Balloon Buster, or Luke the Original Skywalker
Seventeen days, fourteen balloons, four airplanes. There was no record in WWI like Frank Luke's. Sadly, it's kind of forgotten because it just doesn't sound that impressive to shoot down a balloon. You'd think all you'd need to do is fly over and toss down a handful of pins. Actually, balloons were harder than airplanes to shoot down, but even the WWI generation back home didn't understand it and Eddie Rickenbacker spent a lot of time in his books explaining the concept.
You Can't Pop a Balloon With a Bullet
You can pop a toy latex balloon with a pin because the surface is under tension and a hole anywhere allows the pressurized air inside to pull apart the edges of the hole, creating a rip that spreads so fast it releases the air from the latex explosively.
The air pressure in a fabric balloon is much less compared to the strength of the fabric, so a bullet would normally just go through it without causing a rip at all. Also, a bullet is very small compared to the size of a balloon big enough to hold a man aloft. So you could shoot quite a bunch of holes in a WWI balloon and the gas could leak out of all of them for a very long time before it made any real difference. It would be rather a disappointment.
Balloons Are Dangerous
In many ways a balloon was a better observation tool than an airplane in WWI. Of course the airplane could move around and go far behind enemy lines - but the airplane might not return, and the observer in it had to not only return but also land successfully and debrief in order to pass on the information. That could take an hour or more, and to get more information the aircraft would have to go up again.
Balloons were in real-time radio contact with the ground, and could pass on information as it happened - and as further developments warranted. Because balloons normally stayed at a particular height, anti-aircraft fire could be appropriately aimed to create a protective curtain around the balloon. Anti-aircraft fire in general was not too dangerous to aircraft because they could move so quickly compared to the guns. But to attack a balloon, an aircraft had to get fairly close to it, at its height, where the guns were aimed.
Also, since balloons were such valuable targets, it made sense for that side's own aircraft to hang out near the balloons, on the sunward side, ready to pounce on any approaching attackers.
Meanwhile, the balloon could be pulled down, quite quickly compared to the rate of an approaching aircraft, so an attacker could arrive to find his target was gone and now he was the target of the enemy guns and aircraft!
Getting the Fire Lit
The way to shoot down a balloon was to ignite the gas with incendiary bullets. According to Rickenbacker, it took a long burst of incendiary bullets to do this, involving many seconds of flight through the anti-aircraft curtain. As with lighting a campfire, sometimes it worked, and sometimes the fuel and flame were there but it just never caught. At one point Rickenbacker, Reed Chambers, and three other pilots worked out what they considered a "foolproof" plan against five German balloons. But,
We did not get one single balloon, even though three of us had actually pumped bullets into our targets. Comparing notes on the amount of Archie [anti-aircraft fire] we had flown through, we all agreed that we were lucky to get back to the field alive.
How Luke Succeeded Where Others Failed
Rickenbacker wasn't the only one working on balloon strategy. An uncommunicative maverick who was suspected of lying about an unconfirmed victory, Luke and his (just about only) friend Joseph Wehner, who had been in Europe since before the US declared war, came up with a way Luke could go after a balloon while Wehner protected him from above. It worked, and they shot down multiple balloons and aircraft together.
On September 18th Wehner, an ace himself by now, was killed trying to save Luke, proving beyond question his loyalties which had been previously under suspicion (besides Wehner's Germanic descent, what he had done in Europe before the US declaration of war was work with the YMCA in prison camps in Germany.) Like Lufbery before him, Luke made the enemy pay dearly for the loss of his friend. In less than twenty minutes he shot down two balloons and three aircraft, passing Rickenbacker to become the American Ace of Aces.
Stark Raving Mad
Five of Luke's aircraft and three of Wehner's had gotten too shot up to fly again. Also discarded was the previous opinion of Luke. "If anybody still thinks Luke is yellow, he's crazy. He's not yellow, he's stark, raving mad," said fellow aviator Lt Leo Dawson. Rickenbacker, though taking command of a competing squadron, and in the middle of a string of impressive victories himself, had only praise:
Not even the famous Guynemer, Fonck, Ball, Bishop or the noted German Ace of Aces, Baron von Richthofen, ever won fourteen victories in a single fortnight at the front. Any air-craft, whether balloon or aeroplane, counts as one victory, and only one, with all the armies.
At a dinner to honor Luke, he was given seven days' leave to Paris, which according to Rickenbacker "at that time was about the highest gift at the disposal of commanding officers at the front." Luke had, however, only a few days to live.
Balloon Brought Down by Batman's Commander
Also at the end of September, a balloon was downed by another notable pilot, Jerry Vasconcelles, an ace from Denver, whose uniform is in the VAFM collection. Vasconcelles was the commander of a night fighter squadron, the 185th, which led to the backstory of a rather famous fictional character. The squadron's logo showed a bat in the moon, recognizable as the origin of today's more stylized Bat sign. Batman's original story was that he had been with the 185th squadron in WWI.
Final Balloon Busted
On the 29th of September Luke's amazing string of victories ended with his death. Though there were no Allied witnesses, everyone agreed that the German report of what happened to an airman fit Luke's character. After destroying two balloons (according to plan; he had dropped a note to the Allied balloon corps to watch for his attack) and shooting some soldiers, he was apparently wounded and so he landed. Seeing German soldiers approaching, instead of surrendering he tried to shoot them and himself was shot and killed.
American squadrons did not know for some time what had happened. Expressing Luke's conflicted relationship with superior officers, Rickenbacker said, "Fully a month after his disappearance his commanding officer, Alfred Grant, Captain of the 27th Squadron, told me that if Luke ever did come back he would court-martial him first and then recommend him for the Legion of Honor!"
On the ground, the St. Mihiel offensive (and the experiment of an air force with it) was successful, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive was now beginning. Yet even with Luke's rampage and the victories Rickenbacker and the 94th Aero Squadron were scoring, in the air things were so bad for the Allies the month was known as "Black September." Thanks to the Fokker D.VII, the Germans lost only 107 aircraft in September, while the Allies lost 560, of which 87 were American. This was partly because there were more aircraft in the air than ever before, as the air war had doubled since the previous year.
In an even blacker aspect of the month, the flu ravaging the armies, and in fact the whole world, was approaching its peak at this time. But because of wartime secrecy, the scope of the disease wasn't generally known.
Why Lieutenants Don't Want to Be Known as Poets
C.S. Lewis, best known for the Narnia books, had a short but eventful war experience. He turned 18 in 1916, but did not go to France until the following year because of starting at Oxford and going through the Oxford University Officer Training Corps. He finally reached the front at the end of November 1917, only to fall ill from trench fever in February. Returning to the trenches in the spring, he was wounded (by friendly fire) in the Battle of Arras in April, a few days before the Red Baron died.
At this point a hundred years ago, Lewis, to his father's dismay, was still in the army but at least away from the front. He was trying to get his first book of poetry published (it did get published, but would probably be completely forgotten now if it weren't for his later writings.) Lewis wanted to publish under a pseudonym, because "I should not care to have this bit of my life known in the regiment. One doesn't want either officers or men to talk about 'our [bloody] lyrical poet again' whenever I make a mistake."
In his second poem, "French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)" there is a picture of an aircraft as seen from the trenches:
There comes a buzzing plane; and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!
False, mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he's no nearer to the moon than I
And she's a stone that catches the sun's beam.