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Sport Aviation Awe-inspiring....The best twenty-six stories of aerial combat a person is likely to find.
From The Last Ace
by Stephen Coonts
A fighter pilot who scores five victories has been regarded as an ace since World War I. As this is written — in the summer of 1995, eighty years after the first ace, Roland Garros, scored his fifth victory — one can legitimately ask if the era of the aces is over. Will the ace fighter pilot prove to be a phenomenon of the twentieth century, as unique to his time and place as the Japanese samurai or the English longbowman?
The collapse of communism ended the threat of an all-out conventional or nuclear conflict between the two largest superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States — and their allies. Simultaneously, extraordinary advances in computers, lasers, composite construction, metallurgy, miniaturization, and a host of other fields obsolesced entire weapons systems at an ever-accelerating pace and drove the cost of new, state-of-the-art systems into the realm of pure fantasy.
In his 1983 book, Augustine's Laws, Norman Augustine pointed out that in every decade since the Wright brothers, the cost of warplanes has quadrupled. He noted that if that trend continues, by the year 2050 the purchase price of one fighter will consume the entire American defense budget. The trend appears to be continuing: ten years after Augustine's observation the U.S. government's first buy of B-2 bombers was a mere twenty airplanes...for $2.2 billion each!
Manned strategic bombers are today artifacts of a bygone age. It is beyond dispute that airplanes costing $2.2 billion each are purchased for political reasons, not military ones. They are too expensive to be flown for training purposes,too expensive to bear the political risks of a training accident, too expensive to be exposed to hostile fire, and too few to be a military factor in future conflicts.
As this is written, governments throughout the world are drastically reducing the sizes of their air forces. This course of events is perhaps inevitable, but it has profound implications for future armed conflicts. The 1991 Gulf War proved that a second- or third-rate power cannot hope to contest air superiority today or in the foreseeable future with a superpower, which by definition is a nation that can field well-trained, modern armed forces equipped with state-of-the-art weapons.
One suspects that in future conventional wars the inferior air force will be destroyed on the ground or flee to a neutral country. If a nation cannot contest air superiority, one wonders exactly how it could sustain a conventional army on a future battlefield. The answer may well be that it cannot, and if so, conventional wars as we knew them in the twentieth century will not occur again.
In any event, one can confidently predict that fighter pilots in the twenty-first century will come in two varieties — they will either be highly trained specialists flying state-of-the-art superplanes with sophisticated, computerized weapons systems, or they will be undertrained cannon fodder flying obsolete equipment cast off by a superpower or some cheap volksplane with limited capabilities. Whichever, we can predict that since air forces will continue to shrink, there won't be many fighters or fighter pilots. Future conventional wars will be almighty short, with durations measured in hours, not years, and there will be drastically fewer targets aloft for winged warriors to shoot at. The chances of any individual pilot achieving five kills under such circumstances are poor indeed.
The Israeli Air Force, which has fought more conflicts in the jet age than any other power, is notoriously closemouthed about the records of its active-duty pilots. Still, Israel is known to have at least two high-scoring aces on active service as this is written; one with seventeen kills, one fifteen.
The Vietnam War may prove to be the last war on this planet in which the aerial conflict lasted long enough for pilots to become aces. The American side of the seven-year Vietnam conflict produced only two, Navy Lieutenant Randy Cunningham and Air Force Captain Steve Ritchie. Both scored five victories in F-4 Phantoms, then were removed from combat by their respective services.
Legend has it that there was at least one Vietnamese ace, Colonel Tomb, with thirteen victories scored in MiG-19s. Tomb was supposedly the fifth and final victim of Randy Cunningham and his radar intercept officer, Willie Driscoll.
Cunningham scored his last three kills on just one mission on May 10, 1972, one of the most eventful days of that long war. Laser-guided bombs — LGBs — were first used by the Americans that day against two of the most heavily defended, brutally tragic targets in North Vietnam, the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi and the railroad bridge at Thanh Hoa. Both bridges fell, finally.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but that day the North Vietnamese elected to launch their largest aerial effort of the war against inbound American strikes. That they still had intact airplanes at usable airfields with which to oppose the Americans illustrates not the military genius of the North Viet communists, but the grotesque stupidity of the American politicians who committed their nation to an Asian war and then foully mismanaged it. As usual in that war, the execrable decisions of these criminal incompetents would this day cost American lives.
And it was on this day, May 10, 1972, that Steve Ritchie scored his first kill. Let's fly now with the pilot destined to become the last American ace as the battle for air supremacy in the skies over North Vietnam reaches a grand crescendo.
