The Last Pilot Ace

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The Last Pilot Ace

50 Years Ago – The Last Pilot Ace

(Well, until Maverick)

By Retired USAF Colonel Paul Carr

From the air battles of Southeast Asia 23 airmen emerged with the title “Ace”. Of those, 17 were North Vietnamese, 1 was Soviet, and 5 were United States airmen. 50 years ago, between May 10 and August 28, 1972 Captain Richard “Steve” Ritchie, Reidsville, NC ‘s native son, became the only United States Air Force pilot to achieve Ace status (*). He will likely be the last.

       “Ace” is the title bestowed on those downing 5 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat. During World War I the press first used the term when referring to French pilot Adolphe Pegoud who scored his 5th kill in July 1915. The romance of aerial combat quickly took over and made legends of young men fighting with the newest weapon of war high above the trenches of Europe. German Barron Von Richtofen, “The Red Baron” and American Eddie Rickenbacker became the basis of propaganda efforts to romanticize an unpopular war. The public found new heroes in these daredevils and their airplanes.  

            Between wars aircraft improved, flying faster, higher, farther – their weapons more reliable and more lethal. But the mano a mano ideas of aerial combat still loomed large. Germany led the way but as the air war expanded United States technology and training caught up and the rollcall of American Aces grew. Leading US Ace was Major Dick Bong with 40 victories against Japanese airmen. Robin Olds achieved Ace status with 12 kills and added 4 more while flying in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

            Props gave way to jet engines and guns to missiles and rockets. Additional airmen were added to single pilot crews, referred to as the Weapon System Operator (WSO or Wizzo), Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), or simply the GIB (guy in back). High speeds combined with radar and electronic identification expanded the combat airspace. The arena, the weapons, the chariots changed, but not the egos of young men anxious to earn the title “Ace”.

            While Ritchie’s victories spanned a relatively short period, his life and early military career hinted at a confident overachiever. He is remembered in his hometown for being a star high school quarter back, his overall athletic prowess, and his determination to compete. Suffering through two broken legs he still returned to play. After receiving an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs he fought his way into a starting half-back position as a walk-on. In his senior year the Academy played in the 1963 Gator Bowl losing to his home state’s University of North Carolina 35-0. It was probably Ritchie’s last defeat.

            After receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant he continued to compete and excel. He graduated at the top of his class from Under Graduate Pilot Training and was assigned to an F-104 Test Squadron located at Eglin AFB, Florida. From there he transitioned to the F-4 Phantom II and completed his first tour of duty in Vietnam.

            Ritchie’s superb aviation skills were noted by his commanders and following his Vietnam tour he was assigned to the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, Nellis AFB, Nevada. Again, he excelled and was invited to stay on as an instructor.

            His thirst for more action led him to volunteer for a second Vietnam tour and attachment to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The “Triple Nickel” was already legendary with World War II and Korean veteran Robin Olds leading the headlines. Though new to the squadron Captain Ritchie was a well-known commodity who received mixed reviews from his colleges. Robin Olds called him a “brilliant” pilot who thought of himself as “God’s gift”, cocky and egotistical. Other’s described him as intelligently aggressive. Did Steve Ritchie have a big ego? Without doubt. Was he any different from the others competing in the high-G, high speed world of air-to-air combat? Not at all.

May 10, 1972 – Victory number 1

            On May 8, after over 200 combat sorties Ritchie finally found himself in a position to notch his first MiG kill. Fortune played on both sides of the results. He was flying as wingman when lead’s weapons malfunctioned just as their flight moved into firing position behind an enemy aircraft. Protocol required Ritchie to maneuver into position and fire his weapons. Moments before release a low fuel warning sounded requiring immediate return to base. Loss of the opportunity for his first victory, the destruction of an enemy aircraft, and the elimination of a threat to American soldiers and airmen was still bothering him when he attended the morning briefing on May 10.

            Linebacker was the operational code name for bombing targets to the north around Hanoi. When one of the F-4 pilots assigned to provide cover for the attacking bombers failed to show up, Ritchie was more than happy to fill in. Besides the obvious opportunity for more air-to-air action, Flight Lead was Maj. Bob Lodge, an Air Force Academy classmate and friend. Ritchie, along with WSO Capt. Chuck DeBellvue, would be number 3 in the formation, Lodge and wingman 1st Lt. John Markle would be 1 and 2. Oyster Flight was programed to patrol near MiG-rich Vietnamese airfields allowing them to intercept enemy fighters before they could threaten the bombers.

