The Historical Thread Connecting a Balloon over the United States to the Skies above World War I Europe


On February 6, 2023, Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, participated in a press conference that provided updates regarding the American destruction of a Chinese high-altitude balloon flying over the United States. Buried within details about the ongoing investigations and information about countermeasures, a question arose about whether or not the F-22 that shot down the balloon would receive a decal to signify the air-to-air victory, as is traditional for pilots. General VanHerck deferred that decision to the leaders of the fighter wing, but did mention an important aspect of the mission that directly tied it to aerial combat of the past:

"I will say I'm really incredibly proud of everybody that took place in this. But the F-22 was remarkable. I'd remind everybody that the call sign of the first flight was Frank 01 … [named for] Frank Luke,  [a] Medal of Honor winner [in] World War I for his activities that he conducted against observation balloons. So how fitting is it that Frank 01 took down this balloon in sovereign airspace of the United States of America within our territorial waters."

Who was Frank Luke?

Frank Luke Jr. in his flight gear. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, 65-WW-433P-1631)

Frank Luke Jr. was an American pilot from Phoenix, Arizona, whose short but impressive air combat career made him one of the top “balloon busters” of World War I. Luke was, by many accounts, a naturally talented pilot who struggled at times with the discipline found in the military command structure. Starting in August 1918, Luke flew with the 27th Aero Squadron of the 1st Pursuit Wing, conducting solo patrol missions along the front. September 1918, however, brought Luke into contact with observation balloons along the German front lines, and he showed an incredible talent for shooting them down.

World War I German observation Drachen-Fesselballon balloons of the Parseval-Sigsfeld type were a common target of Allied “balloon busters” like Frank Luke Jr. (Shell Companies Foundation, Inc. via Smithsonian Institution)

Although the large, tethered observation balloons may seem like an easy target for a talented pilot, attacking them was incredibly risky and difficult. Observation balloons were a critical component of combat during World War I, providing “eyes in the sky” for commanders and watching the movements of the enemy when they were airborne. Observers in balloons could also communicate with commanders on the ground and adjust artillery fire in real time, adding deadly accuracy to a barrage. These factors made them a prime target for pilots, as the elimination of a barrage balloon greatly hindered the offensive and defensive capabilities of the enemy.

The importance of barrage balloons, however, also meant they were heavily defended. Balloons were often surrounded with numerous anti-aircraft guns. Pursuit planes were also often assigned to protect the balloons, so any pilot brave enough to make an attack on a balloon may find numerous enemy planes in the air ready to protect the balloon at all costs. These numerous layers of defense make Luke’s career even more remarkable.

View of an observation balloon being shot down over the Western Front during World War I. The parachute of the balloon's observer is visible below the balloon. (Smithsonian Institution)

Between September 12 and September 29, 1918, Luke shot down a total of 14 observation balloons. During an attack on September 29, Luke brought down three enemy observation balloons in under 45 minutes, an incredible feat considering the defenses he faced. This feat, however, came at the ultimate cost for Luke. Shortly after destroying the third balloon, Luke was brought down by one of the anti-aircraft positions near the balloon, leading to his death. Luke had a total of 19 confirmed aerial victories at the time of his death, including both enemy balloons and aircraft, making him one of the top U.S. aces of the war. Luke was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice for his actions and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first United States pilot to receive the honor in the war.

A U.S. Air Force pilot takes off in an F-22 Raptor at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, on February 4, 2023, to engage a high-altitude balloon. Note the markings of the 27th Fighter Squadron on the tail. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mikaela Smith).

Connecting the Past to the Present

On February 4, 2023, F-22 Raptors from the 27th Fighter Squadron of the US Air Force 1st Operations Group, stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, were sent on a mission to shoot down a Chinese observation balloon once it was over the ocean.  As Gen. Glen VanHerck mentioned, the call signs used that day by the pilots, Frank01 and Frank02, were a direct reference to the accomplished “balloon busting” career of Frank Luke Jr. The historical connection, however, does not end with the call signs. The 27th Fighter Squadron is the direct descendent of the 27th Aero Squadron, Luke’s unit during World War I. It seems that the United States can always depend on the 27th to take out an enemy balloon, regardless of the century or location.


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