Before becoming a general manager and then CEO of Eastern Airlines, Edward ‘Eddie’ Rickenbacker had an incredibly fascinating life. While many airline leaders may spend a good amount of their pre-CEO years working in aviation and management, Rickenbacker had an extremely diverse list of jobs, ranging from working at a bowling alley, to racing cars professionally and even becoming a war hero.
The early years
Born in 1890, Rickenbacker grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and was the third of eight children. His working career started early, lying about his age to circumvent child labor laws. In doing so, Rickenbacker began work at a glass factory. However, he would go on to work in a number of industrial roles, including steel casting, beer production, and at a railroad company. Eddie would also work at a bowling alley and cemetery monument yard.
With the era that Rickenbacker grew up in, technological change was swift, especially in the realm of transportation. At the age of 20, Eddie would work at the Columbus Buggy Company as a branch sales manager. Then, at the age of 21, he would participate as a racer in the first-ever Indianapolis 500. The year after that, he would leave the Columbus Buggy Company to become a professional racer, and would have this role until 1917 when he was asked to join the war effort as the chauffeur of a General.
Enlisting in 1917, Rickenbacker was a staff driver assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces. With the help of the high-ranking staff around him, Auburn University notes that Rickenbacker was taken into the Army Air Service even though two years over the maximum age.
Sent into combat, Rickenbacker had his first confirmed victory on April 24th, 1918. This would only be followed by more victories and downing of more enemy aircraft, eventually earning him the French Croix de Guerre and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The interwar period would see Rickenbacker start his own motor company and take the lead at Eastern Airlines. While this will be mentioned further down, it should be noted that the Second World War would see Rickenbacker tour Army Air Corps training bases in the Spring of 1942 to “bolster morale, impress pilots with the seriousness of their mission, and secretly examine the bases and training pilots received.”
Later that same year, Rickenbacker would take a mission to deliver a top-secret message across the Pacific Ocean. Leaving from Hawaii, the B-17 went down in the Pacific due to inadequate navigational equipment and a faulty weather report. Auburn University notes that Eddie and his seven colleagues “lashed together the three rubber rafts so they would not get separated.” Quickly running out of food, the crew would resort to killing a seagull and using it for food and bait. After several weeks and having the search nearly called off, navy pilots would eventually find and rescue the crew.
The interwar period
The interwar period would see Rickenbacker start a car company with several partners. Unfortunately, the Rickenbacker Motor Company would be ‘driven’ into bankruptcy with the pursuit of technologies too advanced for their time. Following this, Rickenbacker would raise enough money to purchase the Indianapolis Speedway in 1927, holding on to it for 20 years. Rickenbacker could not afford the track’s much-needed repairs, eventually selling it for the $700,000 he had first paid.
The interwar period would also see Rickenbacker become a silent partner in Florida Airways. Lasting less than a year, the venture would fold. This saw Eddie move on to take a job as assistant general manager for sales at General Motors in January of 1928.
With the influence of Rickenbacker, General Motors was convinced to get into the aviation industry with the acquisition of the Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America. In 1933, Rickenbacker would take on the position of VP Public Relations for General Motors’ aeronautics division, which included Eastern Air Transport – but soon to be Eastern Air Airlines.
Rickenbacker would turn Eastern Airlines into a success by 1938, eventually raising $3.5 million in the course of a month to purchase Eastern the airline from General Motors, who was looking to sell it.
Further detail on Eddie Rickenbacker’s life and his time at Eastern Airlines can be found in a related article posted here, as well as the life of Eastern Airlines itself in the article published here.
It’s clear that Rickenbacker was an adventurer and visionary who wasn’t afraid of taking risks. This would surely be the spirit behind the early years of Eastern Airlines.
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