Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Interview With An Ace

Article Appearing in The Combat Edge, August 1992, Author Unknown

We did not fly the first seven days in July due to weather. The 8th of July started out as if it would be another one of those days. We were scheduled as the egress flight. Egress was the last MIG CAP flight inbound with a full load of fuel and armament intended to provide protection for the initial flights coming out low on fuel. There was normally little action for the egress flight. MiG activity generally occurred early on. We (Paula flight) were grousing about having to get up at 0330, go through all the briefings, prepare ourselves, the airplanes and weapons, suit up for combat, refuel en route to North Vietnam, jettison the centerline tanks, coordinate with Red Crown and Disco, take a chance of getting shot down and probably not even have the opportunity to engage, and the weather still looked really scroungy.

Paula flight headed inbound with everyone assuming it would be a routine mission. We’ll get in and out, and tomorrow we’ll be on the schedule as the ingress flight. About 60 miles from Bullseye (Hanoi), #4 in one of the MIG CAP flights was damaged by a hit-and-run MiG attack. He broke formation, headed out and announced on Guard his position, heading, altitude and the fact that he was losing hydraulics, thus violating a cardinal rule and definitely attracting the attention of the North Vietnamese air controllers. We immediately changed course and headed in that direction.

About 30 miles Southwest of Hanoi we began getting calls from GCI that there were two Blue Bandits (MiG-21s) in the area. At approximately 5,000 feet on an easterly heading, Paula flight received the “heads-up” call. “Heads-up” meant the MiGs had us in sight and had been cleared to fire.

That information was at least 40-60 seconds old, and we had no visual on the MiGs. At this point the Disco controller, some 150 miles away looking at his radar scope, dispensed with the n o r m a 1 lengthy radio procedure, and announced, “Steve, they’re 2 miles North of you.” I made an immediate left turn to North, picked up a “tally ho” on the lead MiG-21 at 10 o’clock; then rolled further left, blew off the external wing tanks, went full afterburner and passed the MiG at about a thousand feet, just under the Mach. At this point we only saw one MiG, but we knew there were two. I rolled level, pushed the nose down and waited. Sure enough, the second MiG was about 6,000 feet in trail.

As we passed #2, 1 came hard left into a nose down slicing turn, about 6.5 Gs, and lost sight of both MiGs. About halfway through the turn we were very surprised to see the #2 MiG high, in a level right turn. To reduce the high angle-off, I barrel rolled left to his low 5 o’clock position and at about 6,000 feet maneuvered to put the target in the gun sight, achieved a quick auto-acquisition lock-on (one pulse) and fired two Sparrow missiles. There was a 4 second wait from radar lock-on until trigger squeeze and another 1.5 second delay until the missile launched. Over 90 electronic and pneumatic steps had to take place in sequence before the missile would fire. A 4 G turn was necessary to keep the MiG in the radar field of view as he turned down into us. (The book said 3-4 G’s max for a successful launch.) The first missile came off at about 4,000 feet and more than 40 degrees angle- off. We were at minimum range and maximum performance conditions for the Sparrow. The lead missile hit the center of the MiG’s fuselage and the second went through the fireball.

At this point, Paula #4, pulling as hard as he could, managed a radio call, “Steve, I’ve got one on me!” The lead MiG had made it all the way around the circle and was almost in Atoll firing position behind Tommy Feezel. We unloaded over the top of the fireball, after a piece of debris from the MiG nicked the leading edge of our left wing, selected full afterburner and cut across the circle to gain a rear quarter position on the remaining MiG, again at about 5 o’clock low. The angle-off was very similar to that on the first MiG, but we were closer. The lead MiG-21 was highly polished with bright red stars (every other MiG I saw was a dingy silver). The MiG pilot saw us, forgot about Tommy, and started a hard turn our way. He was a lot better than his wingman and rotated the airplane very quickly. I fired at about 3,000 feet with almost 60 degrees angle-off (the radar breaks lock at 60 degrees) pulling about 5 Gs. Only one missile was fired because we were inside minimum parameters with minimum probability for a hit. The missile appeared out in front, snaking back and forth like a sidewinder, and seemed not to guide. All of a sudden the missile pulled every available G (approximately 25) and hit the MiG dead center in the fuselage at just about missile motor burnout which accelerated the 435 lb Sparrow to approximately 1200 MPH above launch velocity. “SPLASH TWO!”

This mission was the classic example of teamwork! All of the elements for success came together. The radar and computers worked perfectly. The call from the controller over 100 miles away watching the battle develop on his radar scope came at the precise moment... Three perfect missiles worked beyond design specification... Split second crew coordination.

On this mission, and on others to varying degrees, everything that I ever learned or experienced during my then 30 years came together in just a few seconds. It required drawing on every life experience during that 89 seconds of time. Years of preparation, teamwork and discipline made the difference for Paula flight on the 8th of July 20 years ago.

