DML 1/48 Spad XIII






One aircraft


Tom Cleaver





My Favorite Ace - Frank Luke:

I was somewhere in elementary school when I first read about Frank Luke, America's second highest-scoring ace of the First World War, in a book my father had bought as a boy: "Air Aces of the Great War." I immediately fell in love with the story of "The Balloon Buster." Indeed, what boy who had also been reading his father's collection of Zane Grey, who went religiously every Saturday afternoon to the old Park Theater on South Gaylord Street in Denver to see a western, would not immediately recognize and relate to Frank Luke?

Frank Luke is the living, breathing embodiment of that iconic figure of the American national myth: the lone gunslinger who is looked down upon by his social betters, who comes into town, allies with the local outcast, and cleans out the villains, making life safe for women and children and civilization. He was the only Medal of Honor Winner to accomplish that deed while AWOL; it is claimed his C.O., Major Harold Hartney, said that if Luke returned from his last mission, he would put him on charges for a general court-martial; this makes him even more mythic in representing the ideal of the man who goes his own way regardless, convinced he is right and that posterity will so declare him. Indeed, the only story about Frank Luke that is better than the myth is the true story.

Luke really was an Arizona cowboy; he began working as a teenager as a cowboy and later a copper miner; his last job before the war was riding fence on a ranch outside Flagstaff. With his lack of formal education and lowly social background, it is amazing that he managed to qualify for the U.S. Army Air Service in 1917, but he did. He completed the normal 9-week flight training course in 7 weeks, soloing after only 5 hours of dual instruction. Commissioned a 2d Lieutenant on January 23, 1918, he was in France that March. After further training at Issoudun, he was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron in August, 1918.

To say that Luke did not fit in with a group of upper class and upper middle class college-educated young men who were primarily easterners is putting it mildly. Hartney quickly concluded that he was "the damnedest nuisance that ever stepped onto a flying field." After several uneventful patrols, he took off solo on August 16, headed for a German airfield in search of combat. Over the field he spotted six Albatros D.V fighters and dove on them, hitting #6. He came in for a second attack on his wounded enemy and shot the Albatros out of the sky. He then entered a dogfight with the other five, broke away from them and headed for the American lines. On the way, he was intercepted by four other German fighters, gave them the slip and returned home. With no witnesses he couldn't claim the victory, and came in for ridicule from his squadron mates when he pressed the claim. During his solo flights in the area at the time, Luke had made friends among the pilots of SPA 3, "Les Cigognes." The only social class the French pilots recognized was that of the fraternity of fighting spirit, and they saw that in Luke. Whenever he couldn't stand the college boys back at the base, he went to visit the nearby Storks.

Out of this ridicule by his peers came Luke's determination to take on a target no one would miss: the heavily defended observation balloons used to direct artillery along the front. Few pilots even tried to take out these dangerous targets, and only Willy Coppens got more of them than Luke did. Luke had befriended Joe Wehner, outcast because of his German heritage at a time when anti-German feeling in America was so high that my own grandfather's barn was burned by his neighbors for the fact his name was Weist.

Luke began his battle against the balloons on September 12, 1918, when the American Army opened its St. Mihiel offensive; Wehner flew top cover for him. On the first attack, Luke's guns jammed at the decisive moment. He climbed away, cleared the jam and dove back into the cauldron of fire. This time no one could say he made a false claim - the explosion of the balloon was seen across the front.

On his second attack two days later, Luke shot it out with the observer-gunner, Sgt. Munchoff of the 14th Balloon company, who only parachuted at the last moment. Asked by his squadron mates back at base why he hadn't shot the parachuting German, Luke replied, "Hell! The bastard was helpless!"

The next day, both Luke and Wehner scored balloons that morning, and got home shot-up from fighting their way out of a formation of Fokkers. The evening of the following day they left separately, planning to rendezvous after another double score. Luke got his and shot down a defending Fokker for good measure. He saw another combat going on above, but had to break off and run in the face of superior numbers. When he returned to base, he discovered Wehner had not returned. Luke was inconsolable, and was sent off to leave in Paris. He returned early a week later.

