Air Force's Only Ace in Vietnam Downed Two MiGs in a Classic Dogfight

On the flight line at Udorn Air Base, Thailand, Steve Ritchie stands next to his F-4 Phantom displaying five stars to reflect each of the MiG-21s he shot down during the Vietnam War. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
On the flight line at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, Steve Ritchie stands next to his F-4 Phantom, displaying five stars to reflect each of the MiG-21s he shot down during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On July 8, 1972, then-Capt. Steve Ritchie downed two MiGs with three missiles in 1 minute, 29 seconds. "It required drawing on every life experience during that 89 seconds," Ritchie recalled. Less than two months later, on Aug. 28, Ritchie downed his fifth MiG to become the Air Force's only pilot ace of the Vietnam War -- and the only American pilot in history to shoot down five of the legendary Russian-made fighter planes.

Now a retired brigadier general, Ritchie attributes his ace status to "teamwork" and to the "Queen of Battle" -- the F-4 Phantom II. "The Vietnam War was the F-4's greatest test," Ritchie said in a magazine interview. "It prevailed under fire, and the success of the Phantom in combat was one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dismal period in American history."

Ritchie had a long experience with the F-4, from crew training in Florida to his first Vietnam tour of duty at Da Nang in 1968. In 1969, after completing the F-4 Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, he became one of the youngest instructors in the history of the school.

A North Carolina native, Ritchie graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1964. By the time he volunteered for his second tour in Southeast Asia in 1972, he was a seasoned F-4 pilot and combat veteran assigned to the famed 555th "Triple Nickel" Fighter Squadron.

He downed his first two MiGs on May 10 and May 31, and the third and fourth during the classic low-altitude dogfight of July 28. His feat that day is even more remarkable when one considers that his F-4 was beyond its performance capability for the entire encounter. But Ritchie and his crew kept control throughout. "I was just the pilot," he said.

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 more than a photo in a history book. He is a dynamic role model and exemplar of what he would call his three Ds -- "duty, desire and determination."

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