Eddie Rickenbacker’s Impressive Journey To Lead Eastern Air Lines

Jessica Wong

Eddie Rickenbacker was a force to be reckoned with on many levels in the first half of the 20th century. From car racing to World War II captain, the veteran done it all. A key part of his journey was becoming the president of Eastern Air Lines. Let’s take a […]

Eddie Rickenbacker was a force to be reckoned with on many levels in the first half of the 20th century. From car racing to World War II captain, the veteran done it all. A key part of his journey was becoming the president of Eastern Air Lines. Let’s take a look at the steps leading up to this point.

The aviator initially went by the name of Edward Rickenbacher and was born in Colombus, Ohio, on October 8th, 1890. Photo: Getty Images

“Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible,” – Eddie Rickenbacker.

Passion for speed

Much like Niki Lauda, another aviation entrepreneur that we covered this weekend, Rickenbacker was also an auto racer. He participated in various prestigious tournaments in the US during the middle of the 1910s. He was even the owner of the Indianapolis Speedway. His major wins include 300-mile races in Sioux City, Omaha, and Tacoma. Altogether, he won 7 out of the 42 major races that he started.

Despite his success and love for automobiles, it would be his work in the air that would make him a legend. HistoryNet highlights that even though he was making $40,000 a year at the time, which is nearly $1 million today, Rickenbacker volunteered to help his country in World War I. He wanted to fly, but the 27-year old was over the age limit to perform flight training and had no college degree. However, he continued to pester and was permitted to apply, claiming to be 25 years old.

Rising through the ranks

Sergeant Rickenbacker completed his flight program and was promoted to first lieutenant on October 10th, 1917. Due to his background in engineering, he was assigned as the chief engineering officer of the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center. Despite the challenging and interesting assignment, Rickenbacker wanted to enter combat. Eventually, he was reassigned in March 1918 to the 1st Pursuit Group, 9th Aero Squadron.

He would prove to be a valuable asset in the war effort. In September 1918, he was given command of the 94th Squadron and was promoted to captain the following month.

The war would end in November that year, and by the time it was over, Rickenbacker shot down 26 planes, which was more than any other US pilot. Being the most successful U.S. Air Service fighter pilot alive led to the press dubbing him America’s Ace of Aces.

World War I Flying Ace, First Lieutenant Eddie Rickenbacker
For his military achievements, Rickenbacker was awarded the Medal of Honour, Medal of Merit, Legion of Honour, Distinguished Service Cross with nine clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with four palms. Photo: Getty Images

Post-war ventures

After settling down following the war, Rickenbacker continued into the automobile world. He became vice president and director of sales for the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The initial designs of the company were the first cars to have four-wheel brakes. These went on sale in Detroit in 1922.

A recession in 1925 contributed to the downfall of the firm and it went bankrupt two years later. Due to mounting debts, Rickenbacker himself also declared bankruptcy at the age of 35. However, he eventually paid back every penny. He gave speeches promoting aviation during this time and was even involved in several crashes as a passenger. However, he left each incident unscathed. His love for the industry soon spurred several city leaders to develop airports.

It would be 1926 when the entrepreneur would get his first taste in commercial aviation. He joined some of his associates to establish Florida Airways. After this company folded, he was then appointed as VP of General Aviation Manufacturing Corporation, which was formerly Fokker. Then, in 1933, he became VP of North American Aviation and general manager of its subsidiary, Eastern Air Transport.

Eddie Rickenbacker - 1910s Racing Peugot
The car enthusiast also worked with General Motors and LaSalle. Photo: Getty Images

Taking initiative

The new manager of Eastern was soon up against a large-scale opponent in the form of the government amid the Air Mail fiasco between 1933 and 1934. Rickenbacker had firmly denounced President Roosevelt’s decision to rescind existing mail contracts in 1934 that saw U.S. Army Air Corps pilots start to transport airmail. Several inexperienced, undertrained pilots in the army were killed in crashes soon after the shakeup, which Rickenbacker described as legalized murder. Ultimately, the 1934 Airmail Act caused a shift in the US aviation industry and Eastern subsequently split off from North American Aviation to become Eastern Air Lines.

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The reformed carrier would go through several advancements. There were improvements in working conditions, salaries, maintenance, and customer service. Rickenbacker’s management even gave stock options to workers.

One of the most significant transformations was related to the fleet. 10 fresh Douglas DC-2s were ordered to take place of the existing Condors, Stinsons, Curtiss Kingbirds, and Pitcairn Mailwings. Rickenbacker even co-piloted the first airline’s DC-2 himself. This trip was a record-setting journey from Los Angeles to Miami in November 1934. By the end of that year, Eastern was gaining great momentum flying between New York and Miami. It was also seeing great success between Chicago and Miami, which linked well with Pan American’s network to the Caribbean and South America.

DC-2 Plane In Newark
A DC-2 that Rickenbacker flew himself. Photo: Getty Images

Taking the reigns

This climb through the 1930s spurred Rickenbacker to take over the whole company. He learned that General Motors was looking to sell Eastern. So, with some friendly backing, he intervened and bought the airline for $3.5 million (~$64.9 million today) in April 1938. As president of the carrier, the visionary would help it become one of the most famous names in US aviation history.

“I will always keep in mind that I am in the greatest business in the world, as well as working for the greatest company in the world, and I can serve humanity more completely in my line of endeavor than in any other,” – Captain Rickenbacker – via HistoryNet.

Eddie Rickenbacker undoubtedly had an action-packed career that covered several different worlds. We are by no means finished covering his journey. Stay tuned to catch find out more about the pioneer’s later achievements. In the next article, we will cover the legend’s World War II missions and his growth with Eastern until his retirement from the airline in the 1960s.

What are your thoughts about Eddie Rickenbacker’s adventurous journey to become the head of Eastern Air Lines? What do you make of his ambitious exploits in his early years? Let us know what you think of the aviator’s achievements in the comment section.

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