Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Military Retirement

Excerpts from The Last Fighter Ace, American Fighter Aces and Friends Bulletin, Spring 1999

The AT-38 supersonic fighter trainer flashed across the field, executed a victory roll, then pitched up to land. Taxiing in, the pilot smoothly parked the little jet beside its big brother, a massive F-4 Phantom II, adorned with five red stars beneath the cockpit. On this day, 29 January 1999, Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, the America’s last fighter pilot ace, had made his final flight as a member of the uniformed services. Minutes later, inside Hangar Four at Randolph Air Force Base, he would be decorated by General Michael F. Ryan, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, and retired from the Air Force Reserve.

Inside Randolph’s Hangar Four, the crowd of 500 listened attentively as General Ryan spoke of Steve Ritchie’s accomplishments before presenting him with the Distinguished Service Medal. Then it was Ritchie’s turn.

“Boots Blesse wrote a book entitled No Guts, No Glory. However, a corollary 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.

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.

Despite having the best training available, the first time I saw an unlike airplane was a MiG-21 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 a very experienced fighter pilot: 195 combat missions from the 1968 tour, Fighter Weapons School graduate and two 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 ordinance, 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 viii, in the long run be safer - pilots and have fewer accidents. And this is precisely what has occurred over the years.

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 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 Generals Charlie Gabriel, Jerry O”Malley, Jack Vessey, Gordon Blood and Carl Miller 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. In a combat situation, relatively young people are empowered to make decisions and are given huge responsibilities.

After returning from a mission north 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 inquired, “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 always 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 do everything possible to justify such confidence.

Why were General Gabriel, General O’Malley, General Vessey, General Blood and General Miller so successful? Because they understood people. They knew exactly what Patton was talking about when he said, “We fight with machinery, we win 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 simple, common sense rules that are based on reason, judgment and experience. Positive discipline leaders make only a few very important rules. If only important rules are made and people understand the reasons for the rules, they will follow because they want to and they will insist that others follow the rules too.

We area at a great transition point. High tech combat was initiated in S.E. Asia in 1972. Now we enter a new, dynamic, uncharted era for the world, our nation and our combat forces.

Due to the type of leadership described herein, whatever the challenge of the 21’s century and from whatever direction it comes, the Air Force of the future will be as ready as it can possibly be to meet that challenge.”

It was the end of an era.
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