary weeks, Frank Luke Jr. earned a place in history as one of America’s most courageous flying aces. In his short but sensational life, Luke was the most famous man in the United States and had changed from the “Arizona Boaster” to the “Arizona Balloon Buster.” Along with other decorations, in 1918, Luke was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first airman to receive that honor.

About the Author
Sally Benford has written about Arizona’s unique and diverse history from the days of Spanish colonization and the Old West to the state’s aviation and military past. The former managing editor for Arizona Highways magazine, Sally is an expert in the people, places and events that shaped Arizona. She lives in Peoria.

1 Comment

  1. That was a great read. I learned something today. Thanks!

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