One hundred years ago today, Second Lieutenant Frank Luke violated orders, took off from his squadron’s base in France, and disappeared. Eventually his fate was learned, but his flight into Legend crossed the boundary into the land of Myth, and it’s remarkable there’s never been a movie about him. A headstrong, talented maverick who habitually bucked The System has been the formula for more than one motion picture—and Tom Cruise can eat his heart out.
As an Arizonan and a pilot I’ve long been fascinated with “The Arizona Balloon Buster.” My early interest extended well beyond the legend of the fighter ace to include the historiography of the Luke Legend.
Frank Luke, Jr., was a first-generation American descended from German emigrants. He was born the fifth of nine children, graduated from Phoenix Union High school and worked at mining while enjoying riding, shooting, and bare-knuckle boxing.
Luke enlisted in the Army in September 1917, applied for pilot training and won his wings in March 1918. Reputedly in his “pursuit” training class he finished first in “air work” and second in gunnery. Sent to France, he was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron that July, flying racy Nieuport 28 fighters. America never fielded a home-grown “pursuit” during the Great War, hence our reliance upon foreign products.
Brash and self confident, Second Lieutenant Luke was apt to get cross-threaded with Authority. His original squadron commander, Major Harold Hartney, was inclined to cut the lad some slack. But Luke’s cockiness struck many squadronmates the wrong way. His aloof nature brought him few friends, but he was particularly close to another German-American, Lieutenant Joseph Wehner. Both had been investigated for their Teutonic origins but were accepted as loyal Americans.
Luke’s solitary nature extended into the third dimension. He was chided for breaking formation, going hunting on his own, and when he returned from a solo sortie saying he downed a German plane, few believed him. The claim went unconfirmed.
Meanwhile, Luke went his own way. He enjoyed helling around on a motorcycle, reputedly racing down narrow lanes shooting his .45 automatic at trees along the road. He also indulged his ballistic interests by playing with captured “Hun” machine guns.
Not well understood was the context in which the Luke legend emerged. Essentially Frank was the meat in a political sandwich layered between Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, commanding U.S. aviation in France, and the CO of the 27th Aero. In September 1918, with the St. Mihiel offensive shaping up, it was imperative to neutralize German observation balloons. The tethered Drachen afforded an unrestricted view well beyond the Allied trenches, providing invaluable information and artillery direction.
Mitchell directed the First Pursuit Group to destroy the German balloon line, and the bulk of the work descended upon the 27th. The previous squadron CO, Canadian Harold Hartney, moved up to command the group in August, succeeded by Captain Alfred Grant. Whereas Hartney had been inclined to tolerate the headstrong Arizonan, Grant was not.
Nonetheless, Hartney leaned on Grant to produce results for Mitchell. It probably galled Grant no end, but his champion balloon burner was Frank Luke. Grant was forced to tolerate the Arizonan’s maddening ways because the twenty-one-year-old “cowboy” got results.
Luke gained his first confirmed victory on September 12. Seventeen days later he ran his score to eighteen including fourteen balloons. Thus, Luke scored nearly half the Drachen credited to U.S. squadrons in that period.
But the results incurred a bitter price. On their best day, September 18, Luke and Wehner downed three German balloons and two airplanes but Wehner died protecting his partner. Luke was grief stricken and vowed revenge. One of his remaining friends was Lieutenant Ivan Roberts who assumed Wehner's role as wingman. On the 26th, flying their first mission together, Roberts went missing, later declared dead.
On the 28th Luke notched two more victories, running his tally to fifteen, easily the top score in the U.S. Air Service. He spent the night with a French squadron and returned to the 27th’s field the next day, facing an irate Grant. Grounded pending disciplinary measures, Luke ignored orders and took off for a forward field near Verdun. Probably he hoped that Hartney would cover for him. After all, Hartney had recognized the talent in Luke’s hot hands and the burning ambition behind those blue eyes. A veteran of two years of combat, Hartney likely accepted that with fliers like Luke all you could do was stand back and let them shoot while they lasted. In any case, the group commander issued a pro-forma reprimand to the miscreant and allowed him to take off that evening. Luke buzzed the American front lines, dropping a note, “Watch Hun balloons on the Meuse.”
Over the next hour or so three Drachen erupted in flames and Frank Luke disappeared. His body was recovered in 1919 and Frank Sr. accepted the Medal of Honor recognizing Lieutenant Luke’s exceptional heroism.
Lapse-dissolve, fade to day. In 2008 racing journalist Stephen Skinner published the definitive Frank Luke book, The Stand. After years of travel and extensive archival work, Skinner used the skills of a cold-case detective to reconstruct Luke’s last flight. The conclusion: the first of the three balloons fell to a 95th Aero pilot, Lieutenant Granville Woodard, who was shot down and captured. Therefore, Luke received credit for all three balloons destroyed that evening.
The enduring part of the Luke Legend is that Luke perished in a Tombstone-style shootout near Vaux-sur-Somme. Critically wounded, he force-landed behind the lines, drew his Colt, and died facing German riflemen.
In the 1980s I worked in the late Doug Champlin’s world-class fighter aircraft museum in Mesa, Arizona. The museum's SPAD was a magnificent reproduction of the type XIII bearing Luke’s markings, with original Hispano-Suiza engine, instruments, and Vickers machine guns. We hosted members of the Luke family, who expressed heartfelt appreciation for Doug’s tribute to Frank Jr. It was an intriguing meeting, and I enjoyed comparing notes with Frank’s grand nephew—we were both partial to the Colt Model 1911.
Relatives said that because of Frank’s fate, nobody else pursued an aviation career but his example remains always there, even beyond Luke Air Force Base: the Arizona gunslinger who carved notches in a brief, blazing trail across the French sky.