THE BRIEFING FOR FLIGHT CREWS IN THE 555TH Fighter Squadron at Udorn Air Force Base, Thailand, began before dawn, at 5 A.M. The briefing always began at this ridiculously early hour, according to sour GI humor, so that the crews would have more time for weather delays, which occurred almost every morning at this time of year.
Capt. Steve Ritchie, a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was on his second combat tour in Southeast Asia. On his first tour he flew 195 combat missions and helped inaugurate F-4 Fast-FAC missions, in which the Phantoms' crews called in aerial strikes in areas too hot for the slower prop or turboprop machines flown by conventional forward air controllers. This morning Steve and his guy in back, or weapons system operator — WSO — in Air Force terminology, Chuck DeBellvue, were scheduled for another such mission.
Ritchie was in a grim mood. Two days before, on the eighth of May, he had finally engaged an airborne MiG. He was flying as a wingman, yet when his flight lead's weapons system malfunctioned, Ritchie got the communist fighter in his sights. He was just a trigger squeeze away from launching a missile when he broke off. He was below bingo fuel, the fuel state necessary to return to base safely, so he terminated the encounter. For two days the memory of that moment, and that decision, has haunted him.
The North Vietnamese rarely committed their meager air forces to aerial combat. More than half the American fighter pilots who flew north of the DMZ never even saw an enemy plane airborne, and only a few got a shot.
Although Ritchie's decision to break off was dictated by squadron doctrine and his years of training, still...He now felt that he had had a rare opportunity, and he had blown it. Worse, the enemy pilot was still alive, still had an airplane that was a lethal threat to every airborne American. The thought that that pilot might someday kill one of Ritchie's friends gnawed at him mercilessly.
He is still stewing when he learns that the number three pilot of a flight of four Phantoms scheduled to precede the bombers to Hanoi this morning has failed to appear for the brief. Ritchie quickly volunteers to fly in his place.
The call sign of the flight will be Oyster. The flight leader is Maj. Bob Lodge, a close friend of Ritchie's and a '64 classmate from the Air Force Academy. Lodge is on his third combat tour and has a reputation as the best highly experienced combat flight leader in Asia. Ritchie considers him to be a superbly competent fighter pilot, a man destined for a great Air Force career. It is an honor, Ritchie feels, just to fly with him. Lodge's wingman will be 1st Lt. John Markle. Ritchie's wingman will be 1st Lt. Tommy Feezel.
Lodge has concocted a special plan. On several previous missions North Vietnamese MiGs have orbited northwest of Hanoi, near the Yen Bai airfield, while waiting for American strikes on their way to Hanoi. When the Vietnamese GCI controllers felt the time was right, they vectored the MiGs southwest toward the inbound Americans.
Predictability is vulnerability in combat, so today Lodge hopes to ambush the Vietnamese. His plan is to lead his flight into North Vietnam at a few hundred feet above the treetops, below the radar horizon of the communists. He hopes to establish an orbit at a location that will allow him to remain undetected by enemy radar. Then, when the MiGs leave their orbit to attack the inbound American strikes, Lodge's flight will pop up and execute a surprise head-on attack.
Timing will be crucial to the success of this plan. Fuel will be critical, time on station too short. And yet, if Lodge can get his flight into position at just the right time, perhaps they will be able to break up the MiGs' attack on the Americans. Maybe the Americans will even get a shot or two.
The key to being in the right place at the right time will be knowing where the MiGs are. The Americans have a top-secret gadget to help solve this problem, the APX-81, a black box that tells the U.S. pilot the distance and bearing to the enemy aircraft, and what kind of aircraft the enemy is flying. Three of the four aircraft on this morning's mission will be equipped with this device.
When Lodge finishes briefing the specifics of this mission, he has a few words to say about emergencies. Although F-4 crews are trained to eject if their aircraft is visibly on fire, Lodge recommends staying with the aircraft and flying it to a safe area, if possible, before ejecting. Then he makes a comment that Ritchie has heard before: Lodge says that since he has a Special Intelligence clearance, he will not eject over enemy territory. He does not want to take the chance that he will spill critical intelligence information if captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese.
Ritchie ponders that comment for a few seconds and wonders what it would be like to knowingly choose to die when one has only to pull a handle to live. He doesn't doubt Lodge's sincerity — no one who knows Bob Lodge has ever doubted that he means exactly what he says, all the time — but Ritchie tells himself that if he gets into that situation, he will eject if humanly possible.
