Frank Luke, Jr. was an unlikely pilot. In the Great War, when fliers were still “knights of the air,” Luke was an ungallant lonera kid from Arizona who collected tarantulas, shot buzzards, and boxed miners. But during two torrid weeks in September 1918, he was the deadliest man on the Western Front. In only ten missions, he destroyed fourteen heavily-defended German balloons and four airplanes, the second highest American tally in the entire war. Author Blaine Pardoe retraces and refreshes Frank Luke’s story through recently discovered correspondence. Frantic, short, and splendid, the life of Frank Luke, Jr. dramatizes the tragic intervention of an American spirit in the war that devastated Europe.
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"Am waiting now to be sent to the front and am very anxious, for I feel that I am better than the average German and as good as the best."
— FRANK LUKE TO HIS MOTHER, JULY 9, 1918
August 16, 1918
Near Coincy, France
The pilots flying into battle that day hated their new airplanes. Almost universally, they held the same flat opinion: "The thing flies like a bloody brick."
The American 27th Aero Squadron (the Eagles, or Fighting Eagles as they were most commonly known) had recently received their new Spad XIII C.1s. The Spad XIII aircraft were temperamental and hard to maintain. These fussy planes would present new challenges and dangers during the combat patrol on the morning of August 16, 1918.
Major Harold Hartney took up fifteen of the new Spads with him in an escort mission. A dozen or so were with the 27th Squadron, the rest were from the 94th Squadron. They were to provide cover for a photographic mission over the trench lines led by the 88th Squadron and Major Kenneth Littauer. It was supposed to be a simple mission, and after take-off the Major led his squadron in almost perfect formation. For the new replacement pilots, it was a chance to gain valuable flight experience.
Four years of war had mauled the once lush green French landscape. There were still patches of green, grass that had not been blasted or burned, leaves that still clung to their trees; but these were exceptions from the air. The ground was mostly brown and black, the sod and mud of the war had ripped it up and turned France into a vision of hell. The trench lines of the Germans and the Allies ran parallel to each other like jagged scars across the burned and churned landscape. The space between the trench-lines was a deadly jumble of shell holes and barbed wire and death known as No-Man's Land. Smoke clung to the ground, smoke often mixed with the horrors of chemical gas shells. From the air, pilots could see the lands beyond the front. They could see what France had been before the war.
The afternoon of August 16 was clear, only a few clouds in the sky. The sun would have been welcomed, though once the aircraft got into the air, it would provide no warmth for them. It was perfect flying weather.
* * *
The universe of Spad XIII pilots was not the glorious one that is often associated with World War I aviators. The twin Vickers machine guns were mounted in front of the cockpit, in a narrow space between the top of the engine cowling and the bottom of the upper wing. It was a space only one foot by three feet to see though, shoot through, and live and die by. The freezing windtunnel was only protected by a tiny windshield and a menacing gun sight in their field of vision. Further out in front of the pilot was a nasty engine that belched choking smoke and Castor oil as it ran. Each breach they drew was ice cold air laced with smoke. It seared at their lungs and stung at any exposed portion of their flesh. The noise was loud enough to rise above the rush of the wind and the padding over the ears that they wore.
The pilot sat with only some thin wood and doped fabric between him and a potentially deadly bullet. To the sides of the pilot, there was nothing substantial — a thin layer of doped canvas. Dope was a varnish-like covering painted onto the canvas to make it more rigid and durable. He had a similar level of protection at his feet, and he sat on a thin seat of light brown leather stretched over a piece of plywood. Pilots wore a lot of clothing, as the open cockpit made flight over a few thousand feet a bone-chilling experience. Fur lined goggles and a leather flying cap encased their heads, but that was not enough to keep anyone warm, not at 21,000 feet. The trademark scarves that most pilots wore were not just for the warmth, but to keep the light spray of Castor oil out of their mouths. While often times the lives of pilots were portrayed as glorious compared to the infantry, the truth was that if they took in even a small amount of oil they would be confined to their latrines. Pilot's gloves were really massive mittens, usually lined with fur or wool. The only part that was open was for the index finger, to allow the pilot to hit the gun trigger.
Parachutes had been around for years, but were reserved for members of the Signal Corps, who sat under observation balloons. Some pilots experimented with parachutes, but the thought was that they were not suitable for American pilots. The Germans provided their pilots with this "luxury" for survival, but the Americans did not. If your Spad was hit and forced down, you had no choice but to ride it all the way to the shellscarred, trench-torn ground. If you were lucky, you might be able to guide what was left of your aircraft to make some sort of landing. If not, you would most likely flip over, or pancake, on the ground and be crushed in your cockpit.
Flying the temperamental new Spad XIIIs was not simply a matter of working the throttle, rudder pedals, and the flight control stick. Just keeping the aircraft in the air required constant concentration and was complicated even by today's standards. You had to watch your oil pressure, making sure that it stayed near the midline of 150 grams. A pilot had to monitor the temperature of the engine and try to maintain it at around 70Â°C. When you were performing combat maneuvers it was important to keep the engine above 500 RPM. Pilots had to make sure that near the end of a long flight they turned on their Nourrice fuel tank. If you dove vertically, you had to close the choke. There was a sediment cup on the fuel line that had to be cleaned prior to a mission or your line could clog and kill your engine mid-air. Managing and maintaining the Spad was summed up best by Major Hartney's number one tip for "General Maintenance of the Plane: Live with your machine as much as possible."
There was no armored protection whatsoever, not in this era. The standard .303 bullet fired at a cockpit had little to impede its trajectory other than the pilot himself. The cockpit controls were laid out in a semicircle and were more basic than a modern automobile's. Foot-pedals, a throttle, and a stick completed the controls. It was an icy world of chunks of wood, a handful of bolts, wire, flammable gasoline, hot oil, dope-painted canvas, and prayer.
Besides bullets from enemy planes, pilots had to contend with fire from anti-aircraft cannons (known as "Archie"), which was inaccurate but still deadly. Shrapnel could shred a fighter or the pilot. Machine guns on the ground, if you wandered too close, could pop through the tight canvas and mangle an engine or pilot. The aircraft themselves sometimes fell apart or were shaken apart from damage. Dive or bank too steeply and pull up, and the wing canvas could rip free from the wood framing and send you to your death.
The life expectancy of a new pilot in 1918 was less than three weeks.
* * *
The fact that Major Harold Hartney flew with his men was a measure of the kind of officer he was. Some Aero officers did not fly aircraft but instead piloted a desk. Not Hartney. He had trained many of these new replacement pilots back in the states. He knew them, and trusted their skills and capabilities. The place for him was with his men, not on the ground filing paperwork. Besides, this was going to be an easy mission. With over a dozen aircraft, they would have local air superiority even if the new recruits were green at best. All they had to do was escort the reconnaissance planes in, let them take their pictures of the German troops and artillery positions, and get out.
Things went wrong almost immediately thanks to the temperamental Spads.
The flight took off at 5:05 that afternoon with Lieutenants Grant, Hoover, Vasconcells, Roberts, Dawson, Hill, Hudson, and Luke. They climbed to an altitude of 3,000 meters. Luke got a late start, having struggled with engine problems. His intention was to link up with the rest of the squadron, but they had a large head start on him.
The American formation began to lose Spads only a few short minutes into the mission courtesy of engine and reduction gear housing problems. The pilots with faulty engines signaled by hand to the Major and peeled off for the nearest airfields, hoping to get on the ground safely before the engines quit altogether. One by one, the Spad XIIIs descended and departed, downed not by enemy aircraft, but by their own mechanical deficiencies.
Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr., a relatively new replacement pilot in the 27th Squadron arrived. Now, looking back, the major was pleased to see the young Luke had rejoined his dwindling number of planes. At 18,000 feet, the major and only a pair of other airplanes from his command hovered, providing cover.
