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Video Length: 2:19 minutes
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker of the U.S. Army Air Service was the most famous American combat pilot of World War I. He achieved the title of "America's Ace of Aces" with 26 confirmed kills in less than eight months of aerial combat (while also being grounded for two of those months fighting an inner ear infection). Germany's famed Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, scored his 80 victories over a 3-year period. Capt. Rickenbacker was awarded eight Distinguished Service Crosses, several foreign decorations for courage and the U.S. Medal of Honor. He was also an excellent automotive mechanic, an early auto vehicle designer, and a famous race car driver who raced at the Indianapolis 500 four times.
Description & Discussion:
Baron von Richthofen was born into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family and grew up riding and hunting from horseback. An excellent hunter, the Baron used the skills he learned pursuing wild game on the family estates to perfect his lethal flying style. Rather than engaging in airborne acrobatics or risky dogfights, he preferred to patiently stalk his enemies, swooping down on them from a high altitude much like a bird of prey. In his 1917 autobiography entitled "The Red Fighter Pilot", he wrote, “There is no art in shooting down an aeroplane. The thing is done by the personality or by the fighting determination of the airman. It is a hunter in pursuit of its game!"
Captain Rickenbacker grew up as a working kid, leaving school at age 13 after his father died. His need to find a well-salaried job to support his mother and family, led him to find work in the emerging auto industry. His superb skills as an auto mechanic brought him into auto racing, and more importantly into vehicle design and engineering. His experiences in these three disciplines were crucial to his fighter pilot success. Unlike many aircraft operators of the First World War, he understood the design of the airplane he was flying and knew the limitations of the machine as it operated. This made all the difference when going up against experienced pilots in superior aircraft.
Captain Rickenbacker described his World War I flying experiences in his memoirs, "Fighting the Flying Circus", published right after the war. His observations were far different when he wrote,
"Long practice in driving a racing car at a hundred miles an hour or so gives first-class training in control and judging distances at high speed and helps tremendously in getting motor sense, which is rather the feel of your engine than the sound of it, a thing you get through your bones and nerves rather than simply your ears. This is a part of the physical equipment of handling an airplane, and it makes a lot of difference."
Much like Baron von Richthofen, Captain Rickenbacker learned that the best way to take down enemy aircraft was to attack from a position of altitude and masking. Once he determined the enemy's position, he would swoop in from above, with the sun behind him, laying down strafing fire as the enemy tried to adjust from a blindsided attack. By the time other enemy aircraft could react, the dive-bomber approach had put Captain Rickenbacker's aircraft out of sight and moving back into a position for another attack run. He summed up his theory of aerial combat by saying, “The experienced fighting pilot does not take unnecessary risk. His business is to shoot down enemy planes, not get shot down. I can give you a six-word formula for success; Think things through - then follow through."
As can be seen, by that last comment, Captain Rickenbacker also did not take the chances that Baron von Richthofen took. It has been said that von Richthofen hunted much like "a rogue lion", while Rickenbacker's methods were more like that of "the wise old fox". Baron von Richthofen was shot down and killed in April of 1918 after pursuing an intended victim to close to the ground where he was killed by Allied groundfire. Captain Rickenbacker would survive the war, and return to auto racing, while buying and operating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for several decades. His love of aviation never faded and he worked in the industry in several capacities, to include General Manager of Eastern Airlines. He died in 1973 at the age of 82. A memorial service was held a week later with the eulogy given by Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle, USAF. Captain Rickenbacker was the last living Medal of Honor recipient of the U.S. Army Air Service that served in World War I.
Decision, Design & Discipline:
I have read both books noted above and countless other biographies of Captain Rickenbacker and Baron von Richthofen. Both men have fascinated me since childhood and to this day I wonder who would have been the victor in a squadron vs. squadron or man against man aerial duel. I lean toward Captain Rickenbacker when I weigh what I've learned about both men over the years.
I always come back to the concept of "Man, Moment & Machine" where everything comes together at an exact moment, thereby, creating a unique opportunity to achieve success. As I look at everything Captain Rickenbacker experienced prior to becoming a fighter pilot, he was better prepared, far more focused, and more mechanically inclined than almost any other pilot flying in World War I. He also had a number of highspeed car crashes under his belt that clearly stiffened his resolve when it came to dealing with life-threatening events. This made him more knowledgeable about the limitations of his aircraft, but more importantly was his perception of the aircrafts possibilities and what it could do.
I have never forgotten the two quotes which I read about a year apart three decades ago. How each achieved their aerial combat success. Baron von Richthofen believed it was his determination, which is a very important quality in overcoming difficult things. But Captain Rickenbacker used his history, his mistakes, and his successes to formulate his concept of success: "Think things through - then follow through."