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Frank Luke

Frank Luke with his SPAD XIII. Image courtesy of Photos of the Great War
Frank Luke Jr. (May 19, 1897-September 29, 1918) was an American World War I fighter pilot, ranking second only to Eddie Rickenbacker in number of enemy aircraft shot down during the war.

Luke, like Rickenbacker, was a first-generation American, born to immigrants. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on September 25, 1917 and received his flight training in January 1918. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he went to France, where he was assigned to the 27th Pursuit Squadron. He was simultaneously admired and disliked for his tendency to fly alone.

A fellow pilot warned Luke that German observation balloons were a difficult and dangerous target. Luke took that as a challenge and became known as the "Arizona Balloon Buster." Between September 12 and September 29, Luke was credited with shooting down 14 German balloons and four airplanes.

Luke met his fate in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne. Placed under arrest for going AWOL, Luke took off in a SPAD XIII fighter without authorization and went to the front. He shot down three observation balloons and was pursued by eight German Fokkers. Short on fuel, he had no choice but to land in enemy territory. Surrounded, Luke pulled out a pistol and killed several Germans before they killed him. He was awared a posthumous Medal of Honor.

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...even the dreaded Richthofen had ever come close to that."