Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Vietnam Debrief

By Chief Master Sgt Iam Kuhn, USAFR, Airman Magazine, September 1996

Vietnam was Steve Ritchie’s war. He learned how to stay alive through two combat tours that killed many of his friends, emerging as the Air Force’s only pilot ace with five MiG-2 1 victories. After the war ended, he began another “war” of sorts, fighting for better training for fighter pilots.

Now a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, Ritchie, 54, is the mobilization assistant to the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph AFB, Texas.

He went to war in 1968 as a 25-year-old captain, flying F-4 Phantoms from DaNang AB. After helping launch the F-4 Fast FAC program and flying 195 combat missions, Ritchie served as an instructor at the Air Force’s “top gun” Fighter Weapons School, Nellis AFB, Nev. His mission: teach our best fighter pilots what he learned in the war. In 1972, he returned to Vietnam.

“I had the finest training available at the time in the Air Force,” said Ritchie, who now lives in Golden, Cob. There was no way to be better prepared. But the first time I saw an unlike airplane was a MiG-21 over Hanoi. In those days, we weren’t allowed to train against airplanes that were not just like ours.” The reason: dissimilar air-to- air combat training was considered unsafe.

To make matters worse, Ritchie said, Air Force fighter pilots were required to fly only 12 air-to-air sorties a year. “It was a ridiculously low requirement,” he said.

He attributed the low kill rate to “not training the way we were going to fight,” and is convinced that, had Vietnam-era pilots been trained against dissimilar aircraft—as they are today—”yes, our loss rate would have been lower, and our kill rate would have been higher.

“As a result of that sad experience, we were able to initiate the aggressor program and Red Flag,” he said. These aerial combat exercises are now an integral part of a fighter pilot’s training regimen, which Lt. Col. Lloyd Boothby, Maj. Moody Suter, Capt. Roger Wells, Ritchie and colleagues at Nellis helped develop.

Collaborating with veteran combat pilots, who called for changes in combat fighter training, the program took flight. “We argued that if we train to maximum performance of the individual and the machine—learning to take the airplane to its limits—it would be safer in the long run, and we’d be much more effective in combat,” he said.

And that’s exactly what happened. Today. the accident rate is significantly lower than 25 years ago. The training and equipment our Air Force has today is due to input from those who were on the front line in Southeast Asia and courageous Air Force leaders who made it happen. he said.

As the Vietnam war slogged on, morale nose-dived and by 1968 “most of us realized we were not there to win,” Ritchie said. “We were losing people every day for no reason. “There were times (during the war) when we were fired upon and couldn’t fire back,” he said. “For a government to ask its young people to fight and die and not allow them to win is the worse thing a country can do.”

Additionally, in air combat over North and South Vietnam, there were all sorts of air-space and other restrictions that changed on a regular basis. “We were tested every month on the rules of engagement, and required to make 100 percent,” he said.

Humor was one of the catalysts that kept them going. “In the crew truck going out to the airplane, there was generally a lot of banter and joking—except for missions where we instinctively knew somebody wasn’t going to make it back,” Ritchie said. “At those times, everyone was quiet, and we banned together to do everything we could to protect each other.

“That’s why the rescue missions were so terribly important,” he said. “Everybody did everything they possibly could. We risked it all to save our comrades.”

He credits Air Force education, training and experiences for helping him survive in combat. He explained that first-year Air Force Academy cadets—then as today— must look straight ahead at all times (except when they’re in class or the dorm rooms) to improve their peripheral vision. “As a result, the vision I developed as a cadet probably saved my life” said the 1964 academy graduate, “especially when the missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and MiG-2 Is were in the air. The discipline learned and practiced in those early years was extremely important in combat.”

Ritchie shot down five MiG-21s during his second Vietnam tour: one on May 10,1972: another on May 31; and two more on July 8 in a classic, low-altitude dogfight. He bagged the fifth on Aug. 28.

No. 5 came while his flight of four F-4s patrolled ahead of a large U.S. strike force en route to targets in North Vietnam during Operation Linebacker. Ritchie was orbiting about 30 miles northeast of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Running low on fuel, he headed southwest to return to base.

The F-4s were equipped with the APX8I “friend or foe” detector, newest technology at the time, that picked up the frequency squawk of two MiGs—also short on fuel—and headed northeast back to Hanoi.

The M1G-21s were 15,000 feet above the Phantoms “in the front quarter and coming across our nose from right to left,” he said. At two miles, he visually identified the MiG-21s and fired two Sparrow missiles, which missed their targets due to the angle and diverging vectors.

He turned hard to the 6 o’clock position. taking aim once again at the enemy. “1 fired the last two Sparrows, and number four found its target, creating a huge fireball, I yelled, ‘Splash, ‘,we got him, splash!’” Ritchie recalled. “The other MiG escaped in a ‘wave down’ maneuver and landed with only emergency fuel remaining.”

Despite not downing both aircraft—as he had almost two months earlier—Ritchie flew into the history books, becoming the Air Force’s only ace pilot since the Korean War and the only American pilot ever to down five MiG-21s.

But perhaps his greater contribution was helping change the way fighter pilots are trained. The proof lies in the overwhelming success of the Desert Storm air campaign over Iraq in 1990—nearly two decades after he earned the title “Ace.”
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