‘To become a good pilot and remain one, never forget that an airplane is like a rattlesnake,” wrote Eddie Rickenbacker to his son in 1951. “You must keep your mind and eye on it constantly or it will bite you when you least expect it, which could prove fatal.”
He would have known: Rickenbacker was America’s deadliest fighter pilot in World War I. A century ago — on April 29, 1918 — he shot down his first plane. A month later, he downed his fifth, the mark of an “ace.” By the time he was done, shortly before the November 11 armistice, Rickenbacker was the country’s “ace of aces,” having recorded 26 kills, a record that would stand until the next world war. “When he fought,” remembered Reed Chambers, his friend and fellow ace, “he called for maximum performance and drove the plane until it nearly fell apart. Most of the pilots he killed never knew what hit them. Out of the sun, a quick burst, and gone. That was Rickenbacker.”
Aerial prowess made him a household name. Rickenbacker was the country’s most famous flyer between the Wright brothers’ taking to the air at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Charles Lindbergh’s traversing of the ocean in 1927. He was certainly a celebrated figure for the rest of his life.
Youthful accomplishment can be a curse as much as a blessing. Think of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.” Rickenbacker was 27 when he soared above the trenches, and so he was perhaps a bit more seasoned than his fictional contemporary. At any rate, he never languished. “I’ll fight like a wildcat!” was his constant refrain. He went on to become a pioneer in the aviation industry as well as a supporter of the nascent conservative movement. He was even a member of the extended family of National Review: His son, William F. Rickenbacker, was a senior editor at the magazine in the 1960s. Everybody called him “Bill,” but he sometimes signed his initials “WFR,” in a play on “WFB,” i.e., his boss, William F. Buckley Jr.
Born to Swiss immigrants in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, Eddie grew up poor. When his father died in an altercation, Eddie quit school and went to work, eventually finding a job in a garage. At the dawn of the automotive era, he enjoyed mechanics and fell in love with the emerging daredevil sport of racing. By 1916, when he took part in the Indianapolis 500 for the fourth time, he was driving vehicles whose speeds could touch 100 mph. He also had Americanized the spelling of his last name, going from “Rickenbacher” to “Rickenbacker” (swapping the “h” for a “k”). This was a response to rising anti-German sentiment in the United States as war broke out in Europe.
Then he looked upward. As the call went out for war pilots, Rickenbacker and other drivers jumped at the chance to sit in the open cockpits of rickety biplanes. The transition from track to sky was natural. As Rickenbacker put it: “Mature men of proven and swift reflexes developed at high speeds in competitive racing — what flyers they would make!” They possessed a quality that Tom Wolfe would make famous: “The right stuff was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life,” wrote Wolfe. “No, the idea (as all pilots understood) was that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment.” Wolfe told the tale of test pilots who became astronauts, but he might as well have been describing Rickenbacker and his fellow flyers.
Fighter jocks may have a reputation for reckless bravado, but the secret of Rickenbacker’s success was an almost clinical approach to combat. He likened battle in the air to “scientific murder” and understood the importance of cool calculation. “The experienced fighting pilot does not take unnecessary risks,” he wrote shortly after the war. “His business is to shoot down enemy planes, not to get shot down. His trained eye and hand and judgment are as much part of his armament as his machine gun, and a fifty-fifty chance is the worst he will take or should take.” Biographer John F. Ross calls this approach an example of “the early, effective use of applied risk management, decades before its universal adoption in American business.”
After the war, Rickenbacker started his own motor company, featuring the first cars with four-wheel brakes, but it went bankrupt in 1927. Then he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he once had raced, rebuilding the track and leading it through the lean years of the Depression. He also took over a maker of engine components for airplanes. General Motors tapped him to run an aviation company with air routes and mail contracts — and in 1934, he flew a DC-1 loaded with mail from coast to coast in a little more than 13 hours, setting a new transcontinental flight record.
Around this time, however, the Roosevelt administration canceled all private mail contracts, turning the job over to inexperienced Army pilots. Rickenbacker, who had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was furious. He spoke out against the decision and in favor of free enterprise. Almost immediately, Army pilots died in crashes as they tried to deliver the mail. Eventually the mail contracts returned to the private sector, and in 1938 Rickenbacker bought GM’s subsidiary. He turned it into Eastern Air Lines, a major U.S. airline for the next half century. He also must have been good to work for: An administrative aide stayed by his side for 50 years.
On the 23rd anniversary of Armistice Day, less than a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rickenbacker wrote to his son, then a boy: “It hardly seems possible that we are involved in another [world war], and in spite of the conditions we have got to make the best of everything.” (The letter appears in From Father to Son, an epistolary collection that Bill Rickenbacker published in 1970.) Less than a year later, Rickenbacker embarked on a tour of air bases on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. His B-17 flew off course, and the pilot ditched it in a remote area. Rickenbacker and seven others escaped in life rafts.
Adrift at sea, they ran out of food in three days. One man died of dehydration. Rickenbacker assumed command of the group. His chief task was to keep them from despair as their situation grew more hopeless. Meanwhile, patrol planes searched for them, but they gave up after two weeks of fruitless effort. Newspapers reported Rickenbacker’s death. His wife, however, urged the military to keep looking. Her pleas made the difference: Three weeks into their ordeal, Rickenbacker and his fellow survivors were rescued.
It made for a harrowing story — Rickenbacker wrote a book about it — but on special occasions he recounted a particular episode. In 1948, after his son Bill had doubted the existence of God, Rickenbacker wrote to him about what he called “the Power Above,” a term he deployed on several occasions. “On the raft on the Pacific, we had two men on board who were atheists,” he wrote. After their rescue, in Samoa, one of the men asked Rickenbacker to take him to a chapel. It was the first time he’d ever attended a church service. As the man continued to recover at Walter Reed Hospital, he wrote to Rickenbacker: “Not only did you save a man, but you saved a lost soul.”
In the same letter to Bill, Rickenbacker tried to extend the lesson: “Take your life and ours. Surely, there was a Power Above that brought us together and thus made possible a happier and fuller life for Mother and myself and, we hope, a happy, pleasant, comfortable, long, and useful life for you.” Those two sentences, reported Bill, were “the only reference I know of where Dad speaks of having adopted his children.” (Bill, who described his crisis of faith as a “temporary aberration,” had an older brother.)
Rickenbacker remained active in business until 1965, and also became more comfortable talking about politics. “We are now living in a garrison state,” he warned in 1951. “We are going to get taxes on top of taxes, resulting in a lower and lower standard of living as time goes on. With those taxes will come controls on top of controls, which means the loss of more and more of those liberties we cherish so dearly.” A decade later, as he sided with Barry Goldwater’s effort to reshape the Republican party, he called on conservatives to “take individual freedom as their battle cry and resist the encroachment of federal power.”
When Rickenbacker died in 1973, Bill wrote his obituary for National Review: “Once, for the sake of the historical record, he counted up the number of times he had escaped death.” There were plenty of close calls — on racetracks, in the skies, afloat on the Pacific — as well as at least one joke. Rickenbacker included his 50th wedding anniversary on the list. Death’s 136th attempt finally got him, shortly after a Fourth of July parade in Miami, his last public appearance. He died vacationing with his wife in Zurich, near the farms where his parents had been born.