Childhood & Early Life
Rickenbacker was born on October 8, 1890, in Columbus, Ohio, as the third of 8 children to Elizabeth Basler and William, a day-laborer. He was a naughty child and led a gang of boys called ‘Horsehead Gang.’ His first close-call experience was at 8, when he took his gang in a steel cart down a slope and the cart tipped over, deeply cutting his leg.
On August 26, 1904, Rickenbacker’s father died in a construction accident, so he had to leave his education at 13, and earn to support family. He took whatever jobs he could get and sold eggs, milk, newspapers, etc. This was followed by a succession of jobs in glass factory, foundry, brewery, shoe factory, and monument work.
Rickenbacker was interested in engines and automobiles, so he pursued correspondence course in engineering. In 1906, he got a job as mechanic with a racing car driver and part-owner of ‘Frayer-Miller Automobile Co.,’ Lee Frayer, and accompanied Frayer on races.
While working for various automobile companies one after another, he rose from mechanic’s jobs to management ones. Rickenbacker worked as a salesman for an automobile company ‘Columbus Buggy Co.’ In 1912, he went to work for automobile designer Fred Duesenberg. He also participated in car-racing and got a name for himself by winning several racing prizes. In 1914, he made world speed record of 134 mph at Daytona, but couldn’t win the ‘Indianapolis 500’ even after competing 4 times.
Rickenbacker also raced for companies, including Peugeot and Maxwell. He continued to suffer injuries, and also lost part vision in one eye, but continued with his adventures. In November 1916, he went to California for ‘Vanderbilt Cup Race,’ where he met pilot and aircraft-manufacturer Glenn Martin, with whom he enjoyed his first flying experience.
At the beginning of WWI, he changed the spelling of his name from Rickenbacker to Rickenbacker, and added ‘Vernon’ as a middle name. When the US entered the World War I, he left his well-paying job to join the armed forces. He wished to be a pilot in the air force, but he was overage and lacked the required educational qualifications.
At first, Rickenbacker was made an engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center (Issoudun, France). In his free time, he learnt to fly. He was sent to General Pershing’s team to chauffer Col. William Mitchell, a pioneer in aviation. He obtained permission from Mitchell to enter flight training.
After flight training, Rickenbacker demonstrated his flying skills and the military assigned him to the 94th Aero Squadron at Toul, France. He shot down his first plane on April 29, 1918. Within a month he shot down his fifth and became an ace; was awarded the 'Croix de Guerre' for his victories. He got an ear infection due to which he couldn’t fly for the next several weeks.
In September 1918, he was promoted to a captain and commander of the squadron. While on a solo patrol on September 25, he noticed a 7-aircraft cluster, and diving through them he shot down two German planes. For this feat he was later decorated with ‘Medal of Honor’ (1931). He also got the label of ‘Balloon Ace’ by destroying five observation balloons of the enemy.
He had brush with death on several occasions – many times he had to crash land, or barely missed enemy bullets, but he survived. Between September and November 1918, he had shot down a total of 26 aircrafts and balloons. In all, he flew 300 combat hours. He received the ‘Distinguished Service Cross’ 8 times, which was a record. He was also honored with the ‘Legion of Honor.’
Rickenbacker was discharged from the Army Air Service in 1919. Post this, he was given the rank of Major, but he preferred to be called a ‘Captain.’ His war achievements made him a celebrated hero; he was offered many commercials and film roles, but he refused.
Rickenbacker launched his automobile company, ‘Rickenbacker Motor Company,’ with the help of some executives/experts. The first car with his design of 4-wheel brakes was produced in 1922. But severe competition and the recession led the company to bankruptcy in 1927. He had to pay a debt of around quarter a million dollars. For a brief period in 1926, he launched ‘Florida Airways,’ but this commercial aviation experience too was short-lived.
In November 1927, Rickenbacker bought a major stake in the ‘Indianapolis Motor Speedway.’ He was president of the company for over 15 years. He closed it in 1941 to save valuable fuel during the war’ he later sold it to Anton Hulman Jr. in 1945.
