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A most remarkable man

Eddie Rickenbacker with his SPAD S-XIII

Eddie Rickenbacker with his SPAD S-XIII

[by Earl Blacklock] Eddie Rickenbacker. World War I fighter ace, race car driver, survivor. And devout Christian.

What a life he led! Working from the time he was 13 after the death of his father, he suffered a severe injury that laid him up in the hospital for weeks. There he chose to devote the next stage of his life to the fledgling automobile industry. He had been smitten by a thrilling ride in a Ford runabout which traveled at more than ten miles per hour.

By 1911 he was driving race cars at the Indianapolis Speedway. By 1915 he had a four car racing team, and he developed techniques to reduce time in the pits which saved 30 seconds at a time. In 1916, he won more than half of the major races he entered.

Then he fell in love with a biplane bomber being developed by Glenn Martin, one of the early students of the Wright Brothers. He knew he wanted to go into aviation.

When World War I started for the US in 1917, Rickenbacker was too old for pilot training, and he lacked the required college degree. No matter. He entered the army as a staff driver and friends got him into flight school. By March 1918 he was in action on the Western Front. And by the time the war ended eight months later he had shot down 26 enemy planes, becoming the American Ace of Aces.

He returned from the war and began working on building cars. In 1924, the Rickenbacker Motor Co. introduced the first passenger car with four-wheel brakes. But a recession drove the company into bankruptcy. He was advised to declare personal bankruptcy for his $250,000 in debt but refused to do so, paying his creditors every cent owed.

Then in 1927 a banker friend of his helped him acquire control of the Indianapolis Speedway and the iconic Indianapolis 500. In 1934, he added responsibility for Eastern Air Lines working for General Motors, and in 1938, he purchased Eastern.

In 1941, he was flying in an Eastern DC-3 bound for Birmingham to give a speech. The plane crashed, and when he was brought to the hospital, the doctor said he was more dead than alive. Despite the lack of emergency care, he somehow managed to survive, willing himself to live through his four months of hospitalization.

That experience prepared him for the next trial in his life, as he survived another crash, this time in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a war-time survey of airfields. With no fresh water salvaged from the sinking plane, he and the rest of the crew somehow survived 24 days before being found. As a result of their ordeal, survival equipment was redesigned and rafts outfitted with radios and water purification equipment.

Rickenbacker had long been a Christian believer, but this final ordeal took away all hesitancy about declaring his faith in God. He became an outspoken proclaimer of God’s mercy and blessing.

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