USA Air Aces and the First World War

USA Air Aces and the First World War

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Eddie Rickenbacker


Francis Gillet


Wilfred Beaver


Howard Kullberg


William Lambert


Frank Luke


August Iaccaci


Paul Iaccaci


Raoul Lufberry


Eugene Coler


Oren Rose


Elliot Springs


Frederick Libby


Kenneth Unger


G. A. Vaughn


David Putham


Frank Baylies


Louis Bennett


Frederick Lord


Field Kindley


Reed Landis


Emile Lussier


James Pearson


Clive Warman


WW1 Flying Aces: The Red Baron and More

Since the first successful flight of an airplane, people had imagined and dreamed of airplanes being used for combat. H. G. Wells’s 1908 book (The War in the Air was an example. When World War One broke out, there were only about 1000 planes on all sides. Planes were very basic. Cockpits were open, instruments were rudimentary, and there were no navigational aids. Pilots had to use maps, which were not always reliable. Getting lost was common. Sometimes pilots had to land and ask directions! At the beginning of the war, airplanes were seen as being almost exclusively for reconnaissance, taking the job formerly done by cavalry. Eventually, however, it became necessary for planes to eliminate the observation planes of the enemy, so air-to-air combat (dogfights) became common.

The Development of Combat Aircraft

Since the first successful flight of an airplane, people had imagined and dreamed of airplanes being used for combat. H. G. Wells (The War in the Air, 1908) was an example.

Planes had been used in minor wars beginning in the 1910s.

Each Great Power had formed air branches of the army and/or navy. France had the most developed one. Britain had two: The Royal Flying Corps (part of the army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (part of the navy). They would be merged into the Royal Air Force, the first independent air service, in 1917. The German service was called the Luftstreitkrafte.

When the war broke out, there were only about 1000 planes on all sides.

Planes were very basic. Cockpits were open, instruments were rudimentary, and there were no navigational aids. Pilots had to use maps, which were not always reliable. Getting lost was common. Sometimes pilots had to land and ask directions!

At the beginning of the war, airplanes were seen as being almost exclusively for reconnaissance, taking the job formerly done by cavalry. They were also used for artillery spotting and range finding. Flying reconnaissance missions was dangerous, however.

Eventually, however, it became necessary for planes to eliminate the observation planes of the enemy, so air-to-air combat (dogfights) became common.

Plane technology improved throughout the war, and specialized planes began to emerge (seaplanes, fighters, bombers). There were biplanes and triplanes. Popular makes included the Neuport, the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel, and the German Fokker triplane.

Plane speeds increased throughout the war, from about 75 mph at the start of the war to nearly twice that at the end.

The air forces increased greatly in size. At the beginning of the war, the British air services had 300 officers and about 1800 men. By the end of the war, they had 27,000 officers and over 300,000 men. France had less than 140 aircraft at the start of the war but 4500 at the end of the war (the most of all powers).

Production of planes also increased greatly. By the war’s end, France was building as many planes every day as the total number they had at the start of the war.

Aircraft weaponry became more elaborate. At the beginning of the war, pilots just shot at each other with pistols or other small arms.

Then machine guns were installed, but the bullets would hit the propeller. Metal plates were installed on propeller blades to deflect the bullets. But the bullets would sometimes ricochet, and repeated hits would wear off the plates.

This problem was solved by Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker, who invented an interrupter gear that synchronized the gun’s action with the propeller. This invention gave the Central Powers air superiority (“The Fokker Scourge”) for a while, but only for about a year. After about a year, the Allies had developed this technology and the German advantage was lost.

Fighters and Fighter Tactics.

Flying was extremely dangerous. A large percentage of pilots were killed (50% for British pilots, for example). Of the 68,000 aircraft that France produced during the war, 52,000 were lost in combat (77% loss rate).

Training for pilots was, in general, inadequate. Pilots went into combat with as little as 3.5 hours of training.

Air tactics were virtually nonexistent at the start of the war and had to be made up as they went. WW1 pilots laid the groundwork for all future air warfare.

In August 1916, German ace Oswald Boelcke (honored as the father of the German fighter air force, as well as considered the “Father of Air Fighting Tactics”) developed his 8 dicta, which would be highly influential.

Try to secure the upper hand before attacking. Always keep the sun behind you.

Always continue with an attack you have begun.

Open fire only at close range, and then only when the opponent is squarely in your sights.

Always try to keep your eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.

In any type of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.

If your opponent dives on you, do not try to get around his attack, but fly to meet it.

When over the enemy’s lines, always remember your own line of retreat.

In principle, it is better to attack in groups of four or six. If fights break up into single combats, pay attention that several comrades do not go after one opponent.

One of the most notable fighter actions of the war was “Bloody April”, during the Battle of Arras. The British RFC lost 245 aircraft, with 211 airmen either dead or missing and 108 becoming POWs. The RFC lost about a quarter of its strength. The average life of a replacement airman was 11 days. The Germans lost only 66 planes…a nearly 4-1 kill ratio. Despite this, the RFC was able to provide the infantry with excellent intelligence. This was the greatest percentage loss for the British in the entire war.

Fighter pilots who obtained 5 kills were called “aces.” Only about 5% of pilots achieved this status.

They were seen as “knights of the air.” They were greatly romanticized and adored. They were believed to embody chivalry and nobleness.

Some of the most well-known aces were Edward Mannock and Alfred Ball (British), Billy Bishop (Canadian), Rene Fonck (French), Eddie Rickenbacker (American), Hermann Goering, Ernst Udet and Manfred von Richthofen (German). Richthofen had 80 kills (the most in the war) and was called the “Red Baron.”

Richthofen was the leader of a fighter squadron called the “Flying Circus” which moved around from battle to battle as needed.

In April 1918, Richthofen was shot down, either by a Canadian pilot or Austrian ground troops who were firing on airplanes. He was only 26. Australian pilots held a funeral with full military honors for Richthofen was held by Canadian

Bombing was pioneered in the First World War. At the start of the war, bomber planes mainly dropped grenades.

As the war progressed, however, the size of bombs grew increasingly large.

Bombing was used both on military and civilian targets. The Germans dropped bombs on Belgian and French cities, including Paris.

Zeppelins (hydrogen-filled dirigibles) were also used for bombing, primarily on British targets, beginning in 1915. By the war’s end, they could reach an altitude of 27,000 feet. (Note: the British used blimps and kite balloons, but only for observation)

The Germans only had 11 zeppelins at the start of the war. But they used 123 zeppelins throughout the war. About 80 were shot down or collapsed on their own.

The zeppelins conducted more than 50 raids on Great Britain. They caused a great deal of terror and outrage.

Zeppelin raids began to be phased out in 1916, when zeppelins were replaced by long-range bombers. The development of incendiary bullets made it easier to destroy zeppelins.

In 1917 and 1918, the Germans repeatedly bombed London (with airplanes). About 1400 British civilians were killed in these bombings.

British aircraft retaliated, bombing zeppelin bases and chemical weapons factories at first, and then long-distance bombing of German cities.

Strategic bombings were largely ineffective. Because of this, by Verdun, long-range bombing missions were phased out in favor of operations on the front.

In the early 1910s, planes first took off and landed from stationary ships. These were American planes and ships

In 1912, a British plane took off from a moving ship for the first time. Five years later, British Commander Edwin Dunning landed on a moving ship for the first time.

The first carrier-launched airstrike was the Tondern raid in July 1918. Seven Sopwith Camels launched from the converted battlecruiser HMS Furious damaged the German airbase at Tondern, Germanyand destroyed two zeppelin airships.