On September 26, teamed with Lt. Ivar Roberts, Luke got into a dogfight with Fokkers before he could attack the target balloon. He got his opponent, but Roberts did not return. Luke went to stay with his French friends and returned September 29, claiming another balloon. Upon his return, he was grounded by Major Hartney for disobedience. Despite the order, he took off again, determined to get the three balloons he had spotted.

Ten Fokker D.VIIs intercepted Luke over Murvaux; after a five minute dogfight, he broke away from them using the "falling leaf" maneuver to let them think they had gotten him. Just above the ground he straightened out and flew on. Flying through a sky full of tracers, Luke burned the first two balloons nearly simultaneously, then turned for the third. At that moment, his SPAD was hit by a solid burst of fire that also got him, and he faltered for a moment. He pulled out just before crashing and headed on, throwing hand grenades at the gunners in the vicinity to make them duck. As the last balloon burst into flame, he turned and dove on the German trenches, strafing them with the last of his ammunition. Badly wounded, Luke force-landed in a nearby field after exhausting his ammunition. As the soldiers closed in to capture him, he pulled the .45 revolver he had carried most of his life and shot it out with them. That night, American artillery swept the area. Thus, like Guynemer, no one knows where Luke is buried. The German officer who commanded the balloon company and would have been his captor ended his report of the incident with this statement: "He was a man of dazzling courage, one of the bravest we fought in the war."

Frank Luke's combat career had lasted 17 days (including his leave in Paris), during which time he destroyed 14 balloons and 4 aircraft. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his final combat.



Bob Laskodi has given a full and complete review of building the DML S.P.A.D.,  in which I completely concur. (Talk about a quick way out of doing a kit review!  :0)  Ed.) The kit is presently available (July 2000), in the post-war markings of Reed Chambers from the 94th Aero Squadron.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to accurately depict the S.P.A.D. flown by Frank Luke. I found that it took two different decal sheets from two different aftermarket decal companies to completely accurately model this airplane. I used the numbers from the Australian PD Decals sheet, which are the proper size, and also benefit by being two-part so one does not have to worry about decals printed out-of-register. I used the squadron insignia and national markings from the Ministry of Small Aircraft Production S.P.A.D. XIII sheet. Both of these are now out of production, and I was fortunate to be able to get them after putting out a "Hey Rube!" cry on the WW1 List.

Luke's S.P.A.D. XIII was Bleriot-built. It's important to note that, because there is a difference in the camouflage pattern between those built by Bleriot and those built by Kellner. The Kellner pattern is the one most usually shown in S.P.A.D. profiles. Fortunately, the PD Decals sheet includes three-view drawings of both patterns. This sheet also points out that the engine panels on either side of the nose were unpainted aluminum, an important detail since those panels were generally painted on most S.P.A.D.s I went with the PD call for the blue-white yin/yang markings on the wheel covers because they were colorful.


I used Gunze-Sanyo and Tamiya acrylics. The clear doped linen undersurfaces were done with Gunze "Sail Color," while the metal and wood surfaces - the gas tank, lower cowling and landing gear, were painted with a mixture "Radome Color." On the upper surfaces, the light green was modern US "Light Green" (Gunze), with the dark green done with Gunze "RLM83 Dark Green." The brown was a mixture of "Cocoa Brown" and "Mahogany," (both Gunze), and the Khaki color was Tamiya "Buff." I mixed Gunze "Flat Black" with a bit of RLM66 "Black Grey" to create the "charcoal" color. The prop was painted "Mahogany."

Throughout, I airbrushed each color, then masked using thread along the edge of the mask to raise it and get rid of any ridges; most photos show this camouflage with a fairly hard edge, which is likely due to it being brushed.

Rigging was done with the High-E guitar string.


The DML S.P.A.D. XIII is one of the best First World War models from any manufacturer. The model has a detailed cockpit straight from the box. While more difficult than the recent Eduard Pfalz or Albatros D.III models, it will not present any modeler with a middling amount of experience any real difficulty, and makes up into what I think is one of the best looking fighters of the Great War.

Tom Cleaver

July 2000

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