Meet the 'Arizona Balloon Buster,' the ace WWI pilot famous for shooting down enemy balloons on 'suicide' missions

Lt. Frank Luke (standing next to the wreckage of a recent hit) is in a spirited race with Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker for the honor of being called the "ACE" of the American fliers overseas. Lt. Luke brought down three German observation balloons in thirty five minutes. 1918.
Lt. Frank Luke can be seen here in this 1918 photo standing next to the wreckage of a kill. He was famous as the "Arizona Balloon Buster," having taken out 14 German observation balloons before he was killed in combat.CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
  • A F-22 raptor that shot down a Chinese spy balloon on Saturday used the callsign "FRANK."

  • The callsign was a tribute to a legendary World War I pilot named Frank Luke Jr.

  • Luke downed 14 German balloons and four aircraft during a short combat period in France.

A US Air Force F-22 fighter jet using the callsign "FRANK" fired a single air-to-air missile at a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon on Saturday, sending debris plummeting off the coast of South Carolina and calling attention to a famous WWI pilot.

The operation over the weekend brought a dramatic end to a days-long public saga during which the balloon traveled across large portions of the US, raising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The callsign of the F-22 that shot down the Chinese spy balloon was a nod to Frank Luke Jr., a legendary World War I pilot who destroyed over a dozen German balloons and several aircraft during his brief time in combat as a member of the United States Army Air Service. For his efforts in the skies above the battlefield, Luke became famous as the "Arizona Balloon Buster," according to the US Air Force.

Luke was a star athlete during high school in his hometown of Phoenix. Shortly after the US entered World War I in the spring of 1917, the 20-year-old enlisted in the military and trained to become a pilot. He was later sent to France to join the 1st Pursuit Group, 27th Aero Squadron flying the SPAD S.XIII, a French biplane fighter.

Amid the brutal trench-style warfare of World War I, hydrogen balloons played a major role in allowing militaries to gather intel on what was happening behind enemy lines. These expensive assets were protected by anti-aircraft guns and aircraft, so trying to attack them was "practically suicide," the Air Force said.

Luke shot down his first enemy aircraft on Aug. 16, 1918, according to Air Force History and Museums, and his first balloon on Sept. 12, 1918. During his time in the war, he successfully shot down 14 German balloons and four planes.

On the day of his last flight, Sept. 29, 1918, over a dozen French villagers said they watched Luke brave enemy fire from the ground and the sky. Wounded and flying a damaged plane after taking fire from enemy Fokker planes and ground batteries responding to his destruction of three observation balloons in the Meuse region, Luke redirected his fire to enemy ground troops near Murvaux, killing six and wounding several more before he had no choice but to land.

American World War I fighter ace, Frank Luke Jr (1897 - 1918), with his SPAD S.XIII biplane, France, 18th September 1918.
American World War I fighter ace, Frank Luke Jr (1897 - 1918), with his SPAD S.XIII biplane, France, 18th September 1918.Getty Images

On the ground, as the enemy called on him to surrender, Luke used a pistol to defend himself until he died from a wound to his chest, according to the account from the French villagers. According to the Air Force, Luke's endeavors posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Aero Club Medal for Bravery, and the Italian War Cross.

"No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed," said Luke's commander Maj. H.E. Hartney, according to the Air Force. "He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had any number of expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but the perfect combination, like the perfect specimen of anything in the world, was scarce. Frank Luke was the perfect combination."

Capt. Edward V. "Eddie" Rickenbacke, who was the top US ace of the war with 26 aerial victories, hailed Luke as "the most daring aviator and greatest fighter pilot of the entire war. His life is one of the brightest glories of our Air Service."

Luke Air Force Base in Arizona is named after Frank Luke Jr., and the ace pilot also has a statue in Phoenix.

Dogfighting and shooting down balloons are far less common nowadays. Saturday's Chinese spy balloon take-down marked the first air-to-air kill for the F-22 Raptor, a stealth fifth-generation air superiority fighter. The aircraft, which was flying at an altitude of 58,000 feet, fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon operating somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, a senior US defense official said.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD and US Northern Command, told reporters on Monday that it was "fitting" to see the F-22 with the callsign "FRANK" down the Chinese balloon in US airspace within the country's territorial waters.

There was no collateral damage or harm to civilians as a result of the mission, the official said, adding that the debris landed in 47-foot-deep water off the coast of South Carolina.

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