Richard S. Ritchie

Richard S. Ritchie
Capt. Richard S. Ritchie, 1973
Nickname Steve
Born (1942-06-25) June 25, 1942 (age 72)
Reidsville, North Carolina
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Air Force
Years of service 1964-1999
Rank Brigadier General
Battles/wars Vietnam War
Awards Air Force Cross
Silver Star (4)
Distinguished Flying Cross (10)
Air Medal (25)
Mackay Trophy
Jabara Award
Other work Congressional candidate
motivational speaker

Brigadier General Richard Stephen "Steve" Ritchie (born June 25, 1942 in Reidsville, North Carolina) was an officer in the United States Air Force and the Colorado Air National Guard, and a general officer in the Air Force Reserve. Ritchie joined Navy Commander Randy Cunningham as the only pilots among the five American aces during the Vietnam War. Ritchie is a recipient of the Air Force Cross, the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force.


Ritchie was born in Reidsville, North Carolina, the son of an American Tobacco Company executive. He was a star quarterback for Reidsville High School, despite breaking his leg twice. In 1964, he graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, where, as a "walk-on", he became the starting halfback for the Falcons varsity football team in 1962 and 1963.

Ritchie was described by his peers as being a jock, and by General Robin Olds, who admired him greatly, as being "brilliant" but thinking himself "God's gift" (cocky and egotistical). According to one of the intelligence officers of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Ritchie was often lacking in self-discipline, with a personal trademark of using too much Old Spice cologne. (Ritchie's retort was that the pilots' locker room was too odoriferous.)[1]

Professionally, Ritchie was a gifted and dedicated flyer who constantly maintained his skills by flying every two or three days. With consistently high performance evaluations, high scores in pilot training courses, and achieving a thorough understanding of the weapons systems he used, he earned opportunities to place himself in the forefront of USAF fighter pilots, where he became known for his "intelligent aggression".[2]


Ritchie entered pilot training at Laredo Air Force Base, Texas, and finished first in his class. His first operational assignment was with Flight Test Operations at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where he flew the F-104 Starfighter. 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.

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 MiGs.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] Combat Tree could read the IFF signals of the transponders built into the MiGs 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 MiGs 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 MiGCap 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 headon, 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 WWII ace Pokryshkin,[6] 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 flightmates 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.[7][8][9]

On May 31, Ritchie's second kill involved a tactical ruse in which the MiGCAP 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 MiGs 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.[10][11]

July 1972, kills 3 and 4

USAF strike and chaff forces suffered a severe series of losses to MiGs 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.

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 MiGCAP 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 MiGs were still aprproximately 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 headon.

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 headon, 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, apparently 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 relatively unfamiliar F-4E he was flying that day when the missile exploded the MiG, 1 minute and 29 seconds after the first kill.[11][12][13]

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.[11]

Fifth kill

Ritchie's final victory came August 28, 1972, while leading Buick flight, a MiGCAP 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."[14] 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 MiGs had returned to using high altitude tactics and suspected the MiGs were high. Buick and Vega flights, both of the MiGCAP, flew toward the reported location.[15]

DeBellevue picked up the MiGs on the Phantom's onboard radar and using Combat Tree, discovered that the MiGs were ten miles behind Olds flight, another flight of MiGCAP fighters returning to base. Ritchie called in the contact to warn Olds flight. Ritchie, concerned that MiGs 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 MiGs (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 MiGs. DeBellevue's radar then painted the MiGs 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 MiGs himself headed in the opposite direction.[16]

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 MiGs 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 actually shortened the range, and was destroyed by the second.[11][17] Short on fuel, Ritchie elected not to try to pursue the second MiG-21.

Ritchie commented:[3]

"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 probably a dozen times prior to actually doing it in combat."