Based on his war experience, he published a book, ‘Fighting the Flying Circus.’ He also wrote (1935-1940) a popular comic strip ‘Ace Drummond.’
General Motors appointed him sales chief for the Cadillac and La Salle. After working as Vice-President of General Aviation Corporation, he became Vice-President of North American Aviation and General Manager of its division, ‘Eastern Air Transport,’ in 1933 In February 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt cancelled the air-mail contracts of commercial airlines, declaring that the ‘Army Air Corps’ would carry the air-mails. Protesting against this, Rickenbacker demonstrated the efficiency of commercial airlines by flying coast-to-coast in record 13 hours. He also highlighted that several army pilots died as they were not fully trained and the aircrafts were not well-equipped. Rickenbacker called it a ‘legalized murder.’
General Motors took over ‘North American Aviation’ and ‘Eastern Air Transport.’ In 1935, Rickenbacker was made general manager; he merged ‘Florida Airways’ with it, which became ‘Eastern Airlines.’ In April 1938, along with associates, he bought it for 3.5 million.
Rickenbacker became President and general manager of ‘Eastern Airlines’ and made several improvements. He made it the first free-enterprise company to operate without government subsidy.
On February 26, 1941, a DC-3 in which Rickenbacker was travelling as a passenger, crashed near Atlanta, killing 2 pilots and 11 passengers. He was seriously injured with broken pelvis and hip socket, several broken ribs, fractured skull and head injuries, damaged left eye, and more wounds. With many grave injuries (initially he was left for dead), he tried to help and console others. It took long for him to recover; he returned to work after nearly 1 year.
Rickenbacker was very stern at the workplace and conservative/thrifty about spending money. Over the next 25 years, he made ‘Eastern Airlines’ one of the largest in the country. During World War II, Eastern Airlines had to give half of its aircrafts for military service and also did military cargo airlift.
In September 1942, the ‘Secretary of War,’ Henry Stimson, asked Rickenbacker to visit England to appraise their military aviation. He made some valuable recommendations to the British. After his return, he was sent to the Pacific for similar review.
After visiting several Hawaiian Islands, while traveling from Honolulu to Canton Island, the pilot of his plane lost way and its fuel got over, so they had to ditch. Eight men, including him, managed to get rafts and survival kits from the plane, before it sank. They tied three rafts together and all were adrift the sea in the next 24 days. Survival became tough as ration ran out. Rickenbacker took charge of the situation, and made equal distribution of the available stuff. One of the men died and was buried at sea. They managed to catch fish and collect rain water for drinking. The harsh sun caused sunburns. Rickenbacker did his best to keep up their spirits. The rescue planes couldn’t find them and after 2 weeks of search they decided to give up, but Rickenbacker’s wife urged them to continue for another week. Later, the men decided to separate the 3 rafts, for better chance of getting spotted. The first raft got noticed and was rescued. The second raft reached an island and the people from the neighboring island radioed for help. Rickenbacker and 2 others were rescued on November 13, by a Navy Catalina flying boat. He later wrote about this experience in the book ‘Seven Came Through.’
Instead of returning home after this ordeal, Rickenbacker continued and completed his duty of meeting General MacArthur. After returning, he made several recommendations, including addition to the survival kit.
In mid-1943, Rickenbacker went to the USSR and China for 3 months to assess the use of American equipment by the Russians. A letter from the US War Department got him the permission to travel and visit places in the USSR. He made observations and gathered information. He was awarded the ‘Medal for Merit’ for this wartime services.
Post-WWII, Rickenbacker sought to expand the ‘Eastern Airlines’ and it became the most profitable airline during 1940-1950s. In 1953, he became its chairman and General Manager. But with increasing competition, the airline’s profits started falling, so he resigned as CEO on October 1, 1959, but continued serving as Chairman until 1963, when he reluctantly retired at 73.