Soaring with Eastern Part 1: Eddie Rickenbacker the “Ace of Aces.”

 

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Eddie Rickenbacker pictured with his Simple Plastic Airplane Design or S.P.A.D.

Eddie Rickenbacker (1890–1973) once said, “Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.” Rickenbacker was a Renaissance man, beginning his career as a race car driver, and then a World War I flying ace. He later scripted an aviation comic strip named “Ace Drummond” and eventually became the innovative leader of Eastern Air Lines.

Though at 27 he was two years over the age limit, Rickenbacker enlisted in the U.S. Army in May, 1917. He trained at the 2nd Aviation Instruction Center in Tours, France. Unlike the majority of cadets who were college graduates, Rickenbacker did not have a degree and struggled to prove himself worthy of becoming a pilot. A year later he became an ace, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for shooting down five German airplanes. After his triumphs, Rickenbacker became commander of the 94th, the “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron. His last aerial victory for the 94th occurred on November 10, 1918. The following day World War I ended, and Rickenbacker returned home one year later as America’s “Ace of Aces.”

Before World War I, Rickenbacker was also a race car driver who competed in the first Indianapolis 500. During the 1920s, Rickenbacker worked for General Motors in both their automobile and aeronautic divisions. While working for General Motors, he created the Rickenbacker Motor Company. His corporation was responsible for producing highly-advanced systems such as four-wheel brakes, which are now standard on all modern day cars. Rickenbacker Motor Company had trouble selling its cars and eventually went bankrupt in 1927. On November 1, 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he operated for nearly a decade and a half. Rickenbacker sold the speedway in 1934 because of the need for fuel during World War II.

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An Eastern Air Transport Plane.

During the 1930s, Pitcarin, an air mail service, was bought by General Motors and renamed Eastern Air Transport. On January 1, 1935, Rickenbacker began managing Eastern Air Transport. He then convinced General Motors to merge Eastern Air Transport with Florida Airways, forming Eastern Air Lines. Later that year, Eastern Air Lines began passenger service across the eastern seaboard. In 1938, Rickenbacker learned that General Motors was considering selling Eastern. He raised $3.5 million in one month and purchased the airline.

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An Eastern Air Line Lockheed L-649 Constellation.

In the 1930s air travel had not yet become a popular mode of transportation. Before World War II, most airlines operating in the United States depended largely upon government contracts to deliver airmail in order to keep them financially secure. Rickenbacker aspired to remove Eastern’s reliance on government subsidies. In 1939, he negotiated a bid of $0 for carrying mail across South Texas in order to secure an exclusive airline route across the U.S.’s southern tier into Mexico.

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 April 8, 1939: Captain Rickenbacker pictured wearing a “Charro” cowboy hat, is greeted at Xochimilco, near Mexico City.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Eastern Air Lines had a near monopoly in air travel between New York and Florida, and became the most profitable airline during the post-war era. Our blog coverage on the History of Eastern Airlines continues in part two of “Soaring with Eastern.”

-Ursa Gil

References:

Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century by W. David Lewis, Johns Hopkins Press, 2005.

“Eddie Rickenbacker Collection – Auburn University Special Collections and Archives.” Eddie Rickenbacker Collection – Auburn University Special Collections and Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.    

Photographs and footage courtesy of the Lynn and Louis II Wolfson Florida Moving Image Archives.

 

 

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