Ace of Aces / by Lee Bruno

When Eddie Rickenbacker was eight years old, he watched a dirigible float over a field near his home in Columbus. Ohio. That sighting sparked his imagination and inspired him to run home and build his own flying machine. He assembled his machine using a bicycle and an umbrella, which he secured to the frame. With the help of friends, he hauled his two-wheel contraption to a nearby barn roof and launched it. The bicycle coasted down the eave and a few seconds after going airborne, the umbrella collapsed and Rickenbacker fell hard to the ground. Luckily, he landed in a pile of sand, probably saving his life.

At the age of 27, Rickenbacker managed to convince the military that despite being two years over the age limit, they should let him fight. He joined the newly formed Aero Pursuit Squadron as part of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917. Stitched on his uniform was the squadron’s insignia: Uncle Sam's stove pipe hat with stars and stripes in a ring, symbolizing the American custom of throwing a “hat into the ring” as a challenge.

In a year, Rickenbacker swiftly became America’s top fighter World War pilot. During a seven-month stint of wartime flying in 1918, he downed more enemy aircraft than any other American, shooting down 22 German planes and four observation balloons.