War hero guided Eastern Air Lines
A decorated military pilot who espoused big aviation dreams commanded one of the nation’s flagship airlines which once called Miami its home.
Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I hero and race car driver, already had the taste of success when he began managing Eastern Air Lines in 1933. For the next 30 years, Rickenbacker would make an important contribution to South Florida’s growth and development.
Eastern, under Rickenbacker’s guidance, was one of the America’s early leading major airlines, especially in the 1940s and ’50s when South Florida was becoming a prime vacation destination as well as a year-round residence for an increasing number of northerners.
Five years after General Motors put Eastern Air Lines under Rickenbacker’s management, Rickenbacker, along with a group of investors, bought the company in 1938, and he became its first president.
Eastern became known for its innovations, including successful negotiations with the government to acquire air mail routes, a job previously performed by the Army. Rickenbacker is credited for developing new aircraft designs and improving salaries and working conditions for its employees.
Rickenbacker, whose sayings are included on “famous quotations” websites, once wrote: “Aviation is proof that, given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.”
It seems that Rickenbacker would spend most of his life pursuing – and often accomplishing – that goal.
Born in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, to German-speaking Swiss immigrants, Rickenbacker worked at a car repair garage at age 12 after the death of his father. The job sparked his interest in machines and laid the foundation for Rickenbacker’s interest in race car driving, automobile production and aircraft.
Joining the Army in 1917 after the United States entered World War I, Rickenbacker shot down an enemy plane in April 1918 after only a few weeks of pilot training. Seven months later, by the end of war in November, Rickenbacker had shot down 26 planes. He became a national hero, celebrated as America’s most successful fighter pilot of the war. The “Ace of the Aces,” as he was nicknamed, was awarded a Medal of Honor in 1930 from President Herbert Hoover.
“He was the highest-scoring American ace in World War I and well into World War II where his score still stood,” said Stephen Sherman, an aviation and World War II expert. Rickenbacker is featured on Sherman’s website, Acepilots.com.
Before becoming a military hero, Rickenbacker was a national race car driver and a frequent challenger on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of his 42 major races, he won seven, placed second in two, and came in third in three.
He was a bit of a “know-it-all,” Sherman said of Rickenbacker’s varied successes.
Following World War I, Rickenbacker went into car production and in 1920 created the Rickenbacker Motor Co. Although Rickenbacker pioneered the first four-wheel brake system that became the basis of design for other American car systems, the company went bankrupt in 1927. That same year he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Rickenbacker operated the course for 10 years and in 1929 put an 18-hole golf course in the middle of the grounds. To save gasoline during World II, Rickenbacker closed the speedway in 1941 and later sold it in 1945 while he was at the helm at Eastern.
He resigned as president in 1959 when the company was experiencing an economic downturn, and as director and chairman of the board in 1963. After retirement, Rickenbacker and his wife, Adelaide Frost Duran, eventually settled in Key Biscayne. The couple previously had a winter home in Coconut Grove. Rickenbacker died in 1973 of pneumonia while in Switzerland seeking special medical treatment for his wife.
Two years after Rickenbacker’s death, Eastern Air Lines moved its headquarters from New York to Miami International Airport. After filing for bankruptcy in 1989, the company dissolved in 1991.
Rickenbacker is remembered in numerous ways. The causeway over Biscayne Bay that connects Miami to Virginia Key and Key Biscayne is named after him. Cartoonist Al Capp featured Rickenbacker as an airplane pilot character in his Li’l Abner series. “Cap’n Eddie Ricketyback” was a decrepit World War I aviator and proprietor of Dogpatch Airlines.
Rickenbacker was portrayed by Tom McKee in the 1955 film, “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell,” a story of Gen. Billy Mitchell, a crusader for the Army’s fledgling air corps. Rickenbacker’s exploits are chronicled in a number of books, including his own work, “Fighting the Flying Circus, ’’ his memoir of World War I.