The Vietnam War saw only five “aces” during the course of the war. Of those, only two were pilots; the other three were weapons system officers. One of those remarkable pilots was a young USAF Captain named Richard S. “Steve” Ritchie.
Hailing from North Carolina, the star high school football quarterback graduated first in his class from the Air Force Academy in 1964. A complex character, he has been described by his peers as brilliant, cocky, egotistical and lacking in self-discipline. In August 1965, the now-Lieutenant Ritchie was finally awarded his wings at Laredo AFB in Texas and was billeted to Eglin AFB in Florida as an F-104 Starfighter pilot with Flight Test Operations.
Two years later, Ritchie was combat qualified on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and preparing for his first tour in war-torn South East Asia. He soon found himself at Da Nang Air Base as part of 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying Fast FAC missions. For the most part, the low-powered Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and O-2 Skymaster Forward Air Controller (FAC) aircraft were more than adequate for the job.
However, in certain areas where large calibre guns and surface-to-air missiles were in use, Fast FAC aircraft were utilized due to their ability to get in and out of the area of operations quickly. They would head out on four hour sorties with a full load of smoke rockets and 20 mm cannon rounds and would rarely return with much left of either. In this role, Lieutenant Ritchie completed a grand total of 195 missions.
Following his return to the U.S. he was selected to attend the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course at Nellis AFB in Nevada and was subsequently invited to become one of its instructors. He accepted, and became the Fighter Weapons School’s youngest instructor, teaching air-to-air combat between 1970 and 1972.
In January 1972, Ritchie volunteered for his second combat tour of Vietnam. He was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, where he joined the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Whilst with 555th TFS, he would be flying the F-4D Phantom II, which came equipped with some top secret avionics known as Combat Tree. This advanced electronic warfare suite had the ability to detect the transponder signals emitted by Vietnamese MiGs as they identified themselves to ground radar.
It was as leader of an element of F-4s on 10 May 1972 that Captain Ritchie would score the first of 5 kills that would make him the only Air Force Ace pilot of the Vietnam war. Whilst on patrol, the flight was vectored to a formation of 4 MiG-21s. They managed to take out three aircraft, but were ambushed by a flight of MiG-19s loitering nearby. At this point Captain Ritchie and his Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) Captain Charles “Chuck” DeBellvue rolled in behind the last MiG-21. They obtained radar lock and launched two AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The second one hit and they had joined the ranks of the USAF MiG killers.
Captain Ritchie’s second kill came on 31 May 1972 whilst on patrol over North Vietnam with WSO Capt. Lawrence Pettit. The USS Chicago, using the callsign of Red Crown, provided early warning of a flight of MiG-21s 40 miles southwest of Ritchie’s position. Waiting until they were within 15 miles, he commenced a descending turn until he was behind and below the tail end MiG. Finally achieving lock-on, he let loose all 4 of his Sparrow missiles, with the last one finding its target.
Kills three and four came on 8 July 1972 with DeBellvue in the back seat. This time they were flying lead in a four-ship formation under the callsign of Paula and consisted of F-4E Phantoms–equipped with the 20mm M61A1 Vulcan cannon. Another flight of F-4s had been jumped by MiGs and one had to break formation and make a run for home, leaking fuel and hydraulics. Ritchie’s flight headed over to provide assistance and received warning of additional MiG activity.
Seeing a MiG-21 at his 10 o’clock, he dropped his external tanks, engaged afterburners and turned to meet it head-on. They passed close enough to see the enemy pilot in the cockpit but, knowing there was another MiG, Captain Ritchie decided not to turn in behind it. After the second MiG passed head-on, he immediately commenced a tight turn to the left which ended with him below and at the MiG’s 5 o’clock. Flying right at the edge of the AIM-7’s effective operating parameters, Ritchie let two fly. The first hit the MiG in the centre of the fuselage and the second disappeared into the resulting fireball.
But there was no time to celebrate. The first MiG had taken off in pursuit of the rest of Ritchie’s formation and was positioning behind the last F-4. Captain Ritchie turned hard to get in behind the MiG and ended up on its 5 o’clock – in his own words:
“I put him in the gunsight, Chuck (his WSO) told me that he had a lock; that’s all I needed to know. The missile (an AIM-7 Sparrow) 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 25g and had accelerated to about 1200 miles per hour when it hit, so you can imagine the explosion!”
His fifth and final kill occurred on 28th August 1972, whilst flying in support of a strike north of Hanoi. Ironically, flying the very same aircraft in which he scored his first kill, his flight was vectored to a formation of MiG-21s approximately 30 miles southwest of Hanoi. Approaching the reported area at 15,000 feet, DeBellevue picked up the MiGs on his radar. Concerned about the proximity of the MiGs to another flight in the area, Ritchie ordered his flight to increase their speed and climb. DeBellvue established the MiG’s altitude at 25,00 feet.
As he climbed, Ritchie spotted the MiGs above him and headed in the opposite direction. He then began a climbing turn to intercept, all the time receiving continuous range call-outs from DeBellvue. His first two Sparrow missiles missed their mark but by following its contrail, he managed to track one MiG and fire his last two missiles. As it pulled into an evasive maneuver, the MiG -21 closed the distance to the missiles and was hit by the second.
After 339 combat sorties and over 800 flying hours in Vietnam, Ritchie left active service and joined the Colorado Air National Guard in April 1974. Transferring to the Air Force Reserve in 1984, he retired with the rank of Brigadier General on 9th February 1999.
Brigadier General Steve Ritchie was decorated many times throughout his career, including the Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with nine oak leaf clusters and the prestigious Air Force Cross.
“Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Captain Ritchie reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.” – Extract from the Air Force Cross Citation.