In 1918, the HMS Argus became the world’s first carrier capable of launching and recovering naval aircraft

World War I fighter pilots

It is hard not to have a certain kind of respect for World War I fighter pilots. Those who go through combat become men - old and wise before their time. Many of the senior warriors were often 21, 22, 23 or 24, not too far beyond what would have been their college years.

So many of these brave aviators died, frozen in time, immortalized in some cases, completely forgotten with an unvisited headstone in others. Or worse, they end up never found again either buried in some layers of dirt churned over repeatedly by the devastation of artillery shells or lumped into communal graves, and never properly identified because they couldn't be because they were too badly decomposed when their bodies were found, as happened to hundreds of thousands of the combatants on the Western Front.

It's hard to believe that these men were taking to the air. They were in motorized vehicles made of thin strips of wood, linen cloth and wire. At one point, the average amount of time for fatalities for just normal non-combat flying was one fatality for every sixty five hours of flight time.

They didn't have parachutes either. Parachutes were considered cowardly by the pilots and their superiors alike. Parachutes were not issued to American pilots until 1919, the year after the war ended. After all, the thinking was that parachutes would only encourage pilots to jump out of planes that were on fire or otherwise heavily damaged rather than trying to get the planes back on the ground. It wasn't until later in the war that the powers that be had the realization that good pilots were harder to come by than planes. Experienced ones were even harder. The aircraft themselves were far, far easier to replace.

World War I fighter pilots had a typical life expectancy of several weeks while flying in combat. Several weeks. Not much at all. In terms of flying hours, a combat pilot could count on 40 to 60 hours before being killed, at least in the early part of the war. Indeed, of the original seven pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, only one emerged from the war neither killed nor wounded. What could have motivated these men to sign up and to push for inclusion in the air forces when they already knew this? Did they know of anyone who was beating the odds?

But these men - the green pilots as well as the great aces, the victims and the survivors - were, with a few exceptions, quite frequently very young men in calendar years. And the toll on their bodies and minds was incredible.

One of the those who survived include the great Roland Garros - pre-war stunt flyer, the first man to fly a loop the loop and inventor of the fighter plane lived long enough to shoot down a handful of German airplanes, be captured for almost three years, fly again only to be shot down October , 1918, a month before the war ended. He was 29 or 30.

Georges Guynemer's famous "Vieux Charles" Spad airplane hangs today in the Le Bourget Air Museum. Guynemer, a legend in France with 53 kills to his credit, was only 22 when he was shot down and killed on September 11, 1917. The Germans found his body later, still in the seat of his Spad, with "a slug through his skull." He had already crashed at least three other aircraft. His plane and body were later churnced to bits and lost forever. The French legend was that Guynemer simply flew up into the clouds, never to return.

Legion de Honneur winner Charles Nungesser was 25 when he was lured into a trap and nearly killed. Instead he managed to shoot down two of the German aircraft before the rest flew away, dismayed at the failure of their trap. He survived the war as the third highest ranking French ace behind Rene Fonck and Georges Guynemer. Nungesser had 45 kills, but in exchange received 17 wounds and injuries, crashed two airplanes. He broke both legs and a jaw in the process and toward the end of the war, he was either walking with two canes or having to be carried to and from his airplane even though he was still flying combat.

The German Werner Voss was only 20 when he was shot down and killed by Arthur Rhys-Davids. At the time, Voss was single-handedly dog fighting seven British SE-5s. His tally stood at 48 victories and he was the fourth highest ranking German ace.

At the top of the list was the famed Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen - 80 kills and considered by many the greatest pilot of World War I - was practically an old man at 25 when he was killed the day after his 80th victory. His 80th victory did not result in a literal kill. Instead, Richthofen galantly gave a friendly wave to the downed aviator when he swooped down to check on his opponent before flying off. Both Richthofen and Werner Voss were shot down in the famous Fokker Dr.1 Triplane. Richthofen had been forced down once before after being gravely wounded enough to have a ten-centimeter wound on his skull. This wound kept him absent from the front for the next six weeks.

Columbus, Georgia's Eugene Bullard was the first African American pilot ever. He became a pilot in France and flew for France in 1916 after first serving as an infantryman in the French army. He fought at Verdun and elsewhere and getting wounded in the process. While not as famous as the Tuskegee Airmen or Benjamin Davis Sr., he was first and truly a pioneer and an unsung hero in the United States, but he was always a hero in France.

At the head of the Lafayette Escadrille and later at the head of the 1st Pursuit Group was Raoul Lufbery, a French-born American. Lufbery, with 16 victories to his credit, who jumped to his death from his aircraft even as it was already burning on its way down to crash. He jumped approximately 1,000 meters (3,300) feet, fell into a small garden, and according to the old lady into whose garden he fell, got up and then fell back dead.

America's Last Fighter Pilot Ace: Downing Two MIGs in 89 Seconds

"Anybody who doesn't have fear is an idiot. It's just that you must make the fear work for you. Hell when somebody shot at me, it made me madder than hell, and all I wanted to do was shoot back." --Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF (1922-2007)

When I asked my fighter pilot' friend what fighter pilot I should interview for my next "American Hero Stories" column, he didn't hesitate for an instant. "Steve Ritchie," he said as if I was an ignoramus. Steve Ritchie was "The Last Ace." (Flying Ace)

So that's how it was that I came to be tracking Brigadier General (Ret.) Steve Ritchie across our country, as he and his wife, Mariana moved from Cocoa Beach, Florida to Bellevue, Washington. It was their 33rd move he told me. Ultimately, I had to wait until their odyssey was complete and they had at least some of their things out of boxes.

After 10 years of active Air Force duty and 25 more of reserve duty, the General is comfortable with his busy lecture schedule and family. In Vietnam, his 339 missions, 800 combat hours, totaling over 4,000 hours in the air, resulted in his receiving nearly every award the Air Force offers. (In order for us all to truly understand what these awards are for and mean, I thought we should take a look at some. Let me show you now, what kind of medals a true 'War Hero' receives.)

Air Force Cross (the highest honor in the USAF and second highest the US awards after the Congressional Medal of Honor)

The fighter pilot personality can be annoying, I know. They are usually uber-confident, wildly competitive, Type A, Alpha egotists. Simultaneously, they are great learners, very curious about how things work and ultra-sensitive about other people. They are also funny as hell, telling the best jokes. Unlike most fighter pilots, much less Aces, Ritchie is self-effacing and humble as they come. When I asked him if he had won the Bronze Star, he just said, "Well, I don't know. I might have."

So this is Steve Ritchie, the man who won all those awards while flying valiantly in Vietnam.

Here is what he looked like in 1972, around the time he won the title of "Ace."

Capt. Steve Ritchie (front right) and Capt. Charles "Chuck" DeBellevue reporting for work 8/28/72 on the day Ritchie got his fifth MIG and Ace title

The other side of that sign
Photo Credit: Allen L. Tucker

Now the definition of an "Ace" is something that can vary. Though not to fighter pilots like Ritchie. It's pretty much settled at a minimum of five combat aircraft downed during wartime, but where there's some strong disagreement is on who is entitled to carry that designation. According to Wikipedia, there were five Vietnam Aces. They do make a distinction though, between the actual pilot Aces and "non-pilot Aces." The majority of the Vietnam era jet fighters were two-seaters and the back-seat officer ("GIB," guy in back) was traditionally the navigator and weapons officer. So that leaves two, front-seat, plane-driving and gun-shooting pilot Aces from that war: the first Vietnam Ace, the Navy's Randy "Duke" Cunningham and General Ritchie, the last Vietnam Ace.

Flying his trusty McDonnell Douglas' F-4D Phantom, Ritchie was a scourge of the Vietnam' skies.

Ritchie's legendary F-4 sits in a place of honor at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO

Ritchie's #463 with drag chute open

Phantom F-4Ds flying over Vietnam

General Characteristics
Crew: 2
Length: 63 ft 0 in (19.2 m)
Wingspan: 38 ft 4.5 in (11.7 m)
Height: 16 ft 6 in (5.0 m)
Wing area: 530.0 ft² (49.2 m²)
Airfoil: NACA 0006.4-64 root, NACA 0003-64 tip
Empty weight: 30,328 lb (13,757 kg)
Loaded weight: 41,500 lb (18,825 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 61,795 lb (28,030 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-17A axial compressor turbojets, 11,905 lbf dry thrust (52.9 kN), 17,845 lbf in afterburner (79.4 kN) each
Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0224
Drag area: 11.87 ft² (1.10 m²)
Aspect ratio: 2.77
Fuel capacity: 1,994 U.S. gal (7,549 L) internal, 3,335 U.S. gal (12,627 L) with three external tanks (370 U.S. gal (1,420 L) tanks on the outer wing hardpoints and either a 600 or 610 U.S. gal (2,310 or 2,345 L) tank for the centerline station).
Maximum landing weight: 36,831 lb (16,706 kg)

Maximum speed: Mach 2.23 (1,472 mph, 2,370 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
Cruise speed: 506 kn (585 mph, 940 km/h)
Combat radius: 367 nmi (422 mi, 680 km)
Ferry range: 1,403 nmi (1,615 mi, 2,600 km) with 3 external fuel tanks
Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,300 m)
Rate of climb: 41,300 ft/min (210 m/s)
Wing loading: 78 lb/ft² (383 kg/m²)
Lift-to-drag: 8.58
Thrust/weight: 0.86 at loaded weight, 0.58 at MTOW
Takeoff roll: 4,490 ft (1,370 m) at 53,814 lb (24,410 kg)
Landing roll: 3,680 ft (1,120 m) at 36,831 lb (16,706 kg)
Source: Wikipedia

An F-4J "Showtime 100" armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles

Those pilots have a great sense of humor

When the General and I first started discussing which of his myriad war stories I would help him tell here, he said, "Have you heard the 'Roger Locher story?'" No I hadn't but before we got too deep into it, I asked, "How many times has that story been told by you or others?" The General replied, "About 5,000 times it's the most exciting story."

Nah, no thanks, I thought. I cannot tell a story that's been told 5,000 times once again. "How about the second most exciting story? What would that be?" I asked. "Well, that would be the time I shot down two MIGs in 89 seconds." Now he had shot down five MIG-21s during the entire Vietnam War and he had a story where he shot down two MIGs in less than a minute and a half? "Yessir, that'll do quite nicely thanks."

Before we get into the legendary events of July 8th, 1972, let me just give you a sense of the "Roger Locher story." Or, in fact, let me let General Ritchie tell you the story on this YouTube video, "The Rescue of Roger Locher" which has over one million views:

On July 8th, 1972, then Captain Steve Ritchie already had two confirmed MIG-21 kills (5/10/72 and 5/31/72), so he was already 40% of the way towards his "Ace-ship" of five confirmed kills. By the end of that day, he would be 80% there.

"Everything came together on that day . July 8th, 1972," Ritchie began. "Everything I worked for, trained for and fought for, came together beautifully. I was very lucky on that day."

Ritchie explains why he feels it was just lucky. "The Sparrow missiles have an 11% PK (probability of kill) rate. That means that using those missiles at that time would hit an enemy aircraft only 11 out of 100 times."

A fighter pilot's life in combat is not your usual schedule, at least not for a normal person. Here's the General's schedule on that portentous day, Saturday, July 8th, 1972: "On that day, just like every other day, we got up around 0330 (3:30am), get ourselves awake and hit the chow hall. Then by 0500 we were in our morning briefing. We had three morning briefings, first was the main briefing followed by the squadron briefing and finally, the flight briefing, in that order. After that intense preparation, we were airborne by about 8 am." What time did you typically go to bed? "We tried to be asleep by 2100 (9pm)." So there was no fighter pilot drinking and carousing or singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" to the ladies the Friday night before. "I didn't want to drink at all before flying that was throughout my career," Ritchie warned sternly. After all, his life and that of his fellow Americans was at stake.

"We'd had a period of bad weather and I hadn't flown in over a week," Ritchie told me. "I like to fly everyday. If I'm off too long, I don't feel sharp. I was used to flying 12 days straight and then taking one day off, at the time. So I was eager to get back in the air." On this day, in spite of the time off, Ritchie was sharp.

"Now we took off in four flights of four airplanes. And there was a lead grouping of four called the 'ingress' flight and the last flight was the 'egress' flight. I was used to being the first flight in, the 'ingress' flight because I was so experienced was the flight leader had MIG kills and liked being where the action was, so I was very upset to be in the last flight. The schedulers arranged it all the night before and they were friends of mine, so I was pissed off that the schedulers put me at tail end charlie." Ritchie clearly thought it would be a ho-hum day at the office as the last flight clean-up detail, nap time. He couldn't have been more wrong.

As the mission began, Ritchie and DeBellevue took to the air and immediately met a tanker to top off, as the taxi and take-off process burns a lot of jet fuel. "We headed in-bound (toward Hanoi) on a patrol route."

"About 30 to 40 minutes into the flight, we got the radio call from 'Disco' (the call sign for the American airborne radar RC-121 plane that flew supporting the fighters) that an outbound US plane had been hit by a MIG' missile and was leaking fuel and hydraulics. This is a very bad thing for a pilot. He had broken away from his flight and must have panicked because you always stay with your flight mates, no matter what. He was all alone and had been hit and that's when the MIGs all come after you and shoot you down. Knowing he was a sitting duck, I immediately turned north to help him out."

"Very quickly, I then received another alert from 'Disco' that there were two 'Blue Bandits' (MIG-21s) near our pilot in trouble about 30 miles southwest of Hanoi."

Ritchie recalled of that morning, "I picked up the two MIGs at about 10 o'clock and they were trailing our man, preparing to shoot him down. The lead MIG and I passed about 1,000 feet from each other. I could see the pilot in the cockpit. He was wearing a leather helmet, I think."

"First Pass" by Lou Drendel which beautifully documents the moment Ritchie passes the lead MIG on 7/8/72

"This was a low-altitude dogfight between two MIGs and our four F-4s. Usually MIGs can be found at 15 to 20,000 feet but we had intel and were briefed that they were now changing strategy and going further down."

"We had also learned that the MIGs liked to set a trap by getting our pilots to engage on the first MIG passing and if you turn to get the first MIG, the second MIG is right behind you and shoots you down. They didn't care about the first MIG and would actually sacrifice that one to get you. We (the USAF) never did that. So I let the first MIG pass and engaged the second one that I knew was coming."

"I was able to maneuver behind the MIG #2 and fired two Sparrow missiles at him. The first missile hit him dead-center in his fuselage, breaking the MIG into two pieces and creating a huge fireball. There was debris everywhere. The second Sparrow hit him too going through the fireball and debris. I had to take severe evasive action to avoid flying into the debris and went up and to the left in a split-second. That was 47 seconds into the dogfight, so it happened very, very quickly."

Now there was a little matter of MIG #1. "I call the MIG that day the 'shiny MIG' because most of them were a kind of gun-metal gray but that one gleamed. At that point, the dogfight was in a gigantic rotating circle and MIG #1 was trailing my number four, a young kid named Tommy. It was his first mission. He radioed that he had a MIG on his tail and when I spotted him, there was MIG #2 closing on him. I cut across the circle to get to Tommy quicker and just wanted to get the MIG off his tail so I shot another missile at the MIG, trying to get him to turn off the kid. Well, the missile hit MIG #2 dead-center too."

Ritchie had radioed in "Splash One" and "Splash Two" (the radio signals for downed MIGs) within 89 seconds, something that had never been done before. "My two MIG kills that day were immediately confirmed by radar and intel sources on the ground."

"There were no victory laps though," the General said, "we had just received radio alerts that two more MIGs had been vectored toward us. We would have stayed and got them too, but we were down to about three minutes of fuel for flight time. So I decided to get us out of there fast."

On this day, Ritchie blew apart two MIG-21s with three missiles hitting their target. "On the second kill, I was just trying to get him to turn around, so I could use my guns on him. The chances of firing three perfect missiles are incalculable."

Did you see the MIG pilots eject? "Oh no, those Sparrow missiles are 12 feet long and about 500 pounds with a 30 pound warhead. They move at 1200 miles per hour above launch velocity (approx. 1600 mph), so there's nothing left of an airplane that gets hit by one."

A MIG-21 bites the dust. If Ritchie had hit this one, there wouldn't be as much of the plane left .

Was there much of a celebration upon his return to base? "Oh yes, there was a huge party at the officer's club that night. It was great." Did you knock back a few? I asked. "Definitely, I did. And, I didn't fly the next day either," the General said fondly.

"When I first came back to Vietnam for my second tour," ( he volunteered ) Ritchie recalled, "I had been an instructor at FWS (the USAF Fighter Weapons School, the Air Force' equivalent of the Navy's 'Top Gun'). I was asked by my commanding officer what my weapons philosophy was and was telling him. Number One was guns--guns first, if possible. Number Two was our heat-seeking missiles. And Number Three was our radar-guided missiles. There I was, this big expert with all this knowledge, telling my commanding officer how it should be and of course, I ended up shooting down all five MIGs with my radar missiles." At this, Ritchie and I laughed heartily.

Ritchie's F-4D Tail Number 67-463 sits on the tarmac at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand
Photo Credit: Allen L. Tucker

When I suggested that Udorn RTAFB (Royal Thai Air Force Base) didn't look like that terrible place to be based, Ritchie quickly agreed, "No it wasn't and the Thai people are so great. When other guys would complain about being at Udorn, I'd tell them, 'I don't want to hear your bitching and moaning. I spent a year based at Da Nang Air Base, so I don't want to hear it.' When I was bringing an F-4 over to Da Nang the first time, I landed in 90 degree heat with 90% humidity and as soon as the canopy and my helmet was off, I got hit by the most awful smell in the world. It was from the open sewage troughs that ran through the area. That was the worst thing I ever smelled and it was that way all the time."

"There were more than 1,400 Aces in World Wars I and II 43 Aces in Korea and two Aces in Vietnam," Ritchie said. What accounted for the dramatic reduction in Aces to today? Why not higher kills? I asked him. "It's the technology. We have stand-off weapons and all sorts of equipment that makes our planes the most efficient and deadly from much farther away. Also, there are not as many airplanes in the sky for combat anymore. There used to be hundreds of aircraft in the sky during battle in the first two World Wars, then in Korea it was dozens and in Vietnam it was much less."

To prove his point, the General told me about May 10, 1972, when his squadron and over 100 American Air Force and Navy aircraft faced off in a busy sky against at least 16 MIG-21s. The Amercians took out 13 of them within a couple of hours and the General downed his first MIG on that day. "The skies won't be as crowded with fighters anymore mainly because of the technology," he told me, "that's why you probably won't see anymore Aces from Iraq, Afghanistan or future air engagements." Ritchie points out that this dogfight has been written about in the book, "One Day in A Long War." This air battle was another of his stories--experiences, really--that comprise who Steve Richie truly is.

After Ritchie's return from Vietnam in 1972, he left active duty in 1974 to run for the US Congressional seat from his native North Carolina. "I ran at the suggestion of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who told me he felt I'd 'be of more service to the military and country as a member of Congress.'" Ritchie lost, ostensibly because of the Watergate scandal and the severe effect it had on Republican candidates, among a number of other reasons. That may have been the first time Ritchie lost at anything big in his life.

"A Hero's Welcome" Ritchie is met and welcomed right after his fifth MIG kill

The General did not rest. At various times in his post-Vietnam career, he was appointed by Ronald Reagan, director of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, reporting to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Ritchie was later assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For six years he was special assistant to Joseph Coors at the Adolph Coors Brewing Company and later lectured extensively around the country for the Heritage Foundation. In 1999, Ritchie officially retired.

Hitting the road and speaking became the General's passion, Ritchie quickly found that he loved giving talks to all groups of people: community groups, business conferences and most of all, the military. He traveled exhaustively telling his stories of the military life, dogfights, shooting down MIGs and fighting Communism.

The General on the occasion of his last Air Force' career flight

But that wouldn't be his last flight by any stretch of the imagination.

Steve Ritchie flies the F-104 Starfighter at the Winston-Salem Air Show

The General's old friend takes one last flight, returning full circle back to the place Ritchie learned to fly, at the USAF Academy to rest in honor. Pike's Peak in the background greets her. "Isn't she a beauty?" Ritchie asked.

Then, in April 2010, General Ritchie received an interesting letter to say the least. In the course of writing this article, Ritchie kept saying to me, "Have you received the letter I sent yet?" and "You have to read the letter." Well, I began to think, enough with the letter already. But when I read the letter, I realized that it was one of the most important letters I'd ever read. And I cried.

This letter would have an indelible and momentous effect on the General and his life.

The writer wanted the General to come and speak at her daughter's school. "We don't have any money," Mariana told Ritchie, "we can't even pay your expenses."

Of course, the General did go out to Seattle to speak to Mariana's daughter's class. But something special was started with that school address to children . something much more chemical, romantic and enduring.

The letter's sender, Mariana Mickler is now Mrs. Ritchie.

The General and Mariana were married on March 4th, 2011 in the Nellis AFB Chapel on the same day that Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy married 59 years earlier. Mariana's daughter, Jessica was the maid of honor while the General's son, Matt was best man.

The couple honeymooned at The Mission Inn in Riverside, California in the same suite Ronald Reagan and his new wife Nancy did in 1952, the "Reagan Suite" now. Who knew? No less than nine Presidents have been to the inn and that Richard and Pat Nixon were also married there. The next day, the General took his new bride to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for a surprise visit. You can see and feel the thread of mutual adoration between both the General and Mariana and them toward Ronald Reagan, whose memory they both revere.

I asked the General when he knew he was going to marry Mariana. He didn't hesitate for an instant, "As soon as I read the letter," he said firmly, sounding as if he was grinning. And when did you know Mariana? "The first time I was fully aware that Steve was the one was when I received his email at work that he was coming out to Seattle to speak to the class. His email said 'I will come. After that letter, I cannot say no. I will be there and I won't accept anything in return.' I broke out into tears right at work people were asking if I was OK. I knew right then that he was the one. That this was going to be the man that I marry."

As "The Letter" states so resolutely, Mariana unconditionally loved Reagan while growing up behind the Iron Curtain (of shame and despair). And it makes perfect sense that she did and does, because after all, it was Reagan who first had the guts, the steadfastness and caring human vision to state at the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

And Reagan did it without Facebook, Twitter or the Internet. "Ronald Reagan was such an important figure to those living under Communism. You can't imagine how important and loved he was. He gave hope and spirit and shined a light on our darkness," Mrs. Ritchie said dramatically. It was readily apparent from the tone and thrust of her voice, that for her, Reagan was a life-saving character.

