TOP AMERICAN ACE OF WWI, 26 VICTORIES
Eddie Rickenbacker’s actual family name was “Riechenbacher,” but was changed to the shorter Anglo- sounding Rickenbacker. His father died when he was 12 and he found a job working in the Frayer Miller Aircooled Car Company to help support his mother and himself. He first road-tested cars and then raced cars for Fred Deusenberg, among others. He even set a land-speed record of 134 miles per hour, which was amazing for that time.
When the United States entered WWI, he became a driver for the Army general staff, but was not able to fly at that time, which was what he really wanted to do. However, he got his chance finally when he was noticed for his mechanical skills by Colonel Billy Mitchell, who was the head of the Army Air Service.
Rickenbacker was assigned to the 94th Pursuit Squadron in France. On April 29, 1918, he downed his first enemy plane without taking a single shot. On May 30, 1918, he became an Ace by downing two German airplanes. He continued to score victories throughout the spring and summer of 1918, and in September he became the Commander of the 94th Squadron.
Younger youth. In the early days of aviation pilots like Rickenbacker literally flew by the seat of their pants and without parachutes, which had yet to be invented. They had few instruments and those were crude and often unreliable. Combat was fast and furious and the enemy could come from any and all directions. Survival and success in the air demanded sober, clear-headed flying, and Eddie Rickenbacker served as an outstanding example of a successful drug and alcohol-free combat fighter pilot. Drug-free! Way to be!
Older youth. In 1917, Eddie Rickenbacker entered World War One at a distinct disadvantage as a fighter pilot. World War One began in 1914, and even though war fighting in the air was a new phenomenon, the enemy had the advantage of three years critical learning experience. German pilots had already flown many air-to-air engagements and well understood the tactics needed to fight, win, and survive. Many young, inexperienced American pilots learned this lesson the hard way, going down in flames under the machine guns of their German enemy’s planes. This did not deter Rickenbacker. Instead, he studied the tactics, as well as the capabilities of his airplane and quickly mastered the skills he needed to succeed. He likewise applied and mastered these same skills to become a successful squadron commander. He was well respected by both his superiors and the enemy. Eddie Rickenbacker also realized full well that he needed to keep a clear head and sharp focus, both in the air and on the ground. He understood that alcohol and drug abuse had no place in such a critical environment. He remained drug-free — way to be!
As the Commander he drove his men very hard, expecting results. He spent as much time in the air as he could, leading patrols and delegating operations to good leaders on the ground. Twelve years after WWI was over, Rickenbacker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his accomplishments.
In the early 1920’s Rickenbacker managed various airlines including Eastern Airlines. During WWII, he flew a B-17 for General Douglas MacArthur. His plane went down in the Pacific Ocean , and he and seven other men were on a raft for twenty-two days before they were rescued. Rickenbacker, who was the oldest man in the group, lost 54 pounds but survived!
Later in life he spoke out for conservative causes and then died in 1973 at the age of 83. We salute this “Famous Flyer” for his 26 victories and for the amazing skills he had as a pilot, leader and citizen of the United States .
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker posing with his plane
This curriculum is sponsored by the Drug Demand Reduction
Program of the Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
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