Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (8th October 1890 – 23rd July 1973) was an American fighter ace during World War I. He notched up 26 aerial victories and collected a bag full of medals along the way. But he almost didn’t get the chance to fly.
‘Captain Eddie’ as he was known later in life – also going by ‘Rick’ for a long time – was always up for doing exciting things. He enjoyed a rush. He was almost crushed when he was young after a cart tipped over that he was riding in with other members of the “Horsehead Gang” that he was in. They probably avoided riding the cart down the slope to the mine after that. But he still wanted other excitement as he grew older.
Setting a World Record
He was a race car driver before World War I and had raced the Indianapolis 500 four times and also set a world speed record in 1914 at Daytona when he reached 134 mph.
Eddie was desperate to fly during the war and wanted to help the Allies fight the Germans but the US hadn’t joined the war yet. It was when the US did enter the war in 1917 that Rickenbacker enlisted as fast as he could with the United States Army. He turned his back on the decent money he was earning to try and get in the cockpit. He was over in France conducting training in no time with some of the American troops that moved towards the fighting early.
The US Air Service rejected his request to fly because he didn’t have the qualifications that other pilots had. He had some mechanical skills though and therefore worked as an engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Centre. It was here that he would practice flying in his free time to top up his skills, which were at a decent standard. Unfortunately for Rickenbacker, his superiors tried to prevent him getting fully qualified. His mechanical skills were in great need and they didn’t want to lose him.
94th Aero Squadron
Rickenbacker was allowed to join 94th Aero Squadron after he had shown his superiors that he had a qualified replacement to do the engineering work. He started off flying a Nieuport 28 and went to war against the Germans. Between the end of April to the end of May 1918, Rickenbacker earned six victories to become an ace.
He didn’t get any more kills for a few months until he racked up plenty in six weeks from 14th September. First, he came up against the German’s newest fighter, the Fokker D.VII. He won. He won again the next day when he came up against another one. Another four victories came in September and this didn’t change going into October.
Rickenbacker took down some observation balloons that with another thirteen wins in October. This brought his total victories to thirteen Fokker D.VIIs, five observation balloons with decent defence, four other German fighters and four of the reconnaissance planes with two seats that despite the low number of wins against, were actually easier to beat.
Rickenbacker’s 26 wins was a record at the time. The record was broken during World War II but that war did last longer than the short time the US was involved in World War I. Who knows how many he would have finished with if he had more time?
Distinguished Service Cross
Rickenbacker also won the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times. In 1930 one of these was converted into the Medal of Honor. For his actions, the French also awarded him the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. He was discharged from the Army Air Service in 1919 as Captain.
After the war, he had lots of offers for work but he chose to decline most of it. He wrote his memoirs called Fighting the Flying Circus in which he shared the details of his wartime experiences. He was married in 1922 to Adelaide Frost Durant and they stayed together for the rest of his life. They adopted two boys and took them into their family as their own.
He started the Rickenbacker Motor Company in 1920, selling advanced cars that incorporated parts from the race cars that he knew about. Other car manufacturers tried to prevent him from succeeding and in 1927 he went bankrupt. He bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same year and kept improving it for the time he owned it, nearly fifteen years in total. He closed the speedway in 1941 when WWII was in full flow.
Eastern Air Lines
Rickenbacker also spent a long time in business leading Eastern Air Lines, making great changes to aviation during his time. In 1941 he was involved in a near-fatal airline crash. He survived, just, but his injuries were terrible. Among them were head injuries including a fractured skull, a paralysed left hand, and shattered left elbow with a crushed nerve thrown in for good measure. That’s not all though. He also broke a few ribs, crushed his hip socket, broke his pelvis in two places. On his left side lower body he broke his knee and severed a nerve in his hip. Just to top it off his left eyeball was blown out from its socket.
It took him many months in hospital to get better and even longer at home to fully recover. He did regain his eyesight fully in time.
Captain Eddie had more near death experiences to come though. In 1942 he was travelling in a B-17D Flying Fortress when they strayed off course. Apparently, this was due to an incorrect navigation instrument. They had to ditch into the Pacific Ocean where they floated on life rafts for 24 days. They ran out of food after three days. A seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head at one point which they used as fishing bait to feed them, using rain water to drink and keep death at bay…just.
Supporting the Effort
During the war, he supported the Allied effort as a civilian. He visited England and many areas of the US to encourage people to give time and resources they had towards the effort. He also visited the Soviet Union to give them advice regarding the American aircraft that the Russians had at their disposal.
Rickenbacker left Eastern Air Lines after being forced out of his CEO position in 1959, retiring from his as Chairman of the Board in 1963 when he was 73 years old.
He died on July 23rd, 1973 in Switzerland after he suffered a stroke and then contracted pneumonia. He was 82 years old.