Eddie Rickenbacker had the highest number of aerial victories over the Germans than any other American and was known as America’s Ace of Aces during World War I. The son of Swiss immigrants, Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio on 8 October 1890. Rickenbacker, who started smoking at age 5, headed a group of mischievous boys known as the Horsehead Gang. At age 12 Rickenbacker became the head of the family and quit school after his father died in a work-related accident.
In 1906 Rickenbacker went to work as a mechanic for Lee Frayer, a race car driver. The job allowed Rickenbacker to further his passion for engines, and changed his life forever. He later worked as a salesman for the Columbus Buggy Co. In 1912 he started working for the automobile designer Fred Duesenberg and started racing cars on his own. Rickenbacker set a world speed record of 134 mph at Daytona in 1914; in 1916 he had his first ride in an aircraft and although he had a fear of heights, it did not show during the flight.
At age 27 Eddie Rickenbacker was considered too old for flight training when America entered WWI, but he nevertheless volunteered to join the Army. Because he was a famous race car driver, he was sworn in as a sergeant and sent to Europe to be a chauffeur. He was assigned to Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell and he pestered Mitchell until he was permitted to apply for flight training, claiming to be only 25, which was the cut-off age for pilot trainees. Rickenbacker graduated from flight training in only 17 days, was then commissioned a lieutenant and assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron in France.
When he first arrived in France, Rickenbacker was coached by Major Raoul Lufbery, but he soon developed his own aerial fighting techniques. His first victory was on 29 April 1918, for which he shared credit with Captain James Norman Hall. His first solo conquest was on 7 May. Rickenbacker would approach his victims carefully, closer than others, then start firing his guns.
Having replaced their Nieuport XXVIIIs with Spad XIIIs, Rickenbacker and the 94th were flying with greater confidence than ever. On 25 September 1918 Rickenbacker was given command of the 94th; on 1 October his score stood at 12 and he was promoted to the rank of captain. He was the most successful fighter pilot alive and was called America’s Ace of Aces by the press, a title he did not like.
Rickenbacker returned home from the war a national hero, but he chose not to let his hero status define him. He wanted to work in the aviation industry but he didn’t think the industry was ready for him. Instead, he partnered with three well-known automobile executives from the EMF Company as backers, Rickenbacker became vice president and director of sales for the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The first Rickenbacker autos were manufactured in Detroit in 1922. The recession in 1925 and competition in the auto industry left the company bankrupt. At age 35, Rickenbacker was $250,000 in debt, but refused to declare bankruptcy. He vowed to pay off every penny of debt, which he eventually did.
In 1926 Rickenbacker got his first position with a commercial aviation company when he and several associates formed Florida Airways. The venture didn’t last and he was appointed vice president of General Aviation Corporation, and in 1933 he was named vice president of North American Aviation and general manager of Eastern Air Transport.
During World War II Rickenbacker served as Representative to the Secretary of War in the survey of aircraft installations, returning to Eastern Air after the war. In 1963 at the age of 73 Rickenbacker retired from Eastern Air Transport. He and his wife Adelaide lived in Hunt, Texas and New York City before finally settling in Coral Gables, FL where he suffered a stroke in October 1972. After a trip to Switzerland he died of pneumonia on 23 July 1973.
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