Richard "Steve" Ritchie
Phantom Pilot, Vietnam Ace, MiG Killer
By Stephen Sherman, Oct. 2002. Updated March 22, 2012.
The 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.”
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."
- History Channel interview, transcribed by Diego Zampini
- Ritchie autobiography - by Ward Boyce
- Air Combat Information Group website