Frank Luke, Balloon Buster

More from this show

Phoenix native Frank Luke was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor. He was a World War One ace who got his nickname, the “Balloon Buster,” for the numerous German observation balloons he shot down. We take a look at the life of Luke.

Ted Simons: We wrap up our Memorial Day special with a look at an Arizona World War I ace. Frank Luke, Jr., was the first to receive the medal of honor. He was nicknamed the "The Balloon Buster" for the many German weather balloons he shot down.

Paul Atkinson: Few 21-year-olds have statues erected in their honor. Fewer still are the number of young men who accomplish what Frank Luke, Jr., did. He was America's top ace at the time of his death, having shot down at least enemy airplanes and balloons in World War I.

Bill Luke Jr.: He was given a job and he did it. He was a daredevil, he was.

Paul Atkinson: Bill Luke, Jr., learned plenty about him from family members.

Bill Luke Jr.: When he was in high school he had the brainy idea that he'd like to use an umbrella and jump off the auditorium of Phoenix high school. His principal said, why don't we try this first with a dummy. He did that and found there was a lot of damage. He decided that wasn't a good idea.

Paul Atkinson: Before Luke joined the army in 1917, he worked the mines in Ajo.

Bill Luke Jr.: There was a prize fighter that came through the mining camp. He decided he'd challenge the guy and he won.

Paul Atkinson: Luke reported to the front a couple of months later.

Bill Luke Jr.: When Lieutenant Luke was first checked out in combat, he said if he lasts two weeks, you'll be assured of being able to survive. And two to three weeks was considered the normal life expectancy for pilots who flew these aircraft.

All of these aircrafts are fabric covered, bedsheets, safe as you sleep open every night.

Paul Atkinson: The museum has a replica of Luke's airplane, a French-built craft. Luke preferred to go after the most dangerous of all targets, observation balloons.

Mel Derry: It wasn't uncommon if you went and tried to shoot it down, you'd end up being shot down yourself from the people on the ground. That was the reason most people avoided it.

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker: He was the most daring aviator, the greatest fighting pilot. He went on an eight-day rampage and shot down 14 enemy aircraft including balloons.

Paul Atkinson: The Arizonan began to go it alone and was grounded by his commander.

Mel Derry: On the way back he shot a balloon down, and the base commander said, put yourself under house arrest, you're going to be court-martialed. He left the note and said watch the three bags on the river.

Paul Atkinson: He found more than a half dozen German fighting planes waiting. He went on to shoot down all three enemy balloons. He would not return to base to face the consequences of orders.

Mel Derry: Luke saw the soldiers, went down and strafed them. He killed maybe six of them and that's where the Germans approached the airplane expecting to capture him and he wasn't there.

Paul Atkinson: Historians believe Luke got out of his airplane, but died from his wounds before Germans could kill him. Luke's death made the news back home.

Bill Luke Jr.: An extraordinary boy met an extraordinary challenge and did the best he could.

Paul Atkinson: An Air Force Base is named in Luke's honor.

Bill Luke Jr.: Men and women have served and many lost their lives. Frank lost his life, he was a symbol. They were symbols. They were heros. And they are my heros.

Paul Atkinson: Luke is buried in a military cemetery in France. His simple cross does not boast of his accomplishments. Those speak for themselves.

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Earth Day Challenge graphic with the Arizona PBS logo and an illustration of the earth

Help us meet the Earth Day Challenge!

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

The Capital building with text reading: Circle on Circle: Robert Lowell's D.C.
May 2

An evening with ‘Poetry in America’

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: