Lunch with a legend. Vietnam Ace – Steve Ritchie

A few weeks ago my brother Steve Kates (drsky) got a call from his good friend Brigadier General Richard Stephen “Steve” Ritchie Ret. The General was in town for a speaking engagement  and invited us to join him for lunch. I was real excited to join them and speak to a legend of modern air combat. Form the moment I first met Gen Ritchie I found out what a great down to earth guy he is. We discussed the 5 Mig kills to his credit, hearing them first hand was a true honor.   General  Ritchie was the lead pilot for the Collings foundation F-4 D Program  and assisted in locating a low time F-4 D from ‘The Boneyard‘, AMARC aerospace storage in Tucson ,AZ. He also consulted on the F4D restoration project, followed up with a few years flying the F-4 to shows around the country. We actually got to witness Gen. Ritchie in the F-4D a few years ago at an air show in Scottsdale, AZ. He performed one of the best high speed passes I have ever witnessed of any F-4.

The local non aviation folk in Scottsdale were none too thrilled, as he put it.

Most recently Steve was flying his all time favorite aircraft the F-104 Starfighter, with the only civilian supersonic demo team, The Starfighters piloted  the #2 aircraft of the 3 ship demo team. We also had the opportunity to witness the Starfighters performing at the Reno air Races back in  2002 . Steve  will now be working with the starfighter fleet as they take on a new mission working with a new commercial space flight training program at NASA’s John F Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Operating under a formal Space Act Agreement allowing them full utilization of KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

General Ritchie also spoke proudly  about his son Matt, who is an  Air Force Special Forces PJ and still serving with the USAF.

One highlight of the lunch was showing Steve some of my F-4 photos from over the years. I was really honored when he requested a few to keep and wanted me to sign a few to him from Photorecon. Wow I am usually getting autographs from legends like him. I was extremely honored . So until Gen Ritchie returns to town and we can meet again, I want to say thanks to Gen Ritchie for meeting with us. And on a personal note to Steve did you really ride that Elephant. (Inside Joke).

Alittle more on Gen Ritchie.

Professionally, Ritchie was a gifted and dedicated flyerwho 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”.

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 NellisAir 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.

Ritchie volunteered for a second combat tour in 1972 and was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at UdornRoyal 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-GurevichMiG-21 on 10 May 1972, scored a second victory on May 31, a third and fourth on July 8, anda 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.

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. 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 MiGswhen they were still beyond visual range.

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 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,[5] 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 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 withthe second.

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 he 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.

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, SeventhAir 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 andwaited 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’s5 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.

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.

Ritchie’s final victory came August 28, 1972, while leading Buick flight, a MiGCAP for a strike northof Hanoi. During the preceding month Seventh Air Force had instituted daily centralized mission debriefings of leaders andplanners from all fighter wings called “Linebacker Conferences.” Ritchie had just started his flight of Combat Tree Phantoms on its return to base (Ritchie was flying F-4D 66-7463, in which he had scored his first kill). Red Crown, now the 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 andVega flights, both of the MiGCAP, flew toward the reported location.

DeBellevue picked up the MiGs on the Phantom’s onboard radar and using Combat Tree, discovered that the MiGswere 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 MiGsmight 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.

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. Short on fuel, Ritchie elected not to try to pursue the second MiG-21.

“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.”



Joe Kates

Joe Kates is the founder of Photorecon. Joe has been into aviation since he was a child and has a incredible amount of knowledge to do with planes or aviation in general. Today Joe is the owner and Managing Editor of Photorecon.

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