Mariana told me, "I grew up dreaming of an American fighter pilot who would take me away to America, not a knight on a white horse who would take me on his horse to a castle."

"A Dream Come True for the Little Girl Behind The Iron Curtain"

Growing up in Timișoara, Romania, Mariana spoke to me both sadly and angrily. "Timișoara is the second largest city in Romania and used to be called 'Little Vienna.' But the Communist government became so intrusive they bugged our rooms we had to watch everything we said. It was killing our spirit. My grandfather was a priest and both of my parents were strong anti-Communists. We were harassed all the time. When I asked my father why he, everybody did not fight back against the Communists, he told me, 'They would've killed us.' I said in return, 'OK, then they kill you. It's better than living this way.'" But Mariana would not have to live that way much longer.

Mariana landed at JFK airport in NYC on September 20, 1986. "As soon as I stepped off that plane and got well away from it, that was the first time in my life I felt safe. In all my years in America, I always felt I was an American born in Romania. I never felt like I was from there, from Romania."

"I love this country so much! I would do anything for this country! I'm just so proud that I'm an American now and part of this great, great country," she told me with tears in our eyes.

Though she has been assimilated into American society beautifully loves America more than some of those born here and even speaks with a bit of an American accent, this lady hasn't even begun to forget the Communists and their lethal regime. She never will.

The General and Mariana even have a favorite Reagan quote, his "Rendezvous with Destiny": "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done."

General Ritchie with Mariana in Aviano, Italy with his famed "Triple Nickel" 555th TFS for the 40th anniversary of his fifth MIG kill

General Ritchie travels regularly and extensively give talks, chats and speeches to every military base, community group, school, university, association and business group that invites him. He is indefatigable about his speaking.

And, Mariana accompanies him everywhere, at his side, speaking too. They make a powerful couple with a compelling message. As Ritchie told me, "I talk about fighting Communism in Vietnam and Mariana talks about growing up under that kind of tyranny in Romania." Mariana chimed in, "What I'm trying to do now is give Americans a view of the oppressed . what it's like to be dreaming of freedom . what it's like to be willing to die for just a little liberty, just a little freedom."

Then, General Ritchie gives me the perfect closing quote from him. "When you've lived through 339 combat missions, you're very humble. Especially, when so many died. My best friend died. There were ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people working on the ground and in the air. I was fortunate that I had five wins but that never would've happened without all those other people working so hard and risking their lives. My heart is filled with gratitude and so humble." It's seems rare to find a humble fighter pilot.

Well, that's my story about General Steve Ritchie, America's Last Ace. He's certifiably one of America's great heroes. And I hope this story lived up to the quote that began it. To me, Steve Ritchie's story certainly is one of "love and courage." For him, the courage came first and the love followed.

"And I have yet to find one single individual who has attained conspicuous success in bringing down enemy aeroplanes who can be said to be spoiled either by his successes or by the generous congratulations of his comrades. If he were capable of being spoiled he would not have had the character to have won continuous victories, for the smallest amount of vanity is fatal in aeroplane fighting. Self-distrust rather is the quality to which many a pilot owes his protracted existence." --Captain Edward V. 'Eddie' Rickenbacker, USAS (1890-1973)

"Each of us has to earn freedom anew in order to possess it. We do so not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our children, so that they may build a better future that will sustain over the world the responsibilities and blessings of freedom." --Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)

History of the American Fighter Ace: Korean War

Little did the fighter Aces of 1945 realize that some of their number would be in the skies fighting for their lives as soon as 1950. Yet, when North Korea invaded South Korea in June of that year it was time for the pilots of America’s fighter outfits to saddle up again and head for combat.

One of the first to see action was WWII fighter ace James W. Little who shot down a Russian-built La-7 on June 27, 1950. James Jabara shot down his fifth MiG-15 on May 20, 1951 to become America’s first jet Ace. Jabara would return to Korea for a second tour of combat and finished up with a total of 15 victories.

The top-scoring Ace of the Korean War was a former WWII navigator by the name of Joseph McConnell with 16 kills. A number of old pro fighter aces from WWII were in action over Korea and many added to their scores and seven of them became aces in their second war. These “two-war” aces were George A. Davis, Jr., Francis S. Gabreski, Vermont Garrison, James Hagerstrom, Harrison Thyng and William T. Whisner.

The Navy had one Ace to come out of the Korean War – Guy P. Bordelon, who scored five victories flying at night in F4Us. Marine ace John F. Bolt, the only Marine to become an ace in two wars, became a jet ace in F-86s while attached to the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing. Three Air Force pilots and one Marine pilot became Aces in the Korean War by adding World War II victories to those scored in Korea to achieve a total of five.

History of the American Fighter Ace: Vietnam War

The long war in Vietnam presented little opportunity for air-to-air scoring by fighter pilots, much less making a large number of Aces. All fighter operations took place under numerous restrictions and the number of enemy fighters available for encounters was quite limited. This, too, was a new type of operation.

The majority of combats took place at ranges that would have been impossible in earlier wars and the pilot had to rely greatly on his “guy in the back”, or GIB, in the F-4 Phantom.

A number of Air Force pilots did score in the single seat F-105 and F-8s but none became Aces. An Air Force World War II Ace, Robin Olds nearly became an ace of Vietnam, but he had to settle for four confirmed victories. There were only two fighter pilot Aces to emerge from the conflict in Vietnam. The first was Navy F-4 pilot Randall H. “Duke” Cunningham who, with Bill Driscoll as his rear seat man, became an Ace on May 10, 1972. Steve Ritchie, also flying the Phantom, became the one and only Air Force pilot Ace when he scored his fifth victory on August 28, 1972 with his GIB, Charles De Bellevue.

These two Aces brought the roll of America’s air Aces from all wars up to 1,442. While their number is few, these men accounted for a large percentage of the enemy aircraft destroyed by all fighter pilots. For years there have been numerous studies conducted in an attempt to determine what makes a fighter Ace. Many attributes have been named, but to date there seems to be no positive determination as to just what traits or qualities add up to a fighter Ace profile. Three factors must be present, however—flying skill, aggressiveness, and, perhaps most important, an opportunity to engage the enemy.

Perhaps a large percentage of the fighter Aces over the years will fall under the classification mentioned by one old professional fighter pilot and Ace who, himself, holds the Medal of Honor. He stated, “Give me ten young fighter pilots and we’ll take them into combat. Out of the ten one of them is going to be a hunter and not the hunted. This is the pilot that is going to become a fighter Ace if the opportunity presents itself.” And there can be no denying the fighter Ace is a hunter.

Richard "Steve" Ritchie

By Stephen Sherman, Oct. 2002. Updated March 22, 2012.

T he only U.S. Air Force pilot ace of the Vietnam War, Capt. Steve Ritchie destroyed five MiG-21s during Operation Linebacker in 1972. Born June 25, 1942 in Reidsville, NC , he was a star quarterback in high school. At the U. S. Air Force Academy , he continued playing football, as starting halfback for the Falcons in 1962 and 1963.

Graduating from the Academy in 1964, Ritchie finished number one in his pilot training class.

After a stint at Flight Test Operations at Eglin AFB, Florida, he began flying the F-4 Phantom II, in preparation for his first tour in Southeast Asia.

Assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Danang 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. Returning from Southeast Asia in 1969, he reported to the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where at 26 years of age, he became one of the youngest instructors in the history of the school.