            Once on-station, both an EC-121 Airborne Warning and Control aircraft and a Naval picket-radar ship warned Lodge of approaching MiG-21s. What they failed to see was a trailing flight of MiG-19s hoping to catch American fighter crews totally focused on the leading MiGs and unaware of their presence. The first 2 F-4s in Oyster flight managed to shoot down 2 of the MiG-21s. Ritchie and Debellevue launched 2 sparrow missiles and got one more. In the melee Lodge and his WSO fell victim to one of the trailing MiG-19s. Steve Ritchie had his first aerial victory but the joy was lost along with his friend.

May 31, 1972 – Victory number 2

            On May 31 Ritchie and Weapon System Operator Lawrence Pettit were part of a deception of their own. Flying in from the Gulf of Tonkin toward a target area north of Haiphong, they employed a commonly known call sign used by unarmed aircraft designed to protect inbound bombers by deploying radar confusing “chaff”.  An unsuspecting flight of MiGs began pursuing them even as Ritchie and company were being radar vectored in behind and below them. When Pettit announced a radar lock, Richie launched 2 AIM-7s. Only one operated correctly. It was enough and another red star was painted on the side of his F-4.

July 8, 1972 – Victory 3 and 4

            From the last of June until the first week of July the North Vietnamese Air Force proved how lethal it could be, downing 7 F-4s against 0 loses of their own. Seventh Air Force tacticians believed the trend could be reversed with additional radar coverage. Another EC-121 AWACS was stationed over the Gulf of Tonkin.

            Flying lead in the less familiar but gun-equipped F-4E’s, Ritchie’s “Paula” flight was directed by the 121 toward a group of enemy aircraft returning to base after engaging and damaging American aircraft west of Phu Tho. A controller aboard the AWACS warned Paula flight of enemy aircraft virtually on top of their position. Suddenly Ritchie spotted a MiG in his 10 o’clock and aggressively turned for a head-on pass. Recalling the lessons learned on May 10, he did not immediately turn in behind but waited to check for trailing bogeys. His judgement proved sound as he spotted another MiG lagging behind and commenced an aggressive left turn to the enemies 6 o’clock position. At the same time the MiG began an unexpected right turn further reducing the distance and putting Ritchie’s F-4 outside of the AIM-7’s firing parameters. Experience and training kicked in. Ritchie pulled the nose into a vertical climb increasing distance between the 2 combatants and permitting a marginal firing solution. MiG number 3 was history.

            While this was happening MiG 1 maneuvered behind one of the other F-4s in Paula flight. This could have ended badly had not Ritchie and DeBellevue quickly turned back behind the attacker and fired another AIM-7. Seeing his position deteriorate, the remaining enemy turned and dove away. Believing the AIM-7 had missed and with the distance closing, Ritchie prepared to fire the F-4E’s guns. But the missile had performed adequately and MiG number 4 exploded 1 minute and 29 seconds after his wingman. Ritchie was 1 MiG kill away from becoming an Ace, but he was not the only one.

            On July 29th another Air Force F-4 pilot, Captain Jeffrey S. Feinstein, recorded his 4th victory. In mid-June each pilot had a 5th kill denied by Seventh Air Force’s Enemy Aircraft Claims Evaluation Board. Palpable excitement and tension spread among the cadre of American fighter pilots and the competition was on.

August 28, 1972 – 5th Victory

            Ritchie was lead in a flight of 4 F-4s assigned to provide combat cover for a bombing strike north of Hanoi. Radar operators identified MiG-21s 30 miles to the southwest of the city. DeBellevue verified the threatening aircraft at 25,000 feet causing Ritchie to order a climb to higher altitude and increased speed.

When visual contact was made DeBellevue read out closure rates on the enemy aircraft while Ritchie began a climbing turn into firing position. His initial salvo of 2 Sparrow missiles missed. Realizing he was under attack the MiG began an evasive turn. Instead of improving his position he actually allowed Ritchie and DeBellevue to move in closer and fire again, this time hitting the target. Steve Ritchie was officially an Ace.

            Knowing he would be a prime target during any subsequent air battles, command authorities immediately transferred him out of the theater. Back seater Chuck DeBellvue achieved Ace status a few days later and was also transferred out.

                        In the early days of aviation opposing pilots could see each other, close enough to wave or salute a sign of respect. But it was still a deadly dance where only the bold, brave, or lucky survived. Technology eliminated the personal nature of air battle and substituted blips on a radar screen. Drones and long-range radar guided missiles cost a fraction of the millions spent on each modern fighter. In the future military forces will think long and hard before risking even one manned airborne weapon system. The world of aerial-Aces, ruled by the larger than life egos of Von Richtofen and Rickenbacker, is over.

                        50 years ago, Reidsville, NC native Captain Steve Ritchie became the first and only Air Force Pilot Ace of Vietnam, the last of a bygone era.

*(There were 3 WSO and RIO Aces during Vietnam. Navy Lieutenant Randle “Duke” Cunnigham was the only other pilot Ace. Captain Steve Ritchie was the only United States Air Force Pilot Ace)