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The Age of Aces could also be behind us. For the reason that Vietnam battle, no American pilot has efficiently shot down 5 enemy planes to earn the title. The pilot who got here closest, Cesar Rodriguez, amassed three kills of Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) fighters throughout two wars spanning nearly ten years within the Nineteen Nineties. There are a number of causes for this, nevertheless it largely stems from the truth that few air forces need to problem American pilots within the skies anymore, whereas ground-based anti-aircraft programs have turn into so efficient that up-close, air-to-air fight has turn into far much less widespread.

The Vietnam battle produced a complete of 5 American aces, solely two of whom had been pilots: Randall “Duke” Cunningham of the Navy and Richard “Steve” Ritchie of the Air Power. The opposite three American aces had been Weapons Programs Officers.  

Born in 1942, Richard Stephen Ritchie grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco nation and attended the U.S. Air Power Academy, graduating in 1964. Initially educated to fly the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Ritchie transitioned to the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, which was broadly perceived because the ticket to acquiring a fight project in Southeast Asia. Arriving in Vietnam in 1968, Ritchie accomplished his first fight tour with out scoring any air victories regardless of flying nearly 200 fight sorties. After a stint as each a scholar and later an teacher at Nevada’s Nellis Air Power Base, Ritchie requested a second tour in Vietnam. He joined the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and flew out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Power Base as a part of the 555th (“Triple Nickel”) Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Capts. Ritchie (left) and Charles “Chuck” DeBellevue after a mission. Ritchie and DeBellevue scored 4 of their MiG victories whereas flying collectively. (U.S. Air Power)

On Could 10, 1972, Ritchie and Weapons Programs Officer Charles DeBellevue had been taking part in Oyster flight, a gaggle of F-4Ds assigned to patrol over North Vietnamese airfields and supply cowl for U.S. fighters and bombers flying that day as a part of Operation Linebacker. Oyster flight was flying at low stage to ambush any planes that may take off to pursue Balter flight, a unique group of F-4s that had been very seen at 22,000 ft. 

Shortly earlier than 10 a.m., MiG-21s and Shenyang J-6s (Chinese language-built variations of the MiG-19) started taking off from Noi Bai airfield. Within the ensuing melee, Ritchie bought a lock on an enemy plane and ripple-fired two of his AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, scoring successful along with his second shot. (Whereas most report this as a victory in opposition to a MiG-21, as does Ritchie, no less than one account of the battle states that the downed airplane was a J-6.) The celebrations after the flight had been muted: flight chief Bob Lodge and his backseater Roger Locher had been shot down by a J-6. Lodge was killed however Locher can be rescued simply over three weeks later.  

Ritchie downed his second MiG on the final day of Could 1972. Whereas flying a fight air patrol particularly on the lookout for MiGs (MIGCAP), Ritchie was alerted by radio to the presence of a flight of MiG-21s closing from his rear. He entered a protracted, descending flip till he was behind the enemy airplanes and his backseater, Captain Larry H. Pettit, obtained a radar lock. Ritchie fired all 4 of his Sparrows. One hit the goal. 

On July 8, 1972, Ritchie, once more flying with DeBellevue in a cannon-armed F-4E, scored two extra MiG kills in below two minutes. The boys had been flying as a part of a MIGCAP to guard one other group of plane once they encountered a pair of MiG-21s. Initially passing the lead MiG, Ritchie waited earlier than turning to assault it to make sure that it was not being adopted by one other MiG. It was. After passing the trailing MiG, Ritchie executed a reversal that put him behind the plane and he fired two Sparrows, one among which impacted the MiG’s engine. Controlling for pace and vitality, Ritchie was in a position to pull in behind the lead MiG and fireplace off a missile that destroyed the goal. 

The crew of “Oyster 03″—from left, “Chuck” DeBellevue, Crew Chief Sgt. Reggie Taylor, Steve Ritchie and SSgt. Frank Falcone—celebrates a fifth star. (U.S. Air Power

At this level, Ritchie was definitely conscious that he would possibly obtain ace standing. Competitors amongst fighter pilots is a fierce factor and on the time Ritchie was not the one Air Power airman with 4 kills in Vietnam. Curiously, each Ritchie and his foremost competitor, Captain Jeffrey Feinstein (a WSO who additionally had 4 kills to his identify), had every claimed to have downed an extra plane however credit score for each had been denied because of inadequate proof. 

On August 28, 1972, Ritchie bought the prospect he was on the lookout for. As soon as once more teamed with DeBellevue, Ritchie engaged a MiG-21, one among a pair that was approaching head-on. A fast flip put him behind the MiGs and he fired two missiles in an try and pressure the enemy pilot into making a flip. Each missiles didn’t influence. Choosing one of many two MiG-21s, Ritchie fired a second pair of missiles, one among which impacted the goal. The kill was witnessed by one other aircrew, so it was thought-about “official.” After seven years of air fight in Vietnam, the Air Power lastly had an ace, becoming a member of Navy pilot Duke Cunningham, who had earned the excellence on Could 10, 1972.

Along with the 5 Individuals, 17 North Vietnamese pilots in the end achieved the ace title. It must be talked about that DeBellevue additionally ultimately turned an ace with six victories (4 of which occurred whereas flying with Ritchie), as did Feinstein with 5. For the overwhelming majority of American pilots in Vietnam who downed an enemy plane, one confirmed kill was all they bought. Additional emphasizing how exhausting it’s to acquire the title of ace, many pilots accomplished their full tour of fight sorties with out ever even seeing a MiG within the air. 

Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie, retired in January 1999 after greater than 34 years within the Air Power, Air Power Reserve and Colorado Air Nationwide Guard. (U.S. Air Power)

After his second fight tour in Vietnam, Ritchie flew for the Nationwide Guard and the Air Power Reserve. A run at public workplace resulted in defeat and he did a brief stint within the non-public sector working for the Coors Brewing Firm. At present 78 years previous, Ritchie and his spouse work as motivational audio system. When requested by an interviewer in 2014 about what contributed to his success within the air over Vietnam, Ritchie replied, “The identical elements as result in success in something. The fundamentals. Preparation, teamwork—exhausting work—self-discipline, accountability, integrity. And a ‘by no means surrender’ angle. The basics are the identical for achievement in any enviornment.”  

This text initially appeared within the Could 2022 subject of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss an subject–subscribe!


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