Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Aces and Arizona Balloon Busters

Frank Luke Jr.
Medal of Honor

19 May 1897 - 29 September 1918
There's been talk in these spaces recently regarding killing balloons versus killing aircraft. That fellow in the opening photo was a noted balloon buster and a personal hero of mine. He's up there on the masthead between two of my other heroes, Eddie Rickenbacker and Robin Olds. General Olds would have recognized them both as kindred spirits. Frank Luke Jr. was a bit of a maverick, to say the least.

How good a pilot was Luke? How tough was balloon busting? Let's ask Eddie...
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker said of 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 Bishop from Canada, France’s Fonck or even the dreaded Richthofen had ever come close to that.” (Source)
I'll also chime in with this - balloons were tough nuts to crack, they were heavily defended by both AAA and supporting fighter aircraft. A pilot had to go to the balloon to kill it, there was no subtlety to it. You bored in, you dodged, you danced, you fired.

Balloons were important military assets, used to observe the enemy and direct artillery. The man in the balloon's basket was a trained observer, with a wireless to communicate with the ground. Long before pilots wore parachutes, the balloonists had them.

Flying against an enemy aircraft may or may not have been a tough proposition. Many enemy pilots had less than ten hours in the machine they were expected to fight in, many died within hours of reaching the front, easy meat for the more experienced pilots opposing them. Often they never saw the plane that killed them. Experienced pilots don't want to mix it up, they sliced in unseen, fired when the enemy's wings filled their windscreens, then they would dash away to fight again.

More like sharks than knights in my estimation. But war is unrestrained violence, to win you must kill your enemy. The Experten as the Germans called them in World War II knew this. Guys like Rickenbacker, Luke, Guynemer, Nungesser, Bishop, McCudden, Richthofen, and Boelke knew this in World War I. Bong, Olds, Hartmann, and the other aces knew this in World War II and later.

Speed is life.

Where did the term "ace" originate, well, with the French in the First World War. They had the first one, fellow named Adolphe Pégoud, of whom I wrote in a Friday Flyby a few years back, along with other French aces, including that rakish lad Juvat wrote about on Monday.

Adolphe Pégoud being awarded the Croix de Guerre 
According to what Juvat likes to call "the source of all knowledge" -
Use of the term "ace" to describe these pilots began in World War I, when French newspapers described Adolphe Pégoud, as l'As (French for "Ace") after he became the first pilot to down five German aircraft. The British initially used the term "star-turns" (a show business term), while the Germans described their elite fighter pilots as Überkanonen (which roughly translates to "top guns"). (Source)
That jibes with many of the books and magazine articles which I've read over the years. Rather a lot really, mind you, fighter pilots have fascinated me since I was six years old. Though the term Überkanonen is new to me, I had read that German WWI aces were known as Kanonen, which translates to cannons, or guns (of the artillery sort). Also interesting is that I recall reading that a German pilot in the Great War wasn't considered an ace until he had ten kills. Which early in the war also qualified him for the Pour le Mérite, also known as the Blue Max (Blauer Max), Germany's highest award for personal achievement in the First World War. The requirements for the Blue Max went up as the war dragged on, the ten kill guideline stuck, even until the Second World War as I recall.

(Source)
As for the main subject of this post, Frank Luke Jr., these two videos tell his story. While the two videos conflict in some of the details, there is no disguising the fact that Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr.was an extraordinary pilot, and someone you should remember.





18 kills in 17 days? Amazing.

Other old posts on WWI aces:
  • The Commonwealth Aces here.
  • Die Deutsches Kanonen hier.
  • The American Aces here.
World War One in the air continues to fascinate me. No doubt I'll write of those days here again. (And again, and again...)



32 comments:

  1. That these crazy brave men were doing such things as they did in just over a decade after the first successful powered flight is astonishing. They have long had me mesmerized as well. I have long been aware of Lt. Frank Luke, but thank you for reminding us/me of this fine American.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    P.S. Here I am again, up in the middle of the night. Yea, yea; I know that for you on the other coast it is just early morning and no big deal, but it's three hours earlier here, yaknow.

    Paul

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    1. It's hard to believe it's been over 100 years since WWI ended.

      Oh I am well aware of Pacific cost time, two kids living in California...

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  2. I was just looking at your ' Stuff I Like to Read ' list; when do you sleep? The times listed for having been to those blogs would indicate that you have been up all night, WUWT? Am I missing something or is this another one of those weird blogger things? IMWTK.

    Paul

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    1. I think the times that are listed under each blog link in Sarge's list of Stuff I Like to Read is when that blog put up new material, not when Sarge last read it.

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    2. Thanks Suz, that makes sense to me.

      Paul

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    3. "Am I missing something..."

      As usual, I was clueless.

      Paul

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    4. Paul - What Suz said.

      Truth be told, I don't read all of those every day. There are some that I do, the others get browsed on weekends.

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    5. Suz - Thanks.

      Oh and Paul, don't be too hard on yourself.