Major Hartney had begun the turn back toward his lines when suddenly he heard the rattle-click of a machine gun. He had been in combat before and knew that this was not ground fire but another plane. One bullet snapped through the canvas fuselage of his Spad with a cracking sound. The canvas had been covered with dope, which tightened it to a drum-like tension and strength. The canvas was more like thin wood when finished. The .303 bullet popped through it with a loud cracking sound, a noise that experienced combat pilots knew all too well.
Hartney dodged as he saw the German dive in on him. Rather than fight, he dove the Spad at top speed to get away from the pursuing aircraft toward his own airfield. At one point he glanced back and no longer saw his pursuer.
Frank Luke had seen the pursuer. It was the last of four German aircraft that had cut across the flight path of his fragmented squadron. Frank remembered his training and moved his Spad so that the sun was behind him when he would dive on the German. If the German glanced back he would be blinded by the sun and might not see the Spad diving in at him. From 18,000 feet, Frank entered his first combat of the war, diving down at the last airplane in the enemy formation. As he started his dive, he cut his engine. He was not going to give his intended target any reaction time to his initial attack.
The first three enemy biplanes saw him and broke formation, fleeing the scene of the battle. Only his intended target seemed unaware of his diving approach. When he came within 100 feet, Frank pulled up slightly and kicked the Spad's engine back to life. Less than a heartbeat later he opened fire with the Vickers machine guns in short controlled bursts, the guns had a tendency to jam if fired in long continuous blasts.
While 100 feet from the enemy sounds like deadly close range, it was a maddeningly long distance with no aids to aim at a dodging and weaving opponent other than a static sight mounted on the engine cowling. A hundred feet could feel like a mile when you were fighting to stay aloft, not get shot yourself, and still trying to hit a moving target in the air in front of you.
Every fifth round of Luke's machine gun ammunition was a tracer bullet. It was a treated phosphorous round that burned when firing, giving a glowing beam as it flew down its flight path. Although the tracers gave pilots a chance to see the approximate path of their bullets in flight, the tracer rounds had somewhat different flight characteristics than normal bullets. While they provided a rough guide, they were also not perfectly accurate.
Luke's shots were slamming into the German aircraft. The acrid smell of gunpowder from the Vickers mixed with the oil and gasoline smoke from the German's engine and would have left a bitter, metallic taste on the back of Frank's tongue. The German machine and pilot reacted to the hits. Luke could tell that that his foe had been hit — not just the aircraft, but the pilot. The German jerk-flipped over in a sideslip maneuver and Frank pulled up the Spad, revving its engine in a climb to turn and dive again. Hundreds of thoughts had to be dancing in Frank's head, yet somehow this excitable young man stayed focused. He had hit the enemy aircraft, and he wanted to finish it off. There were other enemy aircraft in the area, he had seen that in his dive down. Taking down the first aircraft would help even the odds for the Americans. He would have to be aware of the other enemies and not let himself become a victim. All the while, his weeks of training were about to pay off. Each important tip and bit of advice he had ever heard came to focus on these few minutes of battle.
It took a few moments, but when Frank did come about, he saw the aircraft, still flipped over on its back. He dove again and fired. The German aircraft slid down to 1,500 feet and began to turn and drop.
Frank knew the maneuver. The German was going to try a half-loop diving down. It wasn't possible, not at this altitude. The enemy angled downward to almost 200 feet and never even attempted to right itself. As he roared past, he saw the German plane dip down and knew that it couldn't possibly pull out at such a low altitude. It slowly descended towards the ground, upside down, flying to certain death.
Banking around, Frank scanned the air looking for the companions of the man he had just downed. They had shot off for their lines. He rose slightly, just enough to draw the attention of the German anti-aircraft guns for a few minutes as he sought his bearings. Having memorized the map of the area, he recognized the French villages of Jouy and Vailly and, from their positions, was able to determine where he was. He was prepared to fly back to his squadron base, but his own Spad finally began to succumb to engine problems. Frank made his way to a small airdrome near Coincy and landed.
