Pioneering pilot Eddie Rickenbacker lived for speed – on the ground and in the air. Born in 1890 in Ohio, Rickenbacker was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the revolution in aviation happening just south of him in Dayton, Ohio at the homes of the Wright Brothers.
From an early age, Rickenbacker had a love of machines, and after leaving school in the seventh grade, took correspondence courses in engineering. He often picked up odd jobs repairing automobiles, but also encountered many aviators during this time. One such encounter was with Townsen F. Dodd, an aviation officer whose stranded aircraft Rickenbacker was able to repair. But it was not until his service in the U.S. Army in 1917 when Rickenbacker was finally given an opportunity to learn how to fly.
Rickenbacker joined the 94th Aero Squadron and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the distinction of Ace Pilot. He would go on earn many wartime awards and honors, including the United States Medal of Honor. This flying ace completed over 300 combat hours in the air, more than any other pilot up until that point.
After the war, Rickenbacker took a break from flying to start the Rickenbacker Motor Company, offering drivers the world’s first 4-wheel braking system. Unfortunately, the business was a bust, and went bankrupt seven years later. Undeterred, he went on to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he would own and operate for fourteen years.
The success of the speedway enabled Rickenbacker to buy Eastern Airlines in 1938. But as he aged, Rickenbacker’s interest in business waned. He was always more at home in the cockpit of a plane or a race car than in a boardroom, after all. Rickenbacker eventually resigned in 1963. He passed away ten years later, in 1973.
(image credit: National Archives)