Capt. Rickenbacher signed this picture when he was with the 94th Aero Squadron during World War I.
Edward Rickenbacker on the steps of an Eastern Airlines plane.
Eddie Rickenbacker served as personal driver to General John Pershing.
Eddie Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor for his flying exploits during World War I.
Eddie Rickenbacker – America’s “Ace of Aces”
America’s top ace of World War I and a pioneer in commercial aviation, Edward "Eddie" Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890. His father died when he was twelve, and he began working at a garage repairing automobiles. Soon, he decided to leave school to take a correspondence course in engineering so he could move up in the automobile field. Rickenbacker moved fast in the world of automobiles and went from garage mechanic to sales before he settled into auto racing in 1910. For the next six years, he was one of the nation’s top racecar drivers. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 and established the world record of 134 miles per hour (216 kilometers per hour) at a race at Daytona Beach, Florida.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Rickenbacker decided to apply for flight school with the U.S. Army Air Service. He was rejected because he was too old and did not have a college education. Instead, he joined the Army and because of his fame as a driver, he was assigned to the post of personal driver to General John Pershing. This post offered him opportunities to meet many of the most important officers of the war, including Billy Mitchell, combat air commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. While driving Mitchell, Rickenbacker was able to convince Mitchell to transfer him to flight school.
Rickenbacker received his wings after 17 days of training and was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron based outside of Toule, France. After coaching by ace Raoul Lufbery, he had his first shared victory on April 29, 1918, and his first solo on May 7. Flying Nieuport 28 and Spad XIII aircraft, Rickenbacker scored 24 more victories before the war ended. His fighting technique was to fly close to the enemy aircraft, closer than others dared, and then fire his guns. Occasionally, his gun jammed and he escaped only due to good luck. He lost several planes and sometimes returned to base with a fuselage full of bullet holes and once with a mark on his helmet from a passing enemy bullet. But his luck always held up, even on September 25, when he single-handedly attacked a flight of 5 Fokker D.VIIs and 2 Halberstadt CL.IIs and downed one of each type of plane. For this action he received the Medal of Honor--the highest medal given by the U.S. military. When the Armistice was declared he was flying over the trenches, and down below in "No Man’s Land" he saw soldiers of both sides celebrating as "friends never to shoot at each other again."
Rickenbacker returned to the United States a national hero, a position he knew was fleeting. He was promoted to the rank of major, but he felt that the captain’s rank was the one he had earned and used that title for the rest of his life. He turned down offers for commercial endorsements and movie roles, although he was broke. And he also found that the aviation industry did not have a place for him.
Instead he returned to the automobile industry and started the Rickenbacker Motor Company, serving as vice president and director of sales. When the company failed due to the recession in 1925, Rickenbacker used a loan from a friend to buy a majority share in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He served as the speedway’s president until after World War II, a job that allowed him to pursue other opportunities on the side.
Rickenbacker was a popular speaker, traveling the country promoting aviation. Twenty-five different cities credited him with helping to persuade their local governments to develop airports. He also started a comic strip called Ace Drummond and published his World War I memoirs, Fighting the Flying Circus.
In 1926, Rickenbacker joined the commercial aviation industry. He founded Florida Airways, which he soon sold to Pan American Airlines, before becoming vice president with General Aviation Corporation (formerly Fokker). In 1933, he joined North American Aviation as a vice president and general manager of the subsidiary Eastern Air Transport- eventually reorganized as Eastern Air Lines.
Rickenbacker arrived at Eastern in February 1934, just as the government was canceling federal airmail contracts--the Army Air Corps would take over the routes. To demonstrate that the airlines were better qualified to carry the mail than the army, Rickenbacker flew the only Douglas DC-1 ever built coast to coast on February 18-19, 1934, for a transcontinental record of just over 13 hours.
Under his leadership, Eastern grew and showed its first profit in years. He improved salaries, working conditions, and maintenance and passenger service. He replaced the aging fleet with new 14-passenger DC-2s. To inaugurate the fleet, Rickenbacker broke a record flying the DC-2, Florida Flyer, from Los Angeles to Miami. The airline was reborn.
In 1938, Rickenbacker joined with several associates and purchased Eastern. He was elected president and general manager. The new Eastern Airlines worked to develop a weather reporting and analysis system. It also reduced fares. And Eastern became the first airline to become a bonded carrier, meaning it could transport goods into the United States. It also operated free of government subsidies, for some time the only airline to do so.
By 1942, Eastern was serving 40 cities with a fleet of 40 DC-3s. But World War II meant big changes for the company. Eastern now had to give half its fleet to the government for military use. Many pilots also left to serve in the Army Air Corps. Rickenbacker volunteered to serve his country again—this time as a non-military observer for Secretary of War Henry Stinson. On a salary of a dollar a year and retaining his title of captain, Rickenbacker toured air bases around the world to evaluate their operations and build morale.
During a late 1942 tour of bases in the Pacific, the B-17 Rickenbacker was flying in ran out of fuel. The crew ditched the plane in the ocean, but in the confusion forgot the emergency rations. The eight men then spent 22 days on three rafts without food or water. Wearing his business suit and fedora, Rickenbacker took over leadership of the group--yelling and insulting the men to keep them in order. He made them pray every night, convinced that God had a purpose in keeping them alive. He used his fedora to collect the rainwater wrung out of clothes. The salt water corroded the few weapons they had, so they lived on fish, until one day a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He reached up, twisted its neck, and the crew shared it for dinner.
Three weeks later, a Navy patrol plane found the crew. Eddie Rickenbacker was back in the news, his luck having gotten him through another adventure. Yet he refused to go home to recover; he wanted to finish his mission. Later, he returned to Washington to brief Secretary Stinson on recommendations for survival equipment to be added to all Air Corps planes immediately. Among the recommendations were a rubber sheet to protect the crew from the sun and catch water, and seawater distilling kits. Both items are still standard issue on U.S. military lifeboats and airplane life rafts.
After the war, Rickenbacker focused on Eastern Airlines again as it returned to normal operations. He expanded routes and updated the fleet with Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s. He resisted the change to jetliners, wanting to let his competitors test the new technology first. He was forced to hire female flight attendants, something he had been resisting for 20 years. And he battled government regulation of the industry, saying all it did was create more red tape and discourage new companies.
In 1953, after 25 years of service, Rickenbacker moved up to chairman of the board of Eastern Airlines. He found it difficult to give control to the new president, especially as business became tougher due to competition. Finally in 1963, he retired to a ranch in Texas with his wife Adelaide. The couple found it too remote and after five years moved to Florida. During a visit to Switzerland in July 1973, "America’s Ace of Aces" died of pneumonia.
Sources and further reading:
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
_________________. Fighting the Flying Circus. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1997.
Yenne, Bill. Legends of Flight: National Aviation Hall of Fame. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Publications Ltd., 1997.
On-line sources and references:
Glines, C.V. "Charmed Life of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker." Aviation History, January 1999. Available at www.thehistorynet.com/AviationHistory/articles/1999/0199_text.htm.
"Eddie Rickenbacker." National Aviation Hall of Fame. www.nationalaviation.org/enshrinee/rickenbacker.html.