Brigadier General Steve Ritchie became the United States Air Force’s first and only pilot ace of the Vietnam War

By The F-4 Phantom II Community

Following his graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Ritchie was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. In August 1964, he entered Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laredo Air Force Base, Texas, and finished first in his class in 1965. His first operational assignment was with Flight Test Operations at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where he flew the F-104 Starfighter (he was one of the few Second Lieutenants selected to fly it). Two years later he transitioned into the F-4 Phantom II at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, in preparation for his first tour in Southeast Asia.

Capt. Richard S. Ritchie, in South Vietnam – 1972, with 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, is pictured beside his aircraft following the mission in which he became the first Air Force ace of the Vietnam conflct. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam in 1968, Ritchie flew the first “Fast FAC” mission in the F-4 forward air controller program and was instrumental in the spread and success of the program. He completed 195 combat missions.

In 1969, he was selected to attend the Fighter Weapons Course at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, becoming, up to that point, the Air Force Fighter Weapons School’s youngest-ever instructor at age 26. He taught air-to-air tactics from 1970 to 1972 to the best USAF pilots, including Major Robert Lodge, who later became his flight leader in Thailand and himself shot down three MiG’s.

Ritchie volunteered for a second combat tour in 1972 and was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. Flying F-4 Phantom IIs with the famed 555th (“Triple Nickel”) Tactical Fighter Squadron he shot down his first Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 on 10 May 1972, scored a second victory on May 31, a third and fourth on July 8, and a fifth on August 28. All of the aircraft he shot down were MiG-21s, and all were shot down by the much-maligned AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided air-to-air missile. Ritchie became the United States Air Force’s first and only pilot ace of the Vietnam War

An advantage that the Triple Nickel pilots had over other US aircrews was that eight of their F-4D Phantoms had the top secret APX-80 electronic set installed, known by its code-name Combat Tree. Combat Tree could read the IFF signals of the transponders built into the MiG’s so that North Vietnamese GCI radar could discriminate its aircraft from that of the Americans. Displayed on a scope in the WSO’s cockpit, Combat Tree gave the Phantoms the ability to identify and locate MiG’s when they were still beyond visual range.

May 1972, kills 1 and 2

Ritchie’s assignment on May 10, the first major day of air combat in Operation Linebacker, was as element leader (Oyster 3) of one of two flights of the F-4D MiG Cap for the morning strike force. Oyster flight had three of its Phantoms equipped with Combat Tree IFF interrogators, and two days previously its flight lead, Major Robert Lodge, and his WSO Capt. Roger Locher had scored their third MiG kill to lead all USAF crews then flying in Southeast Asia.

At 0942, forewarned 19 minutes earlier by the EC-121 “Disco” over Laos and then by “Red Crown”, the US Navy radar picket ship, the guided missile cruiser USS Chicago, Oyster flight engaged an equal number of MiG-21s head-on, scattering them. Oyster flight shot down three and nearly got the fourth, but fell victim to a MiG tactic dubbed “Kuban tactics” after those of the Soviet World War II ace Pokryshkin, in which a GCI-controlled flight of MiG-19s trailed so that they could be steered behind the American fighters maneuvering to attack the MiG-21s. Maj. Lodge was shot down and killed, despite clumsy flying by the MiG-19’s. (He might have been able to eject but had previously told his flight mates that he would not be captured because of his extensive knowledge of classified and sensitive information.) Almost simultaneously Ritchie and Capt. Chuck DeBellevue, his WSO, rolled into a firing position behind the remaining MiG-21 of the original 4 with a radar lock, launched two Sparrows and scored a kill with the second.

On May 31, Ritchie’s second kill involved a tactical ruse in which the MiG CAP flights used the radio call signs of another wing’s chaff-deploying flights on a mission northeast of Hanoi. The fighters crossed into North Vietnam from over the Gulf of Tonkin north of Haiphong and were warned by Red Crown of MiG-21s 40 miles southwest of their position and headed towards them. Red Crown continued to call warnings, and when the MiG’s were within 15 miles and to their rear, Ritchie began a descending turn towards them. He observed them above him to his left front and continued his left turn until he was behind and below the trailing MiG. His WSO, Capt. Lawrence Pettit, acquired a “full-system lock-on” and Ritchie ripple-fired all 4 AIM-7s the aircraft was carrying. The first went out of control to the right, the next two detonated early, but the last one struck the MiG in the cockpit and split its fuselage in two.

July 1972, kills 3 and 4

USAF strike and chaff forces suffered a severe series of losses to MiG’s between June 24 and July 5 (7 F-4s) without killing a MiG in return. As a counter-measure, Seventh Air Force added a second Disco EC-121 to its airborne radar coverage, positioning it over the Gulf of Tonkin.

M1 Ritchie, Steve
M1 Ritchie, Steve

On July 8 Ritchie and DeBellevue were leading “Paula” flight, in gun-equipped F-4Es instead of the Combat Tree F-4Ds they usually flew, on a MiG CAP to cover the exit of the strike force. While they were west of Phu Tho and south of Yen Bai, the EC-121 vectored them to intercept MiG-21s returning to base after damaging one of the US chaff escorts. The MiG’s were still approximately 4 miles away and Ritchie turned the flight south to cross the Black River. As they closed, Disco gave them warning that the MiG return had “merged” with the Paula flight’s return on his screen. Ritchie reversed course, observed the first MiG at his 10 o’clock position and turned left to meet it head-on.

When Ritchie passed the first MiG-21, he recalled the engagement of May 10 and waited to see if there was a trailing MiG. When he observed the second MiG, which he also passed head-on, he reversed hard left to engage. The MiG turned to its right to evade the attack, an unusual maneuver, and Ritchie used a vertical separation move to gain position on its rear quarter. DeBellevue obtained a solid boresight (dogfighting radar lock) on it while at the MiG’s 5 o’clock; although fired from the edge of their flight envelopes, both AIM-7s struck home.

The first MiG had also turned back and was attacking the last F-4 in Ritchie’s flight from behind, an often-fatal consequence to US aircraft employing the then-standard “fluid four” tactical formation. Ritchie made a hard turn across the curving intercept of the MiG, again coming out at its 5 o’clock, and the MiG, perceiving the threat, broke hard right and dove away. Ritchie fired an AIM-7 from inside its minimum range and at the limit of its capability to turn. Expecting the Sparrow to miss, he was trying to switch to a gun attack in the unfamiliar F-4E he was flying that day when the missile exploded the MiG, 1 minute and 29 seconds after the first kill.

MiG killers of the 432nd TRW, 11 August 1972

A competition to become the Air Force’s first Vietnam ace developed between Ritchie and Capt. Jeffrey S. Feinstein of another of the 432nd’s squadrons, the 13th TFS, who scored his 3rd and 4th kills on July 18 and July 29. Each had a claim denied by Seventh Air Force’s Enemy Aircraft Claims Evaluation Board, Ritchie and DeBellevue for a claim of a MiG-21 on June 13, and Feinstein for a claim June 9.

Fifth kill

Ritchie’s final victory came August 28, 1972, while leading “Buick” flight, a MiG CAP for a strike north of Hanoi. During the preceding month Seventh Air Force had instituted daily centralized mission debriefings of leaders and planners from all fighter wings called “Linebacker Conferences.” Ritchie had just started his flight of Combat Tree Phantoms on its return to base (Ritchie was flying the F-4D, AF Ser. No. 66-7463, in which he had scored his first kill). Red Crown, now the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser USS Long Beach, alerted the strike force to “Blue Bandits” (MiG-21s) 30 miles southwest of Hanoi, along the route back to Thailand. Approaching the area of the reported contact at 15,000 feet, Ritchie recalled recent Linebacker Conference information that MiG’s had returned to using high altitude tactics and suspected the MiG’s were high. Buick and Vega flights, both MiG CAP, flew toward the reported location.

DeBellevue picked up the MiG’s on the Phantom’s onboard radar and using Combat Tree, discovered that the MiG’s were ten miles behind Old’s flight, another flight of MiG CAP fighters returning to base. Ritchie called in the contact to warn Old’s flight. Ritchie, concerned that MiG’s might be at an altitude above them, made continuous requests for altitude readings to both Disco and Red Crown. He received location, heading, and speed data on the MiG’s (now determined to be returning north at high speed to their base) but not altitude as Buick flight closed to within 15 miles of the MiG’s. DeBellevue’s radar then painted the MiG’s dead ahead at 25,000 feet, and Ritchie ordered the flight to light afterburners. DeBellevue warned Ritchie they were closing fast and were in range. About the same time Ritchie saw the MiG’s himself headed in the opposite direction.

Attacking in a climbing curve behind the MiG-21’s with his AIM-7 guidance radar locked on, Ritchie was given continuous range updates by DeBellevue. With his Phantom barely making enough speed to overtake the targets, Ritchie launched two Sparrows from over four miles away. The firing parameters of the two shots were out of the missiles’ performance envelope, an attempt to influence the MiG’s to turn and thus shorten the range. Both shots not only missed but failed to influence the opponents. Moments later, tracking one MiG visually by the contrail it was making, Ritchie fired his remaining two Sparrows, also at long range. The first missed, but the MiG made a hard turn and shortened the range and was destroyed by the second. Short on fuel, Ritchie elected not to try to pursue the second MiG-21.

Ritchie commented:

My fifth MiG kill was an exact duplicate of a syllabus mission (at Fighter Weapons School), so I had not only flown that as a student but had taught it a dozen times prior to doing it in combat.

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