The Age of Aces may be behind us. Since the Vietnam war, no American pilot has successfully shot down five enemy planes to earn the title. The pilot who came closest, Cesar Rodriguez, amassed three kills of Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) fighters across two wars spanning almost ten years in the 1990s. There are several reasons for this, but it mostly stems from the fact that few air forces want to challenge American pilots in the skies anymore, while ground-based anti-aircraft systems have become so effective that up-close, air-to-air combat has become far less common.
The Vietnam war produced a total of five American aces, only two of whom were pilots: Randall “Duke” Cunningham of the Navy and Richard “Steve” Ritchie of the Air Force. The other three American aces were Weapons Systems Officers.
Born in 1942, Richard Stephen Ritchie grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, graduating in 1964. Initially trained to fly the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Ritchie transitioned to the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, which was widely perceived as the ticket to obtaining a combat assignment in Southeast Asia. Arriving in Vietnam in 1968, Ritchie completed his first combat tour without scoring any air victories despite flying almost 200 combat sorties. After a stint as both a student and later an instructor at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, Ritchie requested a second tour in Vietnam. He joined the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and flew out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base as part of the 555th (“Triple Nickel”) Tactical Fighter Squadron.
On May 10, 1972, Ritchie and Weapons Systems Officer Charles DeBellevue were participating in Oyster flight, a group of F-4Ds assigned to patrol over North Vietnamese airfields and provide cover for U.S. fighters and bombers flying that day as part of Operation Linebacker. Oyster flight was flying at low level to ambush any planes that might take off to pursue Balter flight, a different group of F-4s that were very visible at 22,000 feet.
Shortly before 10 a.m., MiG-21s and Shenyang J-6s (Chinese-built versions of the MiG-19) began taking off from Noi Bai airfield. In the ensuing melee, Ritchie got a lock on an enemy aircraft and ripple-fired two of his AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, scoring a hit with his second shot. (While most record this as a victory against a MiG-21, as does Ritchie, at least one account of the battle states that the downed airplane was a J-6.) The celebrations after the flight were muted: flight leader Bob Lodge and his backseater Roger Locher had been shot down by a J-6. Lodge was killed but Locher would be rescued just over three weeks later.
Ritchie downed his second MiG on the last day of May 1972. While flying a combat air patrol specifically looking for MiGs (MIGCAP), Ritchie was alerted by radio to the presence of a flight of MiG-21s closing from his rear. He entered a long, descending turn until he was behind the enemy airplanes and his backseater, Captain Larry H. Pettit, obtained a radar lock. Ritchie fired all four of his Sparrows. One hit the target.
On July 8, 1972, Ritchie, again flying with DeBellevue in a cannon-armed F-4E, scored two more MiG kills in under two minutes. The men were flying as part of a MIGCAP to protect another group of aircraft when they encountered a pair of MiG-21s. Initially passing the lead MiG, Ritchie waited before turning to attack it to ensure that it was not being followed by another MiG. It was. After passing the trailing MiG, Ritchie executed a reversal that put him behind the aircraft and he fired two Sparrows, one of which impacted the MiG’s engine. Controlling for speed and energy, Ritchie was able to pull in behind the lead MiG and fire off a missile that destroyed the target.
At this point, Ritchie was certainly aware that he might achieve ace status. Competition among fighter pilots is a fierce thing and at the time Ritchie was not the only Air Force airman with four kills in Vietnam. Interestingly, both Ritchie and his main competitor, Captain Jeffrey Feinstein (a WSO who also had four kills to his name), had each claimed to have downed an additional aircraft but credit for both were denied due to insufficient evidence.
On August 28, 1972, Ritchie got the chance he was looking for. Once again teamed with DeBellevue, Ritchie engaged a MiG-21, one of a pair that was approaching head-on. A quick turn put him behind the MiGs and he fired two missiles in an attempt to force the enemy pilot into making a turn. Both missiles failed to impact. Selecting one of the two MiG-21s, Ritchie fired a second pair of missiles, one of which impacted the target. The kill was witnessed by another aircrew, so it was considered “official.” After seven years of air combat in Vietnam, the Air Force finally had an ace, joining Navy pilot Duke Cunningham, who had earned the distinction on May 10, 1972.
In addition to the five Americans, 17 North Vietnamese pilots ultimately achieved the ace title. It should be mentioned that DeBellevue also eventually became an ace with six victories (four of which occurred while flying with Ritchie), as did Feinstein with five. For the vast majority of American pilots in Vietnam who downed an enemy aircraft, one confirmed kill was all they got. Further emphasizing how hard it is to obtain the title of ace, many pilots completed their full tour of combat sorties without ever even seeing a MiG in the air.
After his second combat tour in Vietnam, Ritchie flew for the National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. A run at public office ended in defeat and he did a short stint in the private sector working for the Coors Brewing Company. Currently 78 years old, Ritchie and his wife work as motivational speakers. When asked by an interviewer in 2014 about what contributed to his success in the air over Vietnam, Ritchie replied, “The same factors as lead to success in anything. The basics. Preparation, teamwork—hard work—discipline, responsibility, integrity. And a ‘never give up’ attitude. The fundamentals are the same for success in any arena.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Aviation History. Don’t miss an issue–subscribe!