Don Lee: Rickenbacker’s contacts, luck, led to a charmed career, life

Published 3:38 am Sunday, November 22, 2020

Ohio has a rich heritage of aviation greats.

There were the Wright Brothers, of Dayton, Bill Lambert ,of Ironton and Eddie Rickenbacker, of Columbus.

I have written a lot about Lambert, but this week, I will tell you about Rickenbacker, who had a few more combat victories than Lambert.

Email newsletter signup

He grew up in Columbus and, when he was only 14 years old, he had the unfortunate loss of his father, who got into an argument with another worker and was hit in the head with a level, which resulted in his death after six weeks in a coma.

Eddie had to drop out of school to go to work to help his mother buy food and shelter.

She took in washings to supplement Eddie’s meager income.

Eddie took a correspondence course in engineering and become very interested in machines. He worked for the Oscar Lear Automobile Company.

The chief engineer there took Eddie under his wing and took him to New York to work as riding mechanic in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race, which caused Rickenbacker to become very interested in racing.

He was the alternate driver in an Indianapolis 500 race.

He drove the car in the middle portion of the race and helped his boss come in eleventh in the race.

There was a race in Sioux City that they had to win to survive, since their funds were running out.

His mother told him about a Swiss good luck charm.

It was to catch a bat and after cutting out its heart, tie it around his middle finger with a silk thread.

It worked. He won the race and with his team mate who came in third, they earned $12,500 and kept them afloat.

Rickenbacker later signed with an English racing company and sailed to England where he worked on development of a race car. There was a rumor that he was a German spy, so the Scotland Yard kept him under surveillance during the entire time he was in England and also back across the Atlantic.

When he was in England during the early years of WWI, he was intrigued by seeing the Royal Flying Corps flights over his hotel.

While he was in Los Angeles earlier, he met Glenn Martin, founder of the Glenn L. Martin Company.

Rickenbacker had his first airplane ride from a Major Townsend F. Dodd after he had diagnosed and repaired the Major’s airplane engine magneto problem.

This was a good contact since Dodd was later the General John J. Pershing’s aviation officer. A month later Eddie was in France driving Army official between Paris and the headquarters in Chaumont and other Army posts in France.

He was given the rank of sergeant First Class and again, he made a good contact there when he fashioned a babbitt bearing for Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell’s car engine.

Stayed tuned for next week. If I am not too stuffed with turkey, I’ll write.

There will be stories about his terrible crash of a DC-3 near Atlanta while Rickenbacker was Eastern Airlines CEO and him surviving three weeks on a life raft in the Pacific during WWII and being lucky enough to survive many WWI aerial combat missions.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at