Eddie Rickenbacker (1890-1973)

In October 1942, with World War II in progress, Rickenbacker was sent by Secretary of War Henry Stimson on a special assignment to General Douglas MacArthur

Issue: 02-2015By Joseph Noronha

When World War I began in 1914 it was only 10 years after the first epochal powered, controlled and sustained heavier-than-air flight of December 17, 1903, by the Wright Brothers. Yet aviation technology had advanced rapidly. Single-seat fighter aircraft with enough speed and manoeuvrability to maintain hot pursuit of airborne adversaries, coupled with guns sufficiently lethal to destroy their targets, had begun to appear in the skies over Europe.

Air combat became widespread by 1915 and the term “ace” was increasingly used to refer to a pilot who had shot down at least five enemy aircraft. The most famous American fighter ace was Eddie Rickenbacker with a spectacular tally of 26 confirmed kills achieved in just two months of combat flying.

Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was born on October 8, 1890, in Columbus, Ohio. Growing up, his fetish for speed made him a renowned racing car driver. He was also a talented automobile designer. In 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Rickenbacker had already joined the US Army and arrived in France in June 1917 as a Sergeant First Class for combat training. He tried to enlist for pilot training but was rejected because he lacked the necessary college degree. Being a skilled mechanic he was assigned as engineering officer at an aviation instruction centre where he was able to practise flying in his spare time. He would have gained his wings speedily but his superiors were reluctant to let him go, so useful had he made himself in maintaining the aircraft. Finally they gave in to his persistence and he was assigned to an air combat unit, the 94th Aero Squadron, informally known as the ‘Hatin-the-Ring’ Squadron after its insignia. He began by flying the Nieuport 28. On April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down his first German plane. It needed just a month for him to account for another four and qualify to be called an ace. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and rose to command the squadron. As commander he drove his personnel hard and demanded results.

Medical problems, including a severe ear infection, kept him off regular flying for some months. By the time he was restored to fighting fitness in September 1918, the squadron had converted to the more capable SPAD XIII. Beginning September 27, he shot down several Fokker D.VII fighters as well as some heavilydefended observation balloons. In October alone he destroyed 13 German aircraft. When the war came to an end on November 11, 1918, Rickenbacker had increased his tally to 26 victories, which remained the American record until World War II. In all, he flew 300 combat hours – more than any other US pilot in the conflict. Twelve years later he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his spectacular combat score. The delayed recognition did not seem to bother him because he said, “There is a peculiar gratification on receiving congratulations from one’s squadron for a victory in the air. It is worth more to a pilot than the applause of the whole outside world. It means that one has won the confidence of men who share the misgivings, the aspirations, the trials and the dangers of aeroplane fighting.”

Truly the dangers of fighter flying were there for all to see. So many young pilots lost their lives in combat. Yet Rickenbacker twice came close to death not in combat but while flying as an ordinary traveller. In February 1941, he was a passenger on a Douglas DC-3 airliner belonging to Eastern Air Lines (a carrier he headed for many years) when it crashed near Atlanta, Georgia. Although Rickenbacker had life-threatening injuries he ignored his own plight, encouraged the other passengers and guided the survivors to try and find help. They were rescued the next morning with Rickenbacker barely breathing. Happily he survived.

In October 1942, with World War II in progress, Rickenbacker was sent by Secretary of War Henry Stimson on a special assignment to General Douglas MacArthur. He was flying as a passenger in a B-17 four-engine bomber over the Pacific when the aircraft went down. Rickenbacker and seven others managed to clamber aboard life rafts and began drifting across the ocean. He was the oldest of the lot and had still not fully recovered from his near-fatal injuries of the previous year. The group went through a horrifying ordeal, being at sea for 24 days without food or water, before being rescued. Rickenbacker lost 54 pounds.

Eddie Rickenbacker died on July 23, 1973, in Switzerland. What was the secret that made him America’s “ace of aces”? He explained it thus: “The experienced fighting pilot does not take unnecessary risks. His business is to shoot down enemy planes, not to get shot down. His trained hand and eye and judgement are as much a part of his armament as his machine-gun, and a 50-50 chance is the worst he will take – or should take – except where the show is of the kind that… justifies the sacrifice of plane or pilot.” However, like most fighter pilots, Rickenbacker was not famous for his modesty. In his autobiography written in 1967 when he was 77, he seems to claim, in effect, that he had always been right about everything. Well, considering that statistically just five per cent of combat pilots account for the majority of air-to-air victories. Rickenbacker had not been far wrong about how to be a fighter ace.