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automobile racer, America's first air ace, race track owner
Edward Vernon Rickenbacher was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1890, the son of Swiss immigrants; he changed the spelling of his last name to "Rickenbacker" in 1918. He started working odd jobs at the age of seven, but had to quit school and begin working full time soon after the death of his father in 1904. Over the next few years he worked subsequently in a glass factory, a steel casting company, a beer factory, a bowling alley, a cemetary monument yard, and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Rickenbacker's stint in the machine shop at the Pennsylvania Railroad led him into the emergent automobile industry, and, after completing a mechanical engineering course from International Correspondence School in 1905, he landed a job with the Frayer-Miller automobile manufacturing plant in Columbus. He worked at Frayer-Miller until 1907, when he followed Lee Frayer to Firestone. From 1910 to 1912, as Firestone's branch sales manager for the Midwest, he raced his employer's cars on dirt tracks throughout the region; he then spent a few years racing for other companies before forming the "Maxwell Special" racing team, with which he raced until October 1916. He closed his racing career with a win at Ascot Park, in Los Angeles, California, before enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Rickenbacker enlisted in the Army in May 1917, arrived in France on June 26, and was assigned as staff driver for General John Pershing with the rank of Sargeant First-Class. He was subsequently accepted into the Army Air Corps, trained in aerial gunnery, and was assigned to the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron, the first all-American air unit to see combat, on April 14, 1918. Rickenbacker became America's first air ace in May of 1918, after shooting down five German airplanes. By the time the war ended Rickenbacker had a total of 26 confirmed kills (including four observation balloons), and a total of 69 victories (a number which includes planes disabled but not downed). His war record earned him the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross; the U.S. government awarded him a belated Congressional Medal of Honor in 1930.
Returning to the automobile industry after the war, Rickenbacker was the "front man" for the Rickenbacker Automobile Company from 1925 through 1927. Rickenbacker wanted to manufacture a car "worthy of his name," but his autos were almost too technologically advanced for the general public and the company went bankrupt in 1927.
In 1927, Rickenbacker was able to raise enough money to buy the Indianapolis Speedway, host to the most famous of all American automobile races, the Indy 500. Having raced in the very first Indy 500 in 1911, Rickenbacker knew the importance of auto racing as a testing ground for automotive technology, and he operated the speedway until selling it in 1947.
Although Rickenbacker thoroughly enjoyed the world of automobiles and automobile racing, he never lost interest in the field of aviation. In 1925 he joined with Reed Chambers, a buddy from his World War I days, to build Florida Airways, which later became Eastern Air Transport and then Eastern Airlines, but the hurricane of 1926 ruined the venture. In June of 1929, he became vice-president of sales with General Motors' newly-acquired Fokker Aircraft Company. He worked for American Airways from 1932 to 1933, then returned to run General Motors' aviation properties. By 1938 he had managed to revive Eastern Airlines for General Motors, and then raised $3.5 million to purchase the company.
Although initially opposed to American involvement in World War II, Rickenbacker supported the war effort once the United States had committed itself. He toured Army Air Corps training bases to bolster morale, impress pilots with the seriousness of their mission, and examine the bases and training pilots received. While making a tour of air bases in the Pacific Theater, the plane in which Rickenbacker was riding was forced to ditch in the ocean; Rickenbacker and the plane's crew were lost at sea for twenty-four days before being rescued.
Rickenbacker's Eastern Airlines prospered during the war years. After the war Eastern became the first airline to fly the Lockheed Constellation, Super-Constellation, and Electra. Rickenbacker also implemented a training system that prepared entry level workers to move up the corporate ladder. Eastern was the most profitable airline in the country throughout the 1940's and well into the 1950's, but increasing competition and a series of bad business decisions on Rickenbacker's part eventually led to Rickenbacker being ousted as Eastern's Chief Executive Officer on October 1, 1959; Rickenbacker remained as Chairman of the Board until December 31, 1963, when he retired from the company.
Rickenbacker died on July 23, 1973.
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This page was last updated on 10/07/2017.