At the turn of the twentieth century two new technologies—the car and airplane—took the nation’s imagination by storm as they burst, like comets, into American life. The brave souls that leaped into these dangerous contraptions and pushed them to unexplored extremes became new American heroes: the race car driver and the flying ace.
No individual did more to create and intensify these raw new roles than the tall, gangly Eddie Rickenbacker, who defied death over and over with such courage and pluck that a generation of Americans came to know his face better than the president’s. The son of poor, German-speaking Swiss immigrants in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker overcame the specter of his father’s violent death, a debilitating handicap, and, later, accusations of being a German spy, to become the American military ace of aces in World War I and a Medal of Honor recipient. He and his high-spirited, all-too-short-lived pilot comrades, created a new kind of aviation warfare, as they pushed their machines to the edge of destruction—and often over it—without parachutes, radios, or radar.
John F. Ross is the former Executive Editor of American Heritage and Invention & Technology magazines and was a Senior Editor of Smithsonian magazine before that. On assignment, he has chased scorpions in Baja, dived 3,000 feet underwater in the Galapagos, dogsledded with the Polar Inuit in Greenland, lived with the Khanty reindeer herders in Siberia, and launched the most northern canoe trip in the Canadian Arctic. He has published mor