The history of Frank Luke Jr, the first aviator to receive the Medal of Honor

The 1918 aviator who inspired the mission of two F-22 Raptors fighters against a Chinese balloon

Two months ago it was in the news the shooting down of a Chinese balloon by F-22 Raptor stealth fighters of the 1st Fighter Wing of the USAF.

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The shootdown mission took place on February 4, and a curious fact is that the two Raptors sent on that mission used "Frank 1" and "Frank 2" as their radio callsigns, according to the web . That radio callsign was not chosen at random: behind it was an inspiring story starring an American pilot from World War I, a time when shooting down balloons was much more risky than it is now. The protagonist of that story was named Frank Luke Jr.

Frank Luke Jr in aviator uniform (Foto: USAF).

Frank was born in Phoenix (Arizona) on May 19, 1897, into a family of German emigrants. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps, training as a pilot at the University of Texas School of Military Aeronautics. He received his wings and the rank of Second Lieutenant in January 1918, being sent to Issoudun, France, where he completed his training. In May of that year he was assigned to the French town of Cazeaux to serve in the 27th Squadron in the Aisne-Marne defense line.

Frank Luke Jr with his SPAD S.XIII fighter (Photo: USAF).

Frank's first air combat took place on August 16, 1918. He did not make many friends due to his indiscipline, which led him to be assigned to a particularly risky mission: shooting down balloons German observation aircraft, an operation in which some pilots died when the burning balloon that they themselves had attacked fell on top of them, and in which the planes received a large amount of enemy fire due to the low altitude at which they were flying . Frank demonstrated great skill in these missions, achieving 18 victories in just 10 missions (14 of them against balloons and 4 against aircraft), between September 12 and 29, 1918.

An artist's rendering of one of the German observation balloon shoot-down missions carried out by Frank Luke Jr with his SPAD S.XIII fighter (Image: Sonny Schug).

Frank's prowess in these types of missions led him to be the first United States Army Air Service pilot to become an ace in a single day, shooting down five enemy aircraft. Due to the technique he developed to shoot down observation balloons, he was endorsed "The Arizona Balloon Buster". On September 29, 1918, he took off from Verdun on a new mission that would take him almost 10 km behind enemy lines. Frank managed to shoot down three German balloons, but was hit by a shot. He managed to land near Murvaux.

A preserved SPAD S.XIII fighter at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, looking like Frank Luke Jr's plane (Photo: Tony the Marine).

Almost exhausted, he was able to walk 200 meters from the place where his plane landed and confront German soldiers with his Colt M1911 pistol, before dying. The Germans buried him in that town. After the war, his remains were taken to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, where they rest today.

The grave of Frank Luke Jr in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, during the ceremony organized by the USAF on the centenary of his death (Photo: USAF).

Frank's exploits were echoed after his death. In 1919 he received the Medal of Honor, the highest US military award, posthumously, becoming the first aviator to receive it. He also received two Distinguished Service Crosses. In 1941, the United States Army founded a base in Maricopa, Arizona, naming it Luke Field in Frank's honor. That base continues to serve the United States Air Force as Luke AFB.

The channel Yarnhub today published an excellent video recreating the feats on the computer by Frank Luke Jr:

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