There are many complex elements and decisions that go into an air combat sortie; each interrelated and all critical to the success of the mission. Team-work is the only way to make all of the pieces come together.

Every morning before takeoff, I called the Air Force and Navy controllers on the secure phone. I gave them our names, call signs, where we planned to orbit and a brief description of the mission. We even flew to Korat just to meet with the Disco controllers and pilots. I felt that this first name basis and face-to-face time with the people who were looking at our arena from a 100-150 mile vantage point was very important. On the 8th of July, 1972, this AWACS type information was absolutely critical!

For several weeks prior to 8 July we had been observing our own radar contacts and receiving bandit position information from Red Crown and Disco, only to arrive in the area where MiGs were supposed to be and not find anyone. As it turned out, the MiGs had dropped from their normal 15- 20,000 ft orbits to low altitude (approximately 5,000 ft). Intelligence told us that if the MiGs weren’t in a bearing of aircraft formation (our fighting wing), they would be in trail. These two crucial pieces of information set the stage for the 8 July engagement. We purposely descended to low altitude after our course change and resisted the natural reaction to turn immediately when the first MiG was spotted. It is extremely important to work with the intelligence people every day due to the constantly changing environment. Current information is fleeting but essential for success.

The AIM-7 was notorious for a poor probability of kill (Pk) which was around .11 for the entire war (not including 200 plus attempted launches where the missile never left the aircraft). I had a .55 Pk. We worked with our people who took care of the missile. We insisted that all Hanoi area qualified crews spend time at the missile shop, the radar shop and with the load crews. We came to know them by their first names and they knew us. Thus, they took better care of the missiles. Everybody understood that the way the missile was maintained, handled, loaded and armed was very important to how successful we were in the air.

The people in the radar shop, the radio shop, the missile shop, the load crews, the arming crews, the crew chiefs, etc., all felt like a part of the mission. They felt as if they were with us every time we went up and they were anxiously waiting to know how everything worked when we returned. We downloaded the Sparrow after every 10 flights and sent it back to the missile shop for a complete checkout. This procedure put an increased work load on our missile maintenance people. But, they were happy to do the extra work because they knew what it meant to our success.

Pilots historically don’t spend a lot of time in the maintenance areas; but we did and that’s one of the reasons for the tremendous success of the 432d (approximately 25 MiGs destroyed in 1972 by Udorn crews). We didn’t have many of the normal maintenance problems because everyone felt proud to be a part of the team.

The first order of business after returning to Udorn from the fifth victory was go to every organization on base to express our sincere thanks. We let them know that without all of their work, it would not have happened.

The downing of five MiG-21 enemy airplanes was the result of the efforts of many, many, brave and dedicated people. I was in the right place at the right time. I survived, everything worked and I am very proud to have received much of the credit which belongs to so many others.

Teamwork was essential to our mission and it was a tremendous team effort -- front and back seat in the airplane, the eight men in the flight of 4, the two hundred plus members of the strike force, the refueling tankers, the rescue forces, ABCCC, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and all the various individuals, organizations, and agencies that worked together to ensure the successful conduct of the mission. Some two hundred people were directly involved in the launch and recovery of a flight of F4s, and thousands more were indirectly involved. Had it not been for these individuals who were proud of their work and performed it in a professional and outstanding manner, I would not be a fighter ACE and I might not be alive. I really believe that in a career, whether it’s the fighter business, bomber business, tanker business, airlift business, missile business or in any other career field, one tends to create opportunities through preparation, attitude and tempered aggression. In other words, the harder we work, the luckier we get.

Boots Blesse wrote a book entitled No Guts, No Glory. However, a corollary to that is “too many guts, no glory.” If you lose control of the airplane, you lose the opportunity plus you could kill yourself or someone else. To be prepared requires training, discipline, and judgment.

Despite having the best training available, the first time I saw an unlike airplane was a MiG21 in combat near Hanoi! As good as our training was, it was inadequate, especially in the air-to-air arena. By the time I arrived at Udorn in 1972, I was an experienced fighter pilot: 195 combat missions from the 1968 tour, Fighter Weapons School graduate and 2 years as an instructor. However, compared to the training available today, ours was substandard. This was partly due to the feeling that it was unsafe to train the way we would need to fight, i.e., we were not allowed to fly dissimilar air combat. We dropped live ordnance, and fired live missiles very infrequently.

Of course, we now realize that safety is using your head, being smart and training in a realistic manner. Training the way we plan to fight will never be completely safe. However, if we take a step- by-step, building block approach, ultimately we reach a point where an even greater degree of safety and training can be achieved. If we teach people to fly the machine to its maximum performance, they will, in the long run, be safer pilots and have fewer accidents. TAC had a much lower accident rate last year than in 1970, and yet the training is better than ever.

During my first tour at Da Nang in 1968, I was fortunate to be in the initial F-4 Fast FAC (Forward Air Controller) program and flew the first official F-4 FAC mission.

