Eddie Rickenbacker...was America's most accomplished pilot of World War I, its ace of aces—an ace being defined as a pilot with five confirmed kills to his credit. Rickenbacker had 26, out of an American total of 110.
His father, a day laborer, was killed in a drunken brawl, which left young Eddie with the responsibility for his family at age 13. But a defining moment occurred one day when he joined a crowd gawking at a brand-new Ford Model C parked on the street. The salesman, eager to prove to skeptical onlookers that this gleaming contraption was perfectly safe, offered the kid a ride. Rickenbacker was hooked and soon started hanging around at local garages. A born tinkerer, he learned to make his own parts at the lathe. "Machines have always talked to me," he later wrote.
As a way of testing the new wonders, auto racing became the hot new sport, first as part of road races, then on purpose-built speedways. Crashes were plentiful, and harnesses to protect the racers nonexistent. Rickenbacker started his racing career as a "mechanician," riding with the driver to monitor the oil pressure and warn of challengers coming up from behind. Mechanicians had no steering wheel to cling on to and died at a rate three times that of the drivers.
Rickenbacker's guts and diagnostic skills would earn him a place among the top drivers and team managers of his day.
When the U.S. entered World War I, Rickenbacker suggested raising a squadron of racing drivers but was turned down by the Army brass, who did not consider the young man officer material. Instead he signed on as a driver for Gen. John Pershing and his staff in France, in which role he impressed Billy Mitchell, the commander of the Army's air-combat units, by fixing his broken-down car while in the field. Mitchell assigned him the job as chief engineer on the base outside the town of Issoudun, the most important of the American aerodromes in France, with the rank of master sergeant. His organizational skills earned him a promotion to officer and with it a course in advanced combat flying.
A World War I biplane...was essentially a glorified canvas box kite covered in highly flammable lacquer, with an engine and a machine gun stuck on to it. The pursuit training program alone killed 11 out of every 100 pilots before shooting even started. Its bombing ability being negligible, the plane's main task was collecting intelligence on reconnaissance missions and denying the same to the enemy.
With his unpolished manners, Rickenbacker encountered a good deal of arrogance from the privileged sons of Harvard and Yale, but after he had downed his first five enemies, criticism ceased. About Rickenbacker's killer instinct his colleague Reed McKinley Chambers had this to say: "Eddie wasn't the best pilot in the world. He could not put as many holes in a target that was being towed as I could, but he could put more holes in a target that was shooting back at him than I could."
In September 1918, Rickenbacker took over command of the 94th, one of the 12 pursuit squadrons. As in his racing days, Rickenbacker knew how to play the flamboyant part expected of him, but with his men was cool and businesslike. He emphasized formation warfare rather than individual duels. Labeling air combat "scientific murder," he warned that "the experienced fighting pilot does not take unnecessary risks. . . . A fifty-fifty chance is the worst he will take or should take, except when where the show is of the kind that . . . justifies the sacrifice of plane and pilot." According to Billy Mitchell, Rickenbacker had "the rare combination of sound judgment and fighting spirit."
After the war, having failed with his own car-producing venture, Rickenbacker became president of Eastern Airlines, where one of his bright ideas was to introduce regular flights between Washington and New York.
In 1942, Rickenbacker was sent on a mission by Gen. Hap Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Forces, to convey the Roosevelt administration's annoyance at Douglas MacArthur's loud criticisms of George Marshall, the army's chief of staff, and the policy of giving priority to the European theater. The plane ran out of gas in the South Pacific, and the survivors were only spotted after three weeks. Rickenbacker had kept them from despairing, sharing his belief that even when things look most hopeless, you must keep fighting. The daredevil lived on to the age of 83, a testimony to his skills in what we today call risk management.