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Pilot Training 1918

eddie rickenbacker pilot training

No Mechanics Wanted

A big name in American daredevilry is soon to become an even bigger name over there. But as Eddie Rickenbacker is known as a good mechanic and great racecar driver, and is much older than the Ivy League pilots who are coming to Issoudun, he's not being taken seriously in his desire to become a combat pilot.

"We don't believe," one officer said, "that it would be wise for a pilot to have any knowledge of engines and mechanics. Airplane engines are always breaking down, and a man who knew a great deal about engines would know if his engine wasn't functioning correctly and be hesitant about going into combat."

(Nobody, of course, would hesitate to go into combat knowing that what airplane engines always do is break down.)

Medical Help

The first group of pilots to complete the course at Issoudun is about to go off to aerial gunnery school, and Lieutenant Rickenbacker's name isn't on the list. Major Spaatz refuses to change the orders, saying Rickenbacker is too useful where he is, as engineering officer.

Whether it's that Rickenbacker has the maturity not to respond with complaints, or the generosity to promote others' careers, or just the wiliness of a salesman removing an objection, he comes up with a solution. Later generations of pilots will be known for avoiding doctors, but Rickenbacker gets the doctor to help him. He does in fact have a bad cold, and is in fact "exhausted from doing a dozen jobs and sneaking off to fly," but mainly he wants to prove that Lt Spiegel could do the job just as well as him. So he gets himself sent to the hospital to show he is dispensable.

Rickenbacker spends a pleasant two weeks in bed and gets his way too, as Spaatz decides anyone who wants that much to be in combat isn't going to be the best engineering officer. 

How to Teach a Pilot to Shoot

Obviously, you put him in a craft and tow a target in front of him and have him shoot at it. Except to begin with it wasn't an aircraft.
"I never thought that at Cazeau I would find myself in a boat in the middle of a lake with at 30-caliber rifle in my hand. That was the way they started teaching us to shoot. I would stand up in this little boat, bobbing up and down, while another boat towed a target. I had only shot a gun twice in my life, and at first I did not come close to the target. I blasted away at it day after day, until my shoulder was black and blue from the recoil. But finally I could hit it.

Rickenbacker graduated to shooting a sock thirty square feet in cross-section, towed behind a Caudron, from a Nieuport with a machine gun, and learned how not to shoot the tow rope in two. 

And then he was officially a combat pilot. After a ten-day leave in Paris, he arrived at the new 94th Aero Squadron in March. Finally, after about a year of scheming, he was at the front. But he didn't yet know how much he didn't know.

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