Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (1890-1973), early automobile race driver and America's top fighter pilot in World War I, went on to manage giant Eastern Air Lines during its expansion era.
Eddie Rickenbacker was one of those rare heroes who enjoyed enduring fame. His remarkable victories as a fighter pilot in 1918, his many brushes with death throughout a long life coupled with the courage with which he confronted danger, his willingness to express his views openly, and his success in the airline business—all these made him a renowned popular hero in his day and beyond.
Born simply Edward Rickenbacher (later Rickenbacker) on October 8, 1890, in Columbus, Ohio, he was one of eight children in a poor Swiss immigrant family. After the death of his father, William, when Eddie was 13, his mother, Elizabeth Basler Rickenbacher, helped support the family with money earned by the older children. Eddie dropped out of school and moved rapidly through a succession of industrial posts. During the course of these ever better paying jobs, he embraced the values of the early 20th century-the ethical value of work, thrift, independence, and a distrust of government power.
As a teenager he developed a consuming passion for automobiles and gravitated to a car maker who, like many others, promoted his vehicle by racing. Eddie, riding as mechanic, took correspondence courses in engineering and acquired experience. He quickly rose into management while passing through a succession of companies. Moving behind the wheel, he began racing and competing against the greats of the day. His courage and ability were demonstrated around the United States, including Indianapolis Speedway, where he later owned a controlling interest. At Daytona Beach he set a new record of 134 miles per hour. Even the loss of much of his vision in one eye did not deter him; typically, he learned ways to compensate. Off the track he consciously molded himself along the lines of better educated, successful men that he met. In 1916 World War I unexpectedly gave him an even more hazardous occupation.
As soon as America took up arms Rickenbacker joined General Pershing and the first troops to go overseas. He was already interested in airplanes and used his opportunities, especially the support of Colonel Billy Mitchell, to move from the driver corps to the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron and eventually to the cockpit of a fighter plane. At age 27 he was too old to be a combat pilot, but he falsified his age. He also lacked the gentleman's background expected of flyers, a deficiency that never showed itself in combat. The race track had provided him with experience that soon became apparent. In a little more than a month, a period that most new pilots did not survive, he was an "ace" with five kills to his credit. Between April and November 1918, he destroyed a remarkable toll of 26 enemy aircraft, becoming the United States' "Ace of Aces." These victories earned him the French Croix de Guerre and later the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Lionized throughout America, he wrote a popular account of flying against Germany's pilots.
The well-known hero had to find a peacetime occupation, and he began establishing connections while looking for a high industrial position. He also took part in a number of adventures intended to put him in the headlines, ultimately gravitating back to the auto industry. These ventures led him to build and sell a car bearing the Rickenbacker name. Many new autos failed, and by 1927 the Rickenbacker was one of them. He then accepted a position at General Motors to sell cars. When GM entered the aviation business, he assisted and moved through several executive positions. He was presiding over Eastern Air Lines in 1938 when GM decided to sell it to some investors, possibly leaving him in the cold. Captain Eddie felt betrayed and sought his own financing, which would put him in charge.
That Eastern grew and made profits consistently in an unstable industry was largely due to his efforts. He carefully watched expenses and attended to operating details. He ruled omnipotent, as did most airline presidents at that time, and was popular with his growing mass of employees. Then came disaster. He barely survived a crash in one of Eastern's "Great Silver Fleet" in 1941. The good fortune for which he was already known had not abandoned him.
In 1934 he had made himself unpopular in Washington, D.C., for criticizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hostility to the aviation industry. Nevertheless, Washington called on him to help establish a military air transport system and to make several special missions during the course of World War II. He was to evaluate air operations and bear important messages. And, although he had once opposed American participation, the renowned "ace" now made morale-building appearances with the troops.
On one such mission his aircraft went down, and he spent more than three harrowing weeks adrift in the Pacific Ocean. While given up for dead at home, to Rickenbacker it seemed his fate-ordained duty to survive and save his small party. Once rescued, he would complete this mission. On a later trip Rickenbacker, without White House approval, wrote himself an extra mission to Russia. But his unrequested evaluation of the Soviets was largely ignored in Washington. After the war his impolitic remarks found him allied with conservative causes.
Rickenbacker, who had turned a money-losing Eastern Air Lines into a profitable venture, continued this role after the war. War gave Eastern the opportunity to expand, and Rickenbacker's attention to costs kept the firm profitable when most airlines were not. However, Eastern began losing ground to competitors. It experienced opposition in Washington and alienated customers, problems largely attributed to Captain Eddie. Eastern in the late 1950s flew into financial turbulence. Ultimately, "his" airline forced his retirement in 1963 at age 73 but still fell victim to its problems and went bankrupt.
Captain Eddie remained a popular figure speaking in behalf of conservative causes. He died on July 23, 1973, in Switzerland, leaving his wife, the former Adelaide Frost, whom he had married in 1922, and two adopted sons, David Edward and William Frost. His obituaries particularly noted his victories in the air during World War I.
Edward Rickenbacker is listed in The Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography (1992). Hans Christian Adamson's Eddie Rickenbacker (1946) and Finis Farr's Rickenbacker's Luck (1979) plus an autobiography, Rickenbacker (1967), are basic sources. Rickenbacker also wrote Fighting the Flying Circus (1919) and Seven Came Through (1954), which describe remarkable experiences in two wars. Eastern Air Lines history is told in Robert J. Serling's From the Captain to the Colonel (1980).
Farr, Finis, Rickenbacker's luck: an American life, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Rickenbacker, Eddie, Fighting the flying circus, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1990.