This American Fighter Pilot Had 26 Kills, Raced The Indy 500 Four Times, Survived Two Plane Crashes, And Lived 24 Days Stranded At Sea

Published June 6, 2018
Updated October 16, 2018
Published June 6, 2018
Updated October 16, 2018

His success as a pilot was just one of his many skills, and incredible feats.

Eddie Rickenbacker

U.S. Air Force Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker in the cockpit of a biplane.

Sometimes, successful people rise from the ashes of tragedy. Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s most successful World War I ace, was one such person.

Rickenbacker was born on October 8, 1890, to Swiss immigrants in Columbus, Ohio. He was the third-oldest of seven children who lived into adulthood in the Rickenbacker household. The family lived in poverty for most of Eddie’s younger years, but then tragedy struck at the age of 13, in 1904, when William Rickenbacker, the patriarch of the family, died in a construction accident.

Eddie dropped out of school in seventh grade to become the breadwinner of the family. There, young Eddie became fascinated with a relatively new technology. He worked for an auto mechanic in Columbus, which grew into a love of auto racing. Before World War I, Rickenbacker was one of America’s most well-known car racers. After surviving a few accidents, Rickenbacker drove in the 1911 Indianapolis 500.

In 1914 in Daytona, Florida, young Eddie entered a race and set a then-world record of an impressive 134 miles per hour. He loved speed, which translated well into his next profession.

In 1916, Rickenbacker was on a racing tour when he had a chance meeting with aviation pioneer Glenn Martin. Martin flew Rickenbacker in an airplane, and he was hooked.

Eddie Rickenbacker Joins The Army

A year later, Eddie Rickenbacker joined the U.S. Army after America officially entered World War I. The Army used Rickenbacker as a mechanic and automobile driver on Gen. John J. Pershing’s staff, but he quickly lent his talents to the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service.

After just 5 1/2 hours of flying with an instructor, he flew solo. Despite his lack of a college degree, Rickenbacker finished his flight training in just 17 days. He earned a commission as a lieutenant and joined the 94th Aero Squadron in France.

The ace himself said he was determined to fly in the war, no matter what. His experience as a race car driver was crucial to his success.

“I learned pretty fast. Long practice in driving a racing car at 100 miles per hour gives first-class training in control and in judging distances at high speed, and helps tremendously in getting motor sense, which is rather the feel of rather than the sound of it,” he said. “This is a part of the physical equipment of handling an airplane, and it makes a lot of difference.”

Training was hard. The other men in his squadron, who formed the very first fighter squadron in American history, looked down on him because they were all Ivy League graduates. Though they looked down on him, that didn’t stop him from becoming the best he could be.

During training, Eddie Rickenbacker perfected maneuvers and flying techniques that allowed him to get as close to the enemy as possible before firing at them. Over time, he earned the respect of his peers not only because of his own abilities but because he earned more and more victories in the air.

Success In World War I

Eddie Rickenbacker Portrait

U.S. Air Force A formal portrait of Rickenbacker wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to him in 1930.

On April 29, 1918, the World War I flying ace shot down his first enemy aircraft. By the end of May, a month later, he scored five individual victories to earn him the nickname “ace,” as well as the French Croix de Guerre. After his sixth score on May 30, an ear infection grounded the pilot until July 31.

The last half of September 1918 was Eddie Rickenbacker’s busiest time in the air. On September 14 and 15, he shot down two of Germany’s newest airplanes, a pair of imposing Fokker D.VII’s, on his own.

By the end of September, he earned a promotion to captain and was made the commanding officer of the squadron. To celebrate, Rickenbacker then did something the very next day that earned him the Medal of Honor. Capt. Rickenbacker took to the skies near Billy, France, on voluntary patrol. He came across a German squadron of seven planes, including five of the new Fokkers, and engaged them. He dived on them, shooting down one Fokker and then one of the escorting Halberstadt fighters. For the gallantry of overcoming 7-to-1 odds, Rickenbacker became a legend.

Eddie Rickenbacker’s secret was simple: “The experienced fighting pilot does not take unnecessary risk. His business is to shoot down enemy planes, not get shot down.”

Rickenbacker learned that the best way to take down enemy planes was to sneak up on them. Once he determined their position, he came down from above with the sun behind him. Enemy planes didn’t see his fighter until it was too late. By the time other enemy fighters could react, the dive-bombing pilot was out of sight and ready for another attack run.

His skills were not without risks. He returned from one mission with a fuselage filled with bullet holes and half of a propeller. On another mission, a bullet grazed his helmet.

All of that didn’t matter. Eddie just wanted to be up in the air.

Rickenbacker truly loved flying. He noted that other fighter pilots grew tired of flying and left the service. Rickenbacker had no such qualms:

“The sky means something to me it never meant before. When I look up and see the sun shining on the patch of white clouds up in the blue, I begin to think how it would feel to be up somewhere above it, winging swiftly through the clear air, watching the earth below and the men on it no bigger than ants.”

In all, Eddie Rickenbacker flew 134 combat missions. He shot down 22 planes and four balloons for a total of 26 kills.

After The Great War

Eddie Rickenbacker Picture

U.S. Air Force Eddie Rickenbacker, on the left, meeting Capt. James Jabara, the first American jet “Ace” in history. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is on the right.

The ace retired after World War II, but he continued to serve his country in other ways.

In 1942, Eddie Rickenbacker was on the way to New Guinea in World War II to bolster morale for the troops. His B-17 plane went down in the ocean. All eight men survived the initial crash, and they deployed rubber rafts before the plane disappeared into the inky depths.

Survival after the crash was far from certain. Even though he was a civilian, Rickenbacker took charge of the men. He divided catches of fish among the eight of them. Supposedly, when a seagull landed on his head, Eddie Rickenbacker killed it with his bare hands and used the carcass as meat. It rained for eight straight days, during which Eddie Rickenbacker made sure the men stayed hydrated.

The ace and the B-17 crew spent 24 days adrift before being rescued. One man died, but Rickenbacker, the oldest of the men on the plane, survived to live on for many more days.

He went on to found and chair Eastern Air Lines, America’s first profitable airline service that didn’t rely on government subsidies for assistance.

After a long, adventurous, and exciting 82 years of life, Eddie Rickenbacker died in 1973 in Switzerland, his ancestral homeland.

After learning about Eddie Rickenbacker, read about Richard Bong, who downed 40 planes during World War II.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.