Ritchie volunteered for a second combat tour in January 1972 and was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn, Thailand. Flying an F-4D with the famed 555th ("Triple Nickel") Tactical Fighter Squadron he joined the ranks of the MiG killers when he downed a MiG-21 on 10 May, one of several Air Force aerial victories that day. He scored a second victory on 31 May, another MiG-21. A classic low-altitude dog fight on 8 July tied Robins Olds' five-year-old Southeast Asia record as two more MG-21s fell to his Sparrow missiles. Then, on 28 August, came the mission that propelled Steve Ritchie into the record books. Leading Buick Flight, four F-4D Phantoms performing Air MiG CAP ( Combat Air Patrol) north of Hanoi, it was Ritchie's job to protect the Strike Force coming in from the Southwest to hit the Thai-Nguyen steel plant.

May 10, 1972

This section written by Tom Cooper, Air Combat Information Group website

During the early morning of May 10th 1972 the US readied the first large air strikes against North Vietnam in what became Operation Linebacker II. These attacks caused several large clashes between US aircraft and North Vietnamese interceptors during the Vietnam War. The first strike on that day was launched by aircraft carriers USS Constellation, USS Coral Sea and USS Kitty Hawk against targets in Haiphong area at 08:00 AM. Hardly one hour later no less than 84 Phantoms and five F-105Gs of the USAF, supported by 20 KC-135 tankers and a SAR group of three helicopters, four A-1s and four Phantoms, closed on North Vietnam crossing northern Thailand and Laos. The vanguard of this attack force comprised eight F-4D Phantoms, armed for air-to-air combat, the Oyster and Balter flights, whose main task was to patrol areas around known North Vietnamese airfields and intercept any MiGs which would try to attack the main American formation. The whole operation was closely controlled by an EC-121 radar picket plane, which operated over Laos, and the cruiser USS Chicago, underway in the Gulf of Tonkin and operating under the call-sign Red Crown.

Already during the air refueling over Thailand the cutting edge of the initial fighter sweep had been blunted. Balter 2 had electrical problems, Balter 3 was unable to refuel both had to return to Udorn. Oyster 4, (flown by Lt. Feezel and Capt. Pettit) suffered a radar failure but its crew decided to continue the mission. Balter 1 and 4 joined up as an element and continued northeast, as did the four aircraft of Oyster flight. The fighter sweep had been devised by Major Bob Lodge, Oyster flight leader, an experienced air fighting tactician with two MiG kills to his credit. These two flights of Phantoms were to establish a barrier patrol northwest of Hanoi, Oyster flight at low altitude and Balter flight behind it at 22.000 feet in full view of the enemy. Any MiG moving against Balter flight would fly over the Oyster flight waiting in ambush.

The shadowboxing began at 09:42 AM, when North Vietnamese fighters flew into action. Two minutes later, two MiG-21s of 921 FR took off from Noi Bai, turning toward Tuyen Quang to decoy the Americans. At the same time four J-6s of the 1st Flight (#1 Nguyen Ngoc Tiep, #2 Nguyen Hong Son, #3 Pham Hung Son and #4 Nguyen Duc Tiem) of the 925 FR were scrambled as well. Unknown to either Red Crown or to crews of US fighters, two MiG-21s turned straight toward the Oyster flight, covered by four low flying J-6s.

Immediately Red Crown informed the Oyster flight: „Multiple bandits in your area. I hold a Bandit at three-four-zero at twenty-four. The closest bandit I hold is zero-two-two at sixteen." Running in at 15.000 feet the MiG-21s closed rapidly, joining with four J-6s in the process, and Balter flight edged toward Oyster to provide top cover. Lodge turned his flight to meet the MiGs nearly nose-on, jettisoning their external tanks and arming AIM-7 Sparrows (except Feezel, whose radar failed). The radars were locked on and at 13nm (24km) a warning light in the cockpit of Oyster 1 flashed, indicating that the hostile aircraft were within range. In Oyster 3 Chuck DeBellevue picked up a MiG IFF transmission on his Combat Tree equipment and informed his pilot that he had a positive hostile identification on the planes in front. Clipped instructions in Oyster 1 and 2 followed, as back-seaters locked on their radars and made the final switching for a head-on attack. The allowable steering error on the radar display began to contract and at 8nm (13km) Lodge launched his first Sparrow at the leading MiG element.

Trailing a plume of white smoke, it accelerated out in front and began tracking upwards at a shallow angle, but detonated when its motor burned out. With range now down to 6nm (10km) Major Lodge fired a second Sparrow which launched successfully and tracked upwards at a 20 degree angle. It left a contrail and then came the flash of the detonation. A few seconds later a MiG-21 fell out of sky, trailing fire and missing its left wing. Lt. John Markle in Oyster 2 also fired a pair of Sparrows and his second missile started tracking upwards and slightly to the right. As Markle watched, the big missile pulled lead and flew right into North Vietnamese plane, causing another yellow explosion.

As it seems, the second Sparrow fired by Major Lodge hit the MiG-21 wingman, while the second Sparrow destroyed the J-6 of Nguyen Hong Son, who ejected but later died of his injuries. At about this point, remaining two North Vietnamese flashed over the top of Oyster Flights 1 and 2, the leading MiG-21 narrowly missing collision with Oyster Leader. Major Lodge instinctively pulled hard up to the right in an oblique half loop which brought him right 200ft (60m) behind the MiG. Lodge was now too close for a missile attack, and his Phantom was not equipped with guns. But he eased off his turn and the enemy fighter’s range was opening. The combat was going well for Oyster flight when, suddenly, the tables were turned. Zooming up from below came the J-6s. While pilots of Oyster flight identified only four North Vietnamese fighters, while there were, in fact, six of them. After their #4 was shot down, other J-6s of the 1st Flight of the 925 FR reversed and Pham Hung Son, followed closely by Nguyen Duc Tiem curved behind Lodge’s F-4 as Markle, to the left of his leader and in no position to engage Vietnamese, shouted a warning: „OK, there’s a bandit. you got a bandit in your ten o’clock, Bob, level!"

Major Lodge thought that the MiG-21 in front of him had opened the range sufficiently for a close-in shot, and called: „Oyster One padlocked!" and fired a Sparrow. But, Pham Hung Son fired as well and the shells from his three 30mm guns bridged the gap between him and Lodge’s Phantom. The F-4 was hit and was losing speed, but initially its crew thought they had escaped with minor damage. Both the pilot and the RIO were disappointed at the sight of the lost AIM-7 and the MiG in front of them separating away. Pham Hung Son closed and fired again, and as more shells struck his aircraft, Lodge’s RIO, Captain Roger Locher, realized what happened. The right engine exploded and the Phantom began doing hard yaws to the right. Soon, all the hydraulics were lost.

As Locher prepared to leave the falling Phantom, Captain Steve Ritchie, flying as Oyster 3, had been chasing the remaining J-6 of Nguyen Duc Tiem which continued almost straight ahead. Lacking visual contact and action on radar information, Ritchie pulled up to the right in a 4 to 5G turn. Rolling out at 18.000ft (5.500m) he finally sighted his target almost 10.000 feet (5.500m) away to the left. He pulled to the inside of J-6s turn, locking on his radar as he went. From a range of 6.000ft (1.800m) Ritchie ripple-fired two Sparrows, both of them guided. The first passed close under the target without detonating, but the second scored a direct hit. From the rear seat of Oyster 03, Captain DeBellevue caught a glimpse of a dirty yellow parachute of Nguyen Duc Tiem as they passed the falling J-6.

Flying at 20.000 feet, two Phantoms of Balter flight arrived in time to see the final moments of the fight, as Lodge’s Phantom plunged to the earth like a meteor. Due to smoke nobody saw ejection of Captain Locher. Shaken by the sudden loss of their leader, the survivors of the Oyster flight sped away from the area. The first large clash of 10 May 1972 was over, but others were now to follow.”

