A decorated World War I American air ace who returned home to enter business, founding an automobile company and, later, an airline.
Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker, the third of eight children, entered the world of work as a boy, first by selling newspapers and then by moving to jobs in a glass factory, a foundry, a brewery, a shoe factory, and a monument works. He became interested in automobiles, and, at age sixteen, he was hired by Lee Frayer, a race-car driver and auto company executive who introduced him to the world of automobile racing. By 1912, Rickenbacker was working with auto designer Fred Dusenburg and entering races on his own. In 1914, he set a world speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Rickenbacker became interested in aviation after an aircraft-designer friend, Glenn Martin, took him on a flight in 1916. He was further intrigued by flying after meeting some Royal Air Force (RAF) fliers on a trip to England later that year.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Rickenbacker volunteered for service, becoming a driver for General William “Billy” Mitchell. Soon he was able to persuade Mitchell to assign him to flight training, and he joined the Ninety-fourth Aero Pursuit Squadron near Toul, France. He had spent fewer than three weeks in training.
During 1918, Rickenbacker’s flying skill steadily improved, and he began to shoot down enemy planes with increasing frequency. In October of that year, Rickenbacker scored fourteen victories. Although there is controversy over his exact wartime total of downed aircraft, it was certainly at least twenty-four, including four balloons. Rickenbacker survived 134 aerial battles and logged more combat hours than any other American pilot. These achievements made him famous when he returned home, promoted to the rank of major. Rickenbacker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1918 and the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1930.
After the war, Rickenbacker declined numerous offers to endorse products or to go act in motion pictures and returned to the automobile industry as president of the Rickenbacker Motor Company. After a bold start in 1922, the company went bankrupt in 1925, leaving its namesake deep in debt. Undaunted, Rickenbacker bought a controlling interest in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wrote a book about his war experiences, and even authored a syndicated comic strip. His primary occupation was as a sales manager for General Motors. Even with all these activities, he still found time to travel the country giving speeches on aviation and its future. He urged many city governments to consider building municipal airports.
In 1934, Rickenbacker became general manager of Eastern Air Lines. Under his management the airline added routes and became the first profitable airline in the United States. Stewardesses tended to passengers during each flight, and pilots were provided with up-to-date navigational instruments. Eastern also started its own meteorology division and instituted regular medical checkups for pilots. Maintaining a close relationship with Donald Douglas, Rickenbacker bought planes from Douglas Aircraft, and made a record-breaking flight from California to New Jersey in the new Douglas airliner, the DC-1.
Always an advocate for air travel and military air power, Rickenbacker traveled all over the country to give talks. Early in 1941, on a trip to Atlanta, he was seriously hurt in a plane crash and required months of surgery and physical therapy. The United States was now involved in World War II, and Rickenbacker, when he was well, was sent by the War Department on special missions. He gave inspirational talks to pilots and recommended improvements in aircraft and procedures. He traveled to England, where he met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and was entrusted with supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force Dwight D. Eisenhower’s planning documents for the invasion of North Africa, which he brought back to Washington, D.C.
In October, 1942, on a mission to New Guinea, the plane carrying Rickenbacker and a crew of seven ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Using three small rubber rafts, the men managed to survive for twenty-four days with virtually no shelter, water, or provisions. Only one man died; the others kept alive by drinking rainwater and by eating small fish and a gull they caught with their bare hands. At the end of this unprecedented ordeal, the survivors were spotted by a navy pilot and rescued. Prodded by Rickenbacker, the Navy made many modifications to the survival gear carried in planes, increasing the size of the rafts and providing for sails and solar water stills. During the remainder of the war, many other servicemen benefited from these steps.
After the war, Rickenbacker rejoined Eastern Air Lines, but was never as successful in business as he had previously been. He was gradually eased out of management and retired in 1964, but he continued to speak and write until his death in 1973, on a trip to Switzerland.
Gurney, Gene. Flying Aces of World War I. New York: Random House, 1965. Stories of heroism for young readers. Rickenbacker, Edward V. Fighting the Flying Circus. New York: Frederick Stokes, 1919. A memoir of the men who flew with the Ninety-fourth Aero Pursuit Squadron in World War I, with many harrowing accounts of air battles. _______. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967. An autobiography completed six years before Rickenbacker’s death, with photographs of the author with other aviation celebrities, including Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright, Jimmy Doolittle, and others. _______. Seven Came Through. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1943. Rickenbacker tells how he and his seven companions survived for twenty-four days on rubber rafts in the Pacific Ocean after a plane crash during World War II.
Airline industry, U.S.
World War I
World War II
Eddie Rickenbacker was the United States’ top ace in World War I, with twenty-six kills.