May 28, 1921: The first transcontinental flight ends at Bolling

  • Published
  • By Andy Stephens
  • 11th Wing Historian
On a Saturday afternoon, his German Junkers airplane rolled into Bolling Field. His was a well-known name and his face was often in the newspapers. He was Edward V. Rickenbacker, a former World War I aviator and the leading ace of the Great War, and he had just flown 33 hours and six minutes from Redwood City, Calif., to Bolling.

The record would stand for 16 months until Lt. Jimmy Doolittle flew across the country within a single 24-hour period on Sept. 4, 1922. But as significant as the race was to the airplane industry for proving the viability of aeronautical science of the time, it was just another day in the life of "Captain Eddie."

It was a difficult time for the aviator. The Columbus, Ohio, native had returned from the war a hero with 26 aerial victories and few scars to show for it, but he had been more humbled by his sudden fame than any victory over the trenches. "I knew it would be easy to go from hero to zero," he once said about the brevity of fame. Wherever he went, he had been wined and dined by politicians and movie producers offering him money for support of their various programs. He declined them all, not wanting to cash in on his wartime glory, although by then he was broke from supporting his family.

But Rickenbacker's life was rich in adventure. A champion auto racer from 1913 to 1916, he won seven championship races and compiled 5,564 points, ranking him fifth among the all-time point leaders of the 1911-1920 period, and he is still ranked 43rd in all-time standings. Among his major wins were several 300-mile endurance races. It was only natural for the ace to combine his history of endurance success with his unrivaled prowess as an aviator, and to try to fly from Redwood City, Calif., to Bolling Field that late spring of 1921.

Rickenbacker saw events like these to be better platforms to tout the potential of aviation in everyday society than appearing on the silver screen or soapbox. He spoke about the airplane's unlimited potential and a future where aircraft could someday reach the stars, but his optimism wasn't matched by the science available to the still-developing airplane industry.

Rickenbacker was a trained engineer with an uncommon affinity for machines. He squeezed 130 flying hours from a World War I airplane engine that normally couldn't muster more than 70. His time as a car racer taught him how to gauge stress on an airframe as well as the right speed for maneuvering in the turn. Now, he applied his ideas to automobile manufacturing. He purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War I. He was also named chairman of the AAA Contest Board, which determined the rules and sites for racing. It was Rickenbacker who kept racing alive during the Great Depression, when other sports were floundering.

In 1926, he entered the commercial aviation industry, fighting for a network of airlines to cover the Americas; he succeeded and Captain Eddie was never poor again.

On Nov. 6, 1930, President Herbert Hoover awarded the Medal of Honor to Rickenbacker for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty" in attacking seven enemy airplanes on Sept. 25, 1918, shooting down two outright.

When Rickenbacker left active duty, he was promoted to the rank of major, but he said, "I felt that my rank of captain was earned and deserved." He used that title proudly for the rest of his life. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker passed away in July 23, 1973.