Renegade pilot Frank Luke was America’s greatest “balloon buster,” the nickname assigned to the brash aviators who attacked German observation balloons used to sight artillery. Luke joined the 27th Aero Squadron in France in July 1918, and wasted little time in aggravating his fellow pilots with his cocky attitude and reckless flying style. Nevertheless, the Arizona-born aviator proved an expert at downing the reconnaissance balloons—dangerous targets that were often guarded by anti-aircraft guns, cannons and enemy fighters. He scored his first kill on September 12, and by September 28 he had claimed 15 victories, including one day in which he shot down two balloons and three enemy planes.

Despite his obvious skill, the headstrong Luke often flouted military regulations and disobeyed orders. His commanding officer tried to ground him on September 29, but Luke ignored the command and took off on a daring solo balloon-busting mission near Murvaux, France. He proceeded to destroy three balloons in quick succession, but was seriously wounded by machine gun fire and forced to ditch his plane near a creek. After climbing from the wreckage, Luke drew his pistol and may have exchanged a few shots with German troops before succumbing to his injuries. By then, the 21-year-old had claimed a remarkable 18 aerial victories in the span of only 18 days. He later became the first ever pilot to receive the Medal of Honor.

We honor you, Frank Luke.

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