There were established minimum altitudes depending on the area being worked. In high-threat areas there was a one pass rule. When multiple passes were required, the rules were: Never enter or exit using the same direction; employ curvilinear approaches and departures; strictly observe the minimum altitude rules; enter and exit as fast as possible using as much G as possible. If a close look was necessary, go away, observe key landmarks to assist in the precision of the return, wait awhile, and come back as fast and unpredictably as possible. When we followed these few basic safety rules on a regular basis, we took relatively few hits. The losses in the Fast FAC program almost always took place when the rules were violated. When you get sloppy about following basic rules, you endanger yourself, your crew, your team and your machine. The only time I was hit as a Fast FAC was during the tenth pass in a fairly high threat area -- violating the rules and procedures I had written.

In the period when I was being trained, we limited operations in the name of safety; and yet over 20 years later we’re training the way we plan to fight and the accident rate continues to decrease. If we teach people how to fly the airplane to its maximum performance, we produce safer pilots who have fewer accidents. The more realistic the training, the safer we will be in the long run.

The flying environment is a high risk, challenging arena that very few people ever experience. When the combat element is added, it becomes the ultimate challenge. To live and excel in this arena requires a person who is a risk taker... with the education, skill, training, attitude, determination, and tempered aggression to operate right up to the edge of their capabilities and the capabilities of their machines. Due to the complicated deadly nature of the business, there is no room for anything less than highly trained professionals with the discipline to do the right thing every time.

Judgment allows us to determine where the line falls between “no guts, no glory” and “too many guts, no glory” and keeps us from crossing that line. Judgment comes with age and experience and is often commensurate with the responsibility a person is allowed. When a flight of four was my responsibility, I was a more responsible risk-taker. After the fourth MiG, I was even more cognizant, more diligent and more attentive to all of the responsibilities of a flight leader. I wanted to engage, but the mission was not to shoot down MiGs. The mission was to keep MiGs from attacking the strike force.

I personally believe that the idea of being the world’s greatest pilot has led to mishaps due to pilot overconfidence and complacency. Good judgment must always prevail. In the air, no matter how good you think you are or how ready you are, the possibility of an unknown combination of circumstances developing to present the most difficult test always exists.

Leaders like General Charlie Gabriel, General Jerry O’Malley and General Jack Vessey believed that the people in the combat unit who were the most proficient and most qualified were the ones who should be out there at the point of the sword leading the units and making the necessary decisions. By- in-large they were captains and majors. When you get right down to a combat situation, relatively young people are empowered to make decisions and are given huge responsibilities

After returning from a combat mission in the spring of 1972 in which Col Charlie Gabriel had flown as #3 in my flight he said, “Steve, I think I’ll lead tomorrow.” I replied, “Yes, Sir.” We arrived at the 5 o’clock briefing the next morning and checked the scheduling board. It showed Ritchie as lead and Gabriel as #3. Obviously the schedulers had not received the word that the Wing Commander was going to lead the flight. I said, “Boss, I thought you were going to lead today?” He looked at the board, thought for a moment, then said, “I had planned to; but you do a better job, you go ahead.” How about that... from a Wing Commander to a Captain? That kind of leadership inspires the utmost in loyalty and determination to do ones very best... to do everything possible to justify such confidence.

It is precisely what Gen McPeak and Gen Loh are attempting to accomplish in ACC. The effort is to give people at the operating level the ability and authority to get the job done. And, of course, with such responsibility there is accountability.

Why were leaders like General Gabriel, General O’Malley and General Vessey so successful? Because they understood people. They knew exactly what Patton was talking about when he said, “We win wars with people.” The ability to inspire in others a desire for excellence and a passion for achievement is the key to successful leadership.

Great leaders know the tremendous power of positive discipline. It inspires and instills a desire to achieve, to win, to be the best one can be. Positive discipline requires sacrifice; but sacrifice is a willing result as subordinates, inspired by their leader, self-impose the highest standards in their professional lives. Positive discipline requires simple, common sense rules that are based on reason, judgment and experience.

Positive discipline leaders make only a few very important rules. These rules are explained in terms of why they were made, based on what experiences and why they are important. If you make only important rules and ensure they’re followed, people understand the reasons for the rules and they will follow because they want to and they will insist that others follow the rules too.

We are at a great transition point. High tech combat was initiated in S.E. Asia. Now we enter a new, dynamic, uncharted era for the world, our nation and our combat forces. When we get through this period of reorganizing and restructuring, the Air Force will be better than it has ever been. It will be a highly trained, highly disciplined, well organized, serious, professional, lean fighting force. Its people will operate at a higher level of efficiency and effectiveness. We cannot control the exact size of our future Air Force, but we can and will control its shape.

Whatever the challenge, from whatever direction, when it comes, the Air Force of the future will be as ready as it can possibly be to meet that challenge.
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