Eddie Rickenbacker





The American Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, was a successful race car driver, fighter pilot, airline executive, wartime advisor, and elder statesman. Few aces achieved so much in so many different lifetime roles.

Eddie Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, USA, in 1890, the son of Swiss immigrants. His surname originally was spelled Rickenbacher. The sound of it caused Rickenbacker many problems and, as a result of World War I, he changed it. In 1918, he became Eddie "Rickenbacker"--with the change of that single letter somehow giving him comfort. His father, William, was a day labourer who regularly beat him with a switch. Rickenbacker responded by becoming a juvenile delinquent--a small-time petty thief and bully who was so quick with his fists that his impoverished parents feared he would wind up in reform school. Yet when his father was murdered on the job, young Edd, as he was then called, underwent a transformation. He was not quite 14, but he assumed responsibility for his family, a task usually shouldered by an eldest son. (Rickenbacker did have an older brother.) Rickenbacker immediately dropped out of school to begin working 72-hour weeks in a sweatshop glass factory. At this job, he earned a nickel per hour--$182 per year. He didn't have to spend a year there, though, for he was at the start of a career that would see him swiftly take on a series of ever more responsible jobs for which he was both too young and too uneducated. Rickenbacker was on the road to riches. He found he was a natural salesman and manager. Soon he was earning $150 a month at a time when lawyers and doctors made less. By age 19, he was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighed 165 pounds, and was sharpening his skills as a professional racing car driver. Within a few years, he had reached the top of his new profession, earning $60,000 the last year he raced. That was the equivalent today of $1 million.



As a driver, Rickenbacker was shrewd and savvy, carefully preplanning his races to maximize his advantages. He developed practical leadership skills and drilled his pit crew into teams able to change tires and refuel faster than any competitor. In his prerace planning, Rickenbacker took account of the track, weather conditions, and the way his equipment stacked up to the competition. Then, he drove with cool precision, pushing the envelope of risk but without recklessness. He developed a smiling public persona. His race colleagues thought of him as a mean driver, one who used any trick he could devise to win. It was good training for a future fighter pilot.  In 1916, Britain was at war, but the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. invited Rickenbacker to England in hopes he would build a team to race Sunbeam cars in America. English intelligence was convinced that Rickenbacker was a German secret agent. It kept Rickenbacker under close watch around the clock. Far from being pro-German, however, Rickenbacker itched to fight for the Allied cause. He proposed creating an air squadron composed solely of race-driver friends. The US Army shrugged off his idea as impractical. When the US entered the war in April 1917, Rickenbacker volunteered and became an Army staff driver, exchanging celebrity status and high income for a sergeant's pay. He went to France confident that he could worm his way into the flying service, trading his steering wheel for a joystick.



The Nieuport 28 was the first biplane fighter received in large numbers by squadrons of the United States Air Service.



In France, Rickenbacker proved an excellent chauffeur. (Some claim he drove for Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He did not.) On one trip, he impressed Col. Billy Mitchell with his roadside repairs of their Hudson staff car. Mitchell, who drove wildly and furiously himself, liked having the personable and famous Rickenbacker drive for him. An old Rickenbacker friend, Capt. James Ely Miller, was tasked to supervise the build-up at Issoudun of a huge new flight training center for American aviation cadets. Running into Rickenbacker in Paris, Miller asked him to become his engineering officer, a crucially important job and one for which Rickenbacker was eminently well-suited. Rickenbacker quickly agreed, on the condition that he could take flight training. Miller agreed, and Rickenbacker persuaded Mitchell to release him. It remained only for him to fudge his true age and fake his way through his physical (he had vision problems). He was in. Rickenbacker entered France's primary flying school at Tours, starting on the little clipped-wing Penguins and soloing after only two hours with an instructor pilot. He racked up 25 flying hours in 17 days and graduated as a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps. He was now an officer and a gentleman and was headed straight for trouble at Issoudun. More than 1,000 young pilot candidates, many from top schools and America's wealthy families, found themselves sent to Issoudun for training, only to find that construction of the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center was far from complete. They came expecting to go immediately into flight training. Instead, the Army put them to work constructing roads, buildings, latrines, railroad spurs, and hangars, often under the supervision of the newly commissioned roughneck, Eddie Rickenbacker. Furious with the system, the cadets took out their anger on Rickenbacker, openly mocking his poor grammar and rough language. The first two operational units, the 94th and 95th Pursuit Squadrons, were stationed at Villeneuve-les-Vertus, 20 miles behind the front. In March 1918, as pilots and mechanics began to assemble, their new Nieuport 28 fighters began to dribble in. It now appears fated that Rickenbacker would connect with Maj. Gervais Raoul Lufbery, a kindred spirit if ever one existed. Lufbery had distinguished himself with the Lafayette Escadrille, downing 17 enemy airplanes. The word in the Escadrille was that his score was much higher, but the taciturn Lufbery usually flew alone and rarely reported his kills.


Lufbery was assigned to the 94th Pursuit Squadron, Rickenbacker's squadron. It was going into action soon, and the Americans wanted Lufbery to help guide the squadron's entrance into combat. Lufbery and Rickenbacker, both former mechanics, hit it off right away. They understood engines and the men who worked on them and regarded grease under the fingernails as a badge of honour. Lufbery tutored Rickenbacker, escorting him on his first flight over the lines. Rickenbacker later said, "Everything I learned, I learned from Lufbery." Rickenbacker was a serious pilot, and he flew often. His first confirmed victory came on the 29th of April,  flying with Capt. James Norman Hall. Hall and Rickenbacker both dived and fired on a Pfalz, Rickenbacker closing within 150 yards before firing. The claim was confirmed even before the two pilots touched down. Of much greater importance to Rickenbacker was the success of the 94th, which became the most lethal US squadron and ended the war having downed 69 enemy aircraft and receiving 18 losses. Rickenbacker was truly the Ace of Aces-but he was also the CO of COs. He forged his leadership in combat, seeking battle himself, and insisting that his squadron seek it as well. He always took advantage of the odds, avoiding casualties wherever possible. Unlike most of his peers, he did not see aerial combat as some form of latter-day gallantry. He termed it "scientific murder."



Eddie Rickenbacker finished World War I with a total of 26 victories, the most of any American.

He was a master executioner. He finished the war with a total of 26 victories, the most of any American. (In World War I, partial victory credits were counted as whole credits. By today's count, Rickenbacker's total would be 24.3, still more than any other American.) After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, Eddie Rickenbacker volunteered his services. After some routine tours inspecting bases, Rickenbacker in October 1942 was given a top secret assignment. The Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, tasked him to carry a stern reprimand from President Roosevelt to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been making statements critical of the Administration. Then came an unexpected turn of events. On the 21st of October 1941  the B-17 in which he was flying was forced to ditch in the Pacific. Rickenbacker and his seven companions spent three weeks on a raft. One man died of exposure, but Rickenbacker brought the others through. After the War Rickenbacker  returned to Eastern Airlines whom he had purchased in 1938, (an airline that would grow from a company flying a few thousand air miles per week to a major international transportation company). Eddie Rickenbacker died in 1973.