August 28 marks an important date in the life of Brigadier (Ret) Richard Stephen Ritchie, known in Air Force circles simply as “Steve Ritchie”. It was on that day, over the jungles of Vietnam that Steve Ritchie became the only Air Force pilot to become an ace in Southeast Asia. August 28, 2022 is the 50th Anniversary.
The most thrilling event for a fighter pilot is shooting down an enemy aircraft in aerial combat. It is known as a kill. By amassing five “kills’ one earns “ace” status. It is akin to winning the Triple Crown in baseball, a rare and hallowed event.
Air Combat in Vietnam
Ritchie flew the F-4 Phantom II for the famed “Triple Nickel, the 555th Fighter Squadron. Their home base: Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. The F-4 contained two seats, the pilot sat in front and behind him was the Weapons System Operator or WSO (pronounced Wizzo). There were two renowned WSO’s in Vietnam: Chuck DeBellevue and Jeffrey Feinstein. DeBellevue was with Ritchie on many of his missions.
Aces abounded in the heavy combat of World War II and Korea, but were less frequent in Vietnam. President Kennedy had military advisors and a lot of activity committed to Vietnam by 1963. Most, however, mark the official beginning of the war to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, the war ended for the Americans in January of 1973 – roughly nine years of combat.
The Summer of ’72
According to the National Museum of the US Air Force*, in the early era of the war (1965-1968), the North Vietnamese stayed clear of the skies when the American were airborne over communist North Vietnam. From the Fall of 1968 through Spring 1972 the US did not conduct any large scale air campaigns in North Vietnam, thus limiting aerial engagements. Things began to change with OPERATION LINEBACKER in May 1972. Increasing the pressure on the American Air Force was their friendly rival, the Navy, boasted the first ace of the war, Randy Cunningham who had bagged his fifth MIG on May 10. Ritchie and his Air Force pals were trying to change that in the summer of 1972.
Ritchie got his first kill on May 10, 1972 and downed a second MIG 21 on May 31. Two more MIG 21’s came on July 8, these kills came in a pair on one exciting mission. That elusive fifth evaded him for 51 days. Then on August 28, 1972 it happened. While maneuvering near Hanoi, Ritchie shot down yet another MIG 21. Upon his return to Udorn he was met with adulation by admiring squadron mates and maintenance personnel. The celebration was on.
It would be Ritchie’s final “kill”. Shortly thereafter Ritchie was back in the United States, on the speaking tour trying to raise American’s morale over the war.
I have had the pleasure of meeting General Ritchie and want to share some personal reflections. Over the years we have had several interactions and though I am not sure he would know me by name, we have had enjoyable conversations. My first encounter was as a Basic Cadet at the Air Force Academy in the summer of 1980. Ritchie dropped by Mitchell Hall (“Mitch’s” as it is known to cadets) to join the basic cadets for lunch. He was seated on the Staff Tower and introduced to a thunderous ovation just prior to the meal. My flight commander, a man named Cadet May, yelled down to those of us sitting at the table with our buzz cuts, “When you are an ace you can do whatever you want to do”. At the time Ritchie was a personal assistant to Joseph Coors, of the brewing empire.
While attending Squadron Officer School (SOS) in September 1989, I had a flight mate who had served as a young enlisted airman in Vietnam. Later he received his commission and was finally attending SOS in his mid thirties alongside a bunch of “20 somethings”. But in 1972, he was assigned to maintenance duty for the Triple Nickel. “Man, what party we had the night that Ritchie became an Ace”. He had a wistful faraway look as he relived that evening.
Later, as a faculty member at the Academy, I remember listening as Steve told how he would call the Airborne Radar Control guys in Vietnam just prior to every mission. He would ask about enemy aircraft and advised the controller of his general mission plans for that day’s flight. I only remember these details vaguely, but on the date of one of his kills; Ritchie shared that there was some confusion as to the position of enemy aircraft approaching. In the midst of the radio chatter, the controller quietly snapped off this blurb, “Steve they are to your left/right”. Ritchie was able to maneuver his F-4 into position and record a kill.
Later Concerns and Fears
We shared a common interest in politics, both at the national and Colorado level. Ritchie once ran for Congress. We also shared a mutual concern about the level of respect from Air Force cadet Wing in the early 2000s towards superiors and authority. A respect that is essential to the good order and discipline of the military. The F-4 on the Terrazzo at the Academy is painted with his Triple Nickel colors, we shared a great love for our alma mater.
Probably my most surprising memory of General Ritchie was the story he told me about auto racing. Someone for Ritchie’s birthday had purchased one of these “experiences” where you can be trained quickly in a race car and then be taken around a track at well over 100 miles an hour. I don’t recall if it was NASCAR or Indy Cars, but I do remember what he said about it. Steve Ritchie told me that he was more scared riding around in the race car than he ever was flying a fighter in combat. Now that is a statement. It certainly ratchets up my respect for Mario Andretti and Richard Petty!
Steve, congratulations 50 years later on a job well done!
hard to believe it’s been 50 years, I can still remember as if it was yesterday, great squadron and the young pilots and wsos were such great people who just liked to fly. I will always cherish knowing you and Chuck and all the others that I had the opportunity to fly with and beside.
Ralph, sounds like you had a front row seat. The Triple Nickel was one of the great squadrons in the history of aviation. Thanks for serving when so many others chose not to do so.