World War I witnessed the dawn of aerial combat. First used as reconnaissance tools, early military aircraft soon adopted fixed, forward-facing guns. These new weaponized aircraft could now engage the enemy and strip them of their ability to spy. Air-to-air combat was born. Early fighter pilots set the stage for the future of dogfighting and airborne war tactics.
While Germany’s Manfred ‘Red Baron’ Richthofen shot down more airplanes than any other pilot during the war, America’s top ace was none other than Eddie Rickenbacker.
Born to strict Swiss immigrants in 1890, Rickenbacker led a rebellious childhood in his quiet Ohio hometown. An early fascination with engines and automobiles led the hyperactive daredevil to a career of car racing. Rickenbacker left his lucrative career as a professional race car driver to enlist in World War I at the ripe old age of 27.
But this ace-to-be fighter pilot almost wasn’t. With a cutoff age of 25 to apply for flight training, Rickenbacker had to stretch the truth and claim to be two years younger than he actually was. A combination of luck and good fortune eventually landed him a seat in flight school. But it wasn’t easy. Other trainees had Ivy League educations and they were younger and more qualified. Rickenbacker was an outcast. The quiet introvert was happier tinkering with engines than socializing with his classmates. One of Rickenbacker’s peers said he was ‘a lemon on an orange tree.’
Eventually, he succeeded. After enduring the ridicule and sneers that came during his training, Rickenbacker was ready to go to battle in the skies. He joined the 94th Aero Squadron—also known as the ‘Hat in the Ring Squadron’ for being the first into battle.
Rickenbacker didn’t disappoint. The ex-professional race car driver would go on to shoot 26 enemy aircraft out of the sky. His bold, audacious strategy involved approaching the opponent carefully, getting closer than many other pilots dared, before releasing a firestorm from his machine gun.
In all, Rickenbacker flew 300 combat hours—more than any other American pilot during World War I. With a bit of luck and skillful piloting, he survived 134 aerial encounters. Rickenbacker’s valiant efforts earned him a Medal of Honor for an incident in 1918 in which he singlehandedly engaged seven German aircraft, shooting down two, and landed him as the commander of the 94th Aero Squadron.
American newspapers took to calling Rickenbacker, ‘Ace of Aces,’ a name he despised due to the fact that all the other pilots given that title died in battle. However, unlike the other ‘Ace of Aces’ that preceded him, Rickenbacker left the war alive. He would even go on to survive 24 days at sea following a violent crash into the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
Rickenbacker died of pneumonia on July 23, 1973 while on vacation in Zürich, Switzerland. His ashes were flown to his Ohio hometown for burial. But his legacy as America’s ‘Ace of Aces’ survives in history books and in the skies.
For your chance to see artifacts of American military history up close and personal, visit the Hill Aerospace Museum. Our collection of more than 4,000 objects includes aircraft, military vehicles and uniforms, artwork and more. Did we mention the best part? Admission to the Hill Aerospace Museum is always FREE! Although, donations go a long way in helping us to maintain our beautiful collection.
Visit us between Monday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. And watch for our many events and activities.