The mechanics there worked on his Spad, refueling it and adding oil. Frank had learned that his own squadron was still in the air. He set out after them but did not find them. Somewhere in the air he had missed them and they had landed. By the time the daily report had been filed, Frank's status had been noted with uncertainty: "Lt. Luke has not returned." A further grim note said, "Lt. R. Nevius killed in action."
Upon landing Frank gunned his engine, something that his superiors had told the rookie pilots to not do. It was a way to get the attention of everyone at the airdrome and it worked. Frank's excitement only seemed to fuel the controversy of his first kill. What Frank faced was stern skepticism on the part of his peers. Most scoffed at his claim of shooting down an enemy airplane in combat for two reasons. First, Frank Luke was a rookie pilot. Second, Frank had been bragging about his untested skills against the enemy, something that didn't settle well with the seasoned veterans. His bragging had been seen as overanxious, but at the same time it insulted the men who had already gone up and risked their lives — many of them without taking down an enemy aircraft. The prevailing thought among most of the other pilots was that Frank had not flown off alone, but had been afraid and used excuses to flee from battle.
There was a third reason, mostly unspoken among the pilots in the 27th Aero because it was slightly embarrassing to admit. Frank was from a German family, the Boche were the enemy, and many had suspicious about German-Americans. A bragging German-American pilot was destined to be the brunt of scorn and suspicion. None of his fellow fliers were known to have ever mentioned it to his face ... and with good reason.
Major Hartney was more concerned that he had lost track of the inexperienced pilot and Luke had been long overdue. One of the other pilots stopped him. "There's your boyfriend," he said to the major. "He said he was going to get his first Boche today or never come back. Let's see what the blowhard's got to say for himself. Bet he claims one."
Hartney stowed his flight gear and was greeted by a follow-up report from his pilots who had reached Frank. "What did I tell you? He says he shot one off your tail!"
The major reached Frank who excitedly told him the events as they unfolded. Using his hands, he gestured for himself and his victim, showing how he dove in and how the German had flipped over and dropped. The other pilots of the 27th Squadron, with few exceptions, jeered at his rendition.
Hartney did not. He had been there. He knew he was being pursued at one point and something had forced the German airplane off of its pursuit. And there was something in the way that Frank told the story that convinced him that it was not a fabrication or a hollow boast.
He attempted to get confirmation of the kill. This process usually involved finding a friendly unit that witnessed the dogfight and the destruction and could confirm, in writing, that the events had happened and that a German plane had been downed. The need for confirmations had been proven early in the war as commanders discovered that there were many more claims than kills.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Terror Of The Autumn Skies"
Copyright © 2008 Blaine L. Pardoe.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 First Blood 1
2 The Wild Boy 13
3 Fly with the Eagles 29
4 Into the Air 43
5 The American Expeditionary Force 53
6 The Front 71
7 Busting Balloons 87
8 Fire in the Sky 99
9 The Dynamic Duo 107
10 Roar in the Skies 117
11 Recognition 127
12 The Darkest of Times 133
13 In the Limelight 141
14 Ivan the Missing 151
15 Crescendo 161
16 "Watch for burning balloons ahead..." 165
17 Into the Setting Sun 173
18 When Time Stood Still 181
19 One Man, Many Lives 195
20 The Stuff of Legends 207
Notes to Chapters 267
About the Author 301
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read Balloon Buster as a kid and thought I knew the Frank Luke story. This book changed that. We finally get to see the German perspective of Frank Luke's rampage. Pardoe also brings in a wealth of new material about his love life and even some photographs that have never been published. Finally, Luke is more than just a pilot blowing up balloons -- this book makes him a real person. This is not a story of Frank Luke's death, this is a story about his entire life.
This book is better researched than any I have previously read on the topic. It is well written and quite absorbing. In fact, it reads more like a novel than non-fiction, even though it is factual.
There has been much written about Frank Luke, but Mr. Pardoe has done his research very well and had pointed out some discrepancies that others have missed. As many other individuals that have excelled in combat, Frank Luke had a problem with military protocol and discipline. Yet he truly blazed a path in the new realm of US fighter pilots. Had he lived longer, who knows what he might have done.