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  3. Taking on a balloon with all that it entailed, talk about poking a hornet's nest with your finger......geeezz! Wounded in a dogfight, forced down but yet strafed German infantry before hitting Terra Firma and just two months before the Armistice, the man clanked when he walked. Good addition to the archives Sarge.

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  4. BRAVO, Sarge! Well Done, Very Well Done, Indeed!

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  5. Ah, the glorious days of artillery spotting by balloon. Well I remember reading about their many adventures around Vicksburg during the war...

    Wait. Oops. Dang it. Wrong war.

    There I was, admiring the barrage balloons and then a fighter got caught in one of the cables...

    Wait. Oops again. Dang it. Wrong war the other way.

    Balloons have been a tactical asset in reconnaissance and in defense for a long time. And very underappreciated by many people. As you said, tough targets (takes a lot to 'kill' one) surrounded by lots of defensive assets, including defensive fighter screens. Lots of huevos to continually attack and destroy them. Which is why so many men died during the task of busting said balloons.

    Luke was quite a character. Stubborn and strong. One hopes that our 'modern' fighting forces haven't driven or beaten out these traits in all of our pilots.

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    1. I would liken Lt Luke to an early version Wild Weasel in killing balloons. There are at least two of the latter day Wild Weasels that were awarded the MOH for their actions.

      They are not referred to as "Ace", however.

      That having been said, rules change as time and circumstances change. The rules back then allowed a destroyed balloon to be called an air to air kill. So it was written....So, it was so.

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    2. Beans - We still have a lot of Frank Luke types in the military. Not many make flag rank, though some have.

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    3. Juvat - Ace is a very subjective title in some ways. When you look at the number of German pilots with kills in the 200+ range it makes some Western kill totals paltry by comparison. However the Germans flew in a "target rich" environment most of the war. One could also argue (I suppose) that attacking a heavily defended target and destroying aircraft on the ground is a lot tougher than gunning some rookie gomer in the air on his first mission.

      I like to think that anyone who straps on an aircraft and flies into combat has my respect. Ras is up there on the masthead for both his panache AND the fact that he flew 200+ missions "Up North." A far tougher thing to do then shoot down another aircraft. (Unless it's flown by a chap who knows his business!)

      Remember, the ace thing started because of the horror of the trenches in WWI, the public needed something to sustain their morale. Obviously, Manfred von Richthofen's aerial prowess did very little to help the Germans win the war. But it made great headlines.

      As Napoléon said, the moral is to the physical as 3 is to 1. As always YMMV.

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    4. No disagreement here. Merely a terminology issue. There will come another round of this when I finally get to the last name on the Lackland Monument.

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    5. Can't say I'm looking forward to the end of your MoH tales, well written and I learn a lot.

      But I am looking forward to the whole "terminology issue" explanation. Great teaser!

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    6. Hmmm. Been thinking about terminology. So, would a powered airship, blimp or rigid, be considered an airplane for "Ace" purposes?

      If so, why not a static blimp in the days when just taking off was dangerous enough.

      I know, in a Phantom or an Eagle or pretty much anything with a 20mm gun, balloons or airships would be shredded, but using rifle-caliber machine guns tossing out rounds at what today we'd consider very slow auto fire?

      Weird. Like, well, do you count camels, horses and mules, when doing bomb damage assessment, at a rate equal to a small car or light truck? How do you count an elephant carrying supplies? Does whacking a mounted rider and his mount count for 1 kill or 1 kill-1 transport destroyed?

      Strange minds want to know..

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    7. All very excellent questions.

      For which I have no answers. I will say this, any actions which shorten a war in your favor, have to be good.

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  6. I do have to say, though, as a former proofreader/publishing industry guy - the text design on “Pour leMé rite” sticks in my craw.

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    1. I thought the same thing, also being an inveterate proof reader (mother and grandmother were English teachers and beat that into me), but then I thought that such a nit doesn't really matter given the actions required to have it awarded ... all a matter of perspective!

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    2. Well, it is a German award in French. And y'all want to ascribe English proof-reading to it?

      My, how... multicultural we all are here at the Chant... :)

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  7. Going after balloons reminds me of biting a porcupine in the kester. "Dying isn't much of a way to make a living." "Life's tough. Tougher if your stupid." Ye Gods! What men!

    This morning didn't last long enough for me to read and comment. Sorry for being late to the party.

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    1. If I recall, during WWI, going after other aircraft was actually safer than strafing the trenches, aerial reconnaissance and balloon busting. All three required the pilots to fly straight lines through intense AAA coverage of one form or another.

      Compared to that, aerial jousting was much less predictable and therefore much more survivable, as long as you were the one shooting.

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    2. STxAR - Better late than never!

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    3. Beans - A good rule to remember, be the shooter, not the target!

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  8. Sportsfans/

    An excellent book on WW I aerial cmbt is: They Fought For The Sky by Quinton Reynolds (June 1957)

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