Two MiGs

On July 8th, 1972, Captain Steve Ritchie of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, led a flight of four F-4 Phantoms, call sign "Paula," over the skies of Vietnam. With his Radar Intercept Officer, Capt. Charles DeBellevue, he succeeded in shooting down two MIG-21's during an engagement that lasted only one minute and twenty-nine seconds. The following interview about that mission appeared on The History Channel, “Weapons at War: The Aces:”

“The 8th of July mission was the most intense, the most exciting mission that I ever flew. Everything worked. During that minute and 29 seconds I drew on all my life experiences. Every part of my training and education came together in that moment and it worked. Few people ever experience that moment where everything jells. It's a feeling that is hard to describe.

“When the mission began, one of the earlier MiG CAP flights had been hit by a MiG. He had broken formation and was headed out, bleeding fuel and hydraulics. He was announcing his position, heading, and altitude on the emergency frequency, a very bad idea, because the North Vietnamese monitored the emergency frequency and when they heard a cripple, leaving by himself, they sent MiGs after him. So we headed toward the fellow that was in trouble, when ‘Red Crown’ and ‘Disco’ [RC-121 radar control aircraft] called additional MiG activity. You can imagine the adrenalin was beginning to pump. I headed to low altitude, and got ‘Heads Up’ call, which meant that the MiGs had us in sight and they had been cleared to fire.

“I really began to look around at that point, because we didn't have them in sight. I rolled out on an easterly heading and stayed there about 8 seconds, when I got a call from ‘Disco’, 150 miles away orbiting over Laos, looking at the whole ring of its radar scope. I heard among the static: "Steve, 2 miles north of you." I made an immediate left turn from my east heading to the north, picked up a MiG-21 at 10 o’clock. Now, if I’d stayed on an easterly heading, the MiG would have been right in my rear quarter, and I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the story today.

“Pick it up at 10 o’clock, rolled left, dropped the external fuel tanks with full afterburner. We passed about 1,000 feet from each other. I could see the pilot in the cockpit. It was a bright, spit-polished superb MiG-21, with bright red stars. When I saw the lead MiG, the strong tendency was to immediately turn, to try to get an advantage. I knew there were two, because they had called ‘Two Blue Bandits.’ But I didn’t see #2. So, I waited, I rolled level, pushed the nose over and waited. Sure enough, #2 came along about 8,000 feet away. Immediately when he passe, I made a 135 degree turn, level, 90, 135, flaps, nose down sliding turn about 6.5 g.”

[This last sentence is confused, as it was a TV interview. He used his hands to explain his actions to the TV team, something very typical for fighter pilots. Ritchie meant to say: “I started a turn of 135 degrees, I leveled waiting for the MiG #2, I rolled 90 degrees, re-started the turn of 135 degrees, I engaged flaps and turned with my nose slightly down, etc.”]

“I couldn’t see what was happening back over there. About half of this turn, I began to roll out of the 135 degrees and as I rolled out of 135 degrees I began to look back, thinking that they’re going to be somewhere back around here [indicated a position at 4 o’clock] to my great surprise I saw a MiG up over here [indicated a position at 9 o’clock], in the opposite direction of where I would expect the MiG would be, because instead of turning to the left and going to this side of the circle [indicated a counter-clockwise turn], they turned to the right and went to this side of the circle [indicated a clockwise turn]. So, now I was in a position with my nose down, and the MiG was high, in a right turn. I was in a left turn, so even if I pulled my nose up, I would have had what is called a very hard angle off.”

[At this point Ritchie’s account was interrupted by a graphic and narrator's explanation, saying that Ritchie solved his problem performing a “Barrel-Roll”, and that this maneuver put him behind and below the MiG.]

“The target was high in the blue sky, good for a radar lock-on. The MiG saw us, turned down into us. I squeezed the trigger. The first missile went to the center of the fuselage of the MiG and the second missile went thru the fire ball. I felt a nice jump on the stick a piece of debris shaken up at the leading edge of the left wing.

“The lead MiG, the silver MiG, came all the way around the circle and the other three airplanes of our flight were in trail, and then the shiny MiG came on the position of #4, Tommy Feasel. I cut across the circle and achieved a similar position now on the lead MiG that I had on the wingman before, except the lead MiG was a lot better than the wingman. He saw us, forgot about Tommy Feasel, started a hard turn into us. We got a flat turning here, look like just maneuver the airplane.

“I put him in the gunsight, Chuck [Charles DeBelleuve, his RIO in this mission] told me that he had a lock that’s all I need to know. Missile came off the airplane. It looked like a Sidewinder, it began to snake and did not appear to guide, and I was telling it: ‘the target is over here!’ Suddenly, the missile appeared to do a 90 degree right turn, and it hit the MiG in the fuselage. The missile was pulling about 25 g and was accelerated about twelve hundred miles an hour when it hit, so you can imagine the explosion.”

Ritchie left active service in 1974 and had a distinguished career in the Air Force Reserve before retiring in 1999. With more than 3,000 flight hours, 800 combat hours, and decorations that include four Silver Stars and 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses , Ritchie is a role model and exemplar of what he would call his three Ds -- "duty, desire, and determination."

The second of two books on the Navy's Phantom II MiG killers of the Vietnam War, this book covers the numerous actions fought out over North Vietnam during the Linebacker I and II operations of 1972-73. No fewer than 17 MiGs were downed during this period, five of them by the Navy's only aces of the conflict, Lts Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll of VF-96. Drawing on primary sources such as surviving Phantom II aircrew and official navy documentation, the author has assembled the most precise appraisal of fighter operations involving US Navy Phantom II units and those elusive MiGs ever seen in print.


In January 1929, Wop and Vic Horner wrote a dazzling page in Canadian aviation history. They flew an open cockpit Avro Avian for a two day trip with temperatures hovering around -30C, from Edmonton, Alberta, to Fort Vermillion, Alberta, in one of the first mercy flights of Canada&rsquos air age. Their goal: to deliver diphtheria vaccine to combat an outbreak of the deadly disease in Little Red River, about 100 kilometres from Fort Vermillion. The 1,000 kilometre flight became known across Canada as &ldquothe race against death&rdquo.

In 1932, Wop flew the aircraft that guided Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in their hectic chase of Albert Johnson &mdash &ldquoThe Mad Trapper of Rat River&rdquo &mdash in the Yukon.

During the Second World War, Wop was general manager of No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton he also created the first para rescue unit, which later evolved into the Royal Canadian Air Force&rsquos modern search and rescue system. Wop was inducted into Canada&rsquos Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.


All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

Accepted Non-commercial Use

Permitted use for these purposes:

If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.

Use this image under fair dealing.

All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

Accepted Non-commercial Use

Permitted use for these purposes:

If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.

Use this image under fair dealing.

All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

Accepted Non-commercial Use

Permitted use for these purposes:

If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.

Use this image under fair dealing.

All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

Accepted Non-commercial Use

Permitted use for these purposes:

If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.

Building the U.S. Air Force: The Legacy of World War II Aces

One of my favorite conversations to have with visitors at our museum are those that draw connections across different time periods. It’s easy to forget that many of the same people involved in one era go on to have careers spanning into later periods. As we reflect on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, I wanted to highlight three World War II “ace” pilots (meaning they shot down five or more enemy aircraft) and how they went on to careers that helped to define and shape the future of the U.S. Air Force.

This is not an exhaustive list nor a “top three,” by any means, but rather three examples from among many dozens more that could be mentioned.

Major George Welch

George Welch poses with the XP-86, c. 1947.

