This World War I hero wanted to recruit race car drivers to be fighter pilots

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Capt. Edward Rickenbacker Photo: US Army Air Force

Capt. Edward Rickenbacker was one of the few American fighter pilots to earn the title “Ace of Aces,” given by the press for his 26 kills in World War I. He is arguably one of the most decorated service members to ever live.

But before he was a decorated hero, Rickenbacker was a professional race car driver who almost wasn’t allowed to fly.

Rickenbacker raced cars from 1912-1917, racing in a number of events including the first Indianapolis 500. He even broke the land speed record, reaching a blistering 134 mph.

When America entered World War I, he volunteered to organize a very unique unit: a fighter squadron filled entirely with race car drivers.

The guts, reflexes, and situational awareness needed to succeed racing early automobiles 100 mph or faster would have served flying squadrons well, but the U.S. Army wasn’t interested. Worse, Rickenbacker was considered too old to become a pilot himself.

Rickenbacker enlisted anyway and was assigned as a chauffeur. While driving for senior officers he met Col. William Mitchell, the chief of the Army Air Service. Rickenbacker, then 27-years-old and two years over the Army’s standard age cap, spoke to Mitchell about becoming a pilot.

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Eddie Rickenbacker in San Francisco for a race before World War I. Photo: Wikipedia/San Francisco Public Library

Mitchell encouraged him to do so and just had Rickenbacker lie about his age, claiming he was 25 in order to start training.

The young aviator graduated the pilot’s course 17 days after starting it and began the career that would make him famous.

In his first few months as a pilot, he scored 7 victories, becoming an ace pilot. He took command of his unit, the 94th Pursuit Squadron, and scored two more kills in a daring attack on Sep. 25, 1918, his first day as the commander.

While conducting a solo patrol, he spotted five aircraft. He maneuvered above them unseen and then dove through the formation, downing two and scattering the rest. He received both the French Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Honor for his valor.

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Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

It was when he reached 12 kills that the press began calling him the “Ace of Aces,” a title he didn’t like, according to History Net. The three aviators who had been adorned with the title before Rickenbacker were all killed in combat.

The nickname served Rickenbacker better than it did his predecessors. He didn’t just survive the next month, he scored 14 new victories and ended the war with 26.

After the war, Rickenbacker became a businessman who made a number of breakthroughs in the aviation and automobile industries.

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