Aerial victory credits

DatePilotWeapons Systems OfficerAircraftTail CodeCall SignWpnType
May 10Capt. Richard S. RitchieCapt. Charles B. DeBellevueF-4D 66-7463   OYOyster 03AIM-7MiG-21
May 31Capt. R.S. RitchieCapt. Lawrence H. PettitF-4D 65-0801   OYIcebag 01AIM-7MiG-21
July 8Capt. R.S. RitchieCapt. C.B. DeBellevueF-4E 67-0362   EDPaula 01AIM-7MiG-21
July 8Capt. R.S. RitchieCapt. C.B. DeBellevueF-4E 67-0362   EDPaula 01AIM-7MiG-21
August 28Capt. R.S. RitchieCapt. C.B. DeBellevueF-4D 66-7463   OYBuick 01AIM-7MiG-21
SOURCE: on-line edition

Post-Vietnam War

After completing 339 combat missions totaling over 800 flying hours, Ritchie returned from his second combat tour as one of the most highly decorated pilots in the Vietnam War. His combat achievements earned him the 1972 Mackay Trophy for the most significant Air Force mission of the Year, the Air Force Academy's 1972 Jabara Award for airmanship, and the 1972 Armed Forces Award, presented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for outstanding contributions to the national security of the United States. He retired from the Air Force in 1999.

Ritchie wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that:

"The first time I ever saw an unlike airplane was a MiG-21 near Hanoi. In those days, we weren't allowed to train against dissimilar aircraft. They wouldn't let us train the way we were going to fight. Sometimes, I wasn't even allowed to fire back if fired upon.[18]

A political conservative, Ritchie opted to leave active duty following Vietnam, joining the Air National Guard and running for Congress from North Carolina at the urging of U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater. However, he lost in the wake of the Watergate Scandal, during which time Republican party newcomers were challenged to get elected. He held various executive positions in private life, including six years at the Adolph Coors Company (now Coors Brewing Company) and the Heritage Foundation, where he was special assistant to Joseph Coors.

He joined the Colorado Air National Guard and continued his military duty in a flying status while pursuing his civilian career, later transferring to the Air Force Reserve. In 1985 he was appointed director of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, reporting to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In 1987 he was assigned to the Mobilization Policy and Plans Directorate at the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

He may have been the basis for the uncasted character of Col Steve Ritchie in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode entitled "The Royale".

Promoted to brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve in 1994, he became the mobilization assistant to the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service. For six years, he traveled across the United States, speaking to approximately 1,100 audiences in support of Air Force recruiting efforts. He also flew more than 100 air show performances in the T-38 Talon. He retired in January 1999, after flying in his last air show at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working as a motivational speaker, and periodically flies demilitarized civilian F-104 Starfighters on the American air show circuit for "Starfighters International" based in Florida.

Awards and decorations

Command pilot

Air Force Cross
Silver Star (plus three oak leaf clusters)
Distinguished Flying Cross (with nine oak leaf clusters)
Air Medal (with 25 oak leaf clusters)
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (with Combat "V" for Valor)
National Defense Service Medal (two awards)
Vietnam Service Medal (with three campaign stars)
Air Force Longevity Service Award (with two oak leaf clusters)

Vietnam Air Gallantry Medal with Gold Wings

Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal



  • Ethell, Jeffrey, and Price, Alfred. (1989) One Day in a Very Long War: May 10, 1972, Air Combat, North Vietnam. Random House. ISBN 978-0-517-07934-8
  • Sherwood, John D. (1999) Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience. St. Martins Press. ISBN 0-312-97962-2
  • Michel, Marshall L. (2004). Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam 1965-1972, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 1-55750-585-3
  • Nordeen, Lon, Jr. (1986) Air Warfare in the Missile Age, Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-87474-680-9
  • , Air University, Headquarters USAF, on-line edition
  • USAF Fighter Weapons School, Project Red Baron III. (1974) Air-to-Air Encounters in Southeast Asia, Volume II, Part I.
  • Air Force Link official bio
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