On a warm Saturday night in Waikiki, Hawaii, 2nd Lt. George Welch attended a dinner and dance party that turned into an all-night poker game. As Sunday morning dawned and the victors gathered their winnings, the festive mood was shattered by the sound of gunfire. The date: December 7, 1941.

Welch, a recent addition to the 47th Pursuit Squadron, called the airstrip at Haleiwa to have two P-40B Warhawks ready to go. Welch and his friend 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor hopped into Taylor’s car and raced to the airfield as Japanese bullets rained down. The two airmen jumped into their airplanes and took off. After damaging two Aichi D3A Val dive bombers, Welch landed to fix a jammed gun and reload. He proceeded to shoot down another Val and a Mitsubishi A6M Zero. With four credited aerial victories, Welch had almost reached ace status before the U.S. had even declared war!

Lts. Ken Taylor (left) and George Welch (right), shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Welch’s achievements did not end on that day of infamy. For a time, Welch held the title of “King of the New Guinea’s Skies,” flying P-39 Airacobras and P-38 Lightnings in the Pacific. After shooting down 16 enemy planes, a case of malaria took him off combat duty .

Welch’s post-war career was both vital to the early U.S. Air Force and tragic. In spring 1944, Welch resigned his commission and became a test pilot for North American Aviation. In October 1947, he was the first to fly the XP-86, the prototype for what became the F-86 Sabre, in which he reached 618 mph in level flight. Seven years later, in October 1954, Welch was test flying an early model of another new fighter, the F-100A Super Sabre. Pulling 7 Gs out of a dive at Mach 1.55 caused a catastrophic failure and the airplane began to disintegrate. Although Welch initially survived the crash, he died en route to a hospital.

The first Sabre prototype, XP-86, which Welch test piloted, c. 1947.

Welch, one of the first air-to-air victors of World War II, also helped usher in a new age of jet combat and supersonic fighters that came to define the U.S. Air Force.

Brigadier General Robin Olds

Maj. Robin Olds, 434th Fighter Squadron commander, in a P-51D.

“By the time I was five, I could name an airplane by the sound of its engine on takeoff or landing,” claimed ace pilot Brig. Gen. Robin Olds. He grew up steeped in air power, as the son of Maj. Gen. Robert Olds, who was a mentor to Gen. Curtis LeMay. Robin entered West Point in 1940 and then flew P-38 Lightnings with the 479th Fighter Group, arriving in Europe less than two weeks before D-Day. Olds made ace in only two engagements, the first on August 14, 1944, when he downed two Fw-190s, then on August 25, when he shot down three Bf 109s. That made him the last P-38 pilot in the 8th Air Force to make ace. His unit transitioned to P-51 Mustangs, in which Olds continued to tear apart German fighters, ultimately ending the war with 12 aerial victories.

Such a record would be notable on its own, but Olds is most famous for his achievements following World War ll. For several years, Olds rotated through various non-combat roles, including flying in a P-80 Shooting Star aerobatics demonstration team, flying Gloster Meteors in an exchange program with the RAF, and holding non-combat command positions in Washington, DC, before eventually getting orders to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing and join the Vietnam War in September 1966.

Immediately upon arriving to his new command, he got in a fistfight with two lieutenants at the officers’ club who—in the tradition of the Wing—tried to rip the patches off Olds’ flight suit. Instead of seeing this as a discipline problem, Olds thought it was a sign of healthy morale, saying, “These guys had spirit.” His first act was to show the Wing, nicknamed the “Wolf Pack,” that he was willing to learn and would be flying alongside his men, pushing them. “I’d give the guys in the briefing room the same goading speech, ‘I’m gonna be better than you!’” he recalled. “As soon as they stopped being pissed off, they got into the spirit of the challenge.”

Olds’ deputy commander of operations was a friend he had worked with previously at the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing: Col. Daniel “Chappie” James. Starting as an instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen, James later became the first African American four-star general. Together, the two were known by their joint nickname: “Blackman and Robin.”

Col. Robin Olds (right) with Col. Daniel James (left) in Thailand, c. 1966. James was deputy commander for operations and later vice wing commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. Together they were nicknamed “Blackman and Robin.”

By the end of the year, Olds was frustrated with the mounting losses to North Vietnamese MiG fighters and designed “Operation Bolo.” The plan revolved around taking the QRC-160 jamming pods typically carried by F-105 Thunderchiefs and instead placing them on F-4 Phantoms. North Vietnamese forces thought the electronic signature was indicative of vulnerable F-105s, but instead it was a trap. A swarm of Phantoms, including James and Olds, went after the surprised MiGs. While James chased one MiG into position for his wingman to shoot it down, Olds also contributed one victory to the total of seven destroyed MiG-21s, nearly half of North Vietnam’s MiG-21 inventory at that time.

Col. Robin Olds with his F-4C Phantom II, c. 1967.

Olds ended his time in Southeast Asia with four aerial victories, making him a triple ace with a career total of 16. He then spent time as the commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy before retiring in 1973. Although he began his career as a World War II ace, Olds’ later career not only made important contributions to the American effort in the Vietnam War, but became culturally emblematic of the stereotypical fighter pilot in the process.

Colonel James Hagerstrom

On the morning of January 23, 1944, 1st Lt. James Hagerstrom, having only recently recovered from malaria, was leading a flight of P-40 Warhawks on a “maximum effort” bombing mission in the Pacific. Nearing their target of Boram, New Guinea, Hagerstrom saw 10 to 15 Mitsubishi A6M Zeros pouring down on a group of P-38s near him. His group dropped his tanks and dove into what became a massive dogfight. He and his wingman, 2nd Lt. John Bodak, each shot down Zeroes off the other’s tails, as Hagerstrom damaged more Japanese fighters in multiple head-on passes and shot down more that were chasing other P-38s. Hagerstrom expended all his ammunition in the fight, emerging with four victory credits (three Zeroes and one Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien) in addition to damaging others while saving the lives of two P-38 pilots. Combined with the two victories he earned the previous year, he was now an ace.

Lt. Col. James Hagerstrom with his F-86 Sabre in Osan, Korea, c. 1952.

Hagerstrom was discharged after the war and joined the Texas Air National Guard. When the Korean War began in 1950, he was recalled to active duty. Fitting the fighter pilot stereotype, Hagerstrom longed for air-to-air victories. Of the 40 American ace pilots in the Korean War, Hagerstrom was the only one flying in a fighter-bomber unit (the 67th Squadron) as opposed to a dedicated fighter-interceptor squadron. This was due to his reputation for dropping his bombs as fast as possible and heading straight for the North Korea-China border, known as “MiG Alley,” where enemy planes were more likely to be flying. Hagerstrom never missed an opportunity, whether it was by volunteering to fly on Christmas day (when he got his second MiG-15 kill), or when he flew on his last day in Korea. He was literally standing in his dress uniform waiting for his transport home to land when a friend told him a sensitive mission requiring four pilots had come up. Hagerstrom jumped in an F-86 immediately and shot down another MiG, bringing his total to 8.5 credits in Korea.

After Korea, Hagerstrom continued to make important contributions to the Air Force. He set up an evaluation program for the then-new AIM-9 Sidewinder missile, which has since become a mainstay of air combat. After various command and staff positions, Hagerstrom joined the Vietnam War in 1966. Working out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, he led a program to adapt the “Starlight Scope” for use on AC-47 gunships, giving them much better visibility for night operations. Hagerstrom spent his time in Southeast Asia helping to run interdiction efforts in Laos against the Ho Chi Minh Trail before his frustration with that conflict prompted him to resign in 1968.

Watch the video: The Great War In The Air: Aces Of The Western Front - Part 14