And then the brief is over. Time for breakfast. Time for the stomach to get queasy as a weather delay is announced. Time to think of home and family, to fret, to ponder, to reflect, and for some, to pray.
The mission timing slides and everyone updates their notes, fusses over this chore. Fortunately, today, the weather delay is not long, so it is soon time to suit up, then preflight the planes and weapons.
Each F-4D is armed with four Sparrow missiles and four heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles. They are loaded for bear.
Almost as if it were preordained, the mission goes exactly as planned, which is rare enough in ordinary human affairs and rarer still in war. Today there are no mechanical problems, takeoff goes exactly as briefed, Oyster flight rendezvouses with the refueling tankers and is soon on its way to North Vietnam on schedule. Even the weather is cooperating: scattered clouds at the lower levels, clear above, visibility excellent for Southeast Asia at this time of year — apparently a little beyond seven miles.
Lodge leads his flight to the preplanned orbit position west of Hanoi at a height of two or three hundred feet, which the Americans hope is below the coverage of North Vietnamese radar. The four F-4 crews observe strict radio silence. The North Vietnamese must know this flight is airborne, Ritchie muses, because their intelligence system is excellent, but perhaps they can be kept in the dark about its mission and location until the trap springs. Perhaps.
Lodge is keeping the power up but cannot afford to use afterburner. The Phantoms are racing above the trees at about five hundred knots. If they are jumped by MiGs, they must have a high energy level — speed — or they will not survive. Yet speed costs fuel, so the heavy fighters cannot stay long.
Lodge, Markle, and Ritchie carefully monitor their APX-81s for indications of MiG activity. Feezel, on Ritchie's wing, lacks the magic box, so he is flying formation and wondering what is going on.
The boxes reveal the presence of MiGs, about thirty miles north. MiG-21s. Circling. Waiting for their Ground Control Intercept (GCI) controller to vector them in on the Phantoms on their way to Hanoi to deliver their laser-guided bombs.
The MiGs must turn this way soon, or Lodge will have to head in their direction and begin to climb, which will reveal his presence to the enemy radar operators. What Lodge cannot do is placidly wait for more than a few minutes. The F-4s are burning fuel at a prodigious rate.
Ritchie is working hard, monitoring the APX-81, flying a loose, fluid formation, glancing occasionally at his engine and fuel gauges — warily eyeing the jungle rushing past just beneath his plane — and in the back of his mind, still simmering over the missed opportunity of two days before. A professional fighter pilot, he wishes he had handled that once-in-a-lifetime chance differently. The fact is, he doesn't really expect to get a shot today. Life doesn't work that way. Oh, Lodge has two MiG kills to his credit already, but most guys never even see one. The odds are Ritchie has seen his first and last MiG and blown his chance. Augh...
The APX-81 chirps nicely.
The MiGs are thirty miles north.
No, they are closing the range. They must have turned southward, be accelerating downhill from 25,000 feet to bounce the incoming American strike, which is still well south of Oyster flight, heading northeast toward Hanoi.
Lodge seems to think so, too. He levels his wings headed north and engages his afterburners. The Phantoms slip past Mach 1.
They are four supersonic bullets now, hurling northward just above the trees.
Lodge and his wingman, Markle, increase their separation. The plan is for both of them to shoot as the formations close.
"I got 'em," Chuck DeBellvue tells Ritchie from the rear cockpit. He has the MiGs on radar. The two formations are not closing precisely head-on. The MiGs are slightly left of the Phantoms' course, and if they maintain their heading, should cross in front of the Phantoms from left to right.
Now Lodge lifts his nose, bringing the flight of four Phantoms into a climb. The afterburners are fully engaged. The Phantoms quickly leave the jungle floor...and are immediately illuminated by enemy radar.
Ritchie adds the electronic countermeasures to his cockpit scan: the communists could launch a surface-to-air missile at any time. A SAM will reduce an F-4 to a flaming wreck in a millisecond if the pilot doesn't visually acquire and properly evade the flying telephone pole coming at him at Mach 2.
The MiG-21s are still too far ahead to be visible — over twenty miles away — yet Ritchie glances through the gunsight glass anyway. DeBellvue has the radar locked onto one, so there is a dot on the glass that tells Ritchie where the radar is looking.
Too far. Too far.
In fact, the MiG-21s are so small — about half the size of an F-4 — that Lodge and Markle will shoot before they get close enough to acquire them visually. This exception to the Vietnam rules of engagement that require a visual ID before shooting is a narrow one, permissible only because Lodge's flight is "first in," that is, the first friendly flight into enemy territory.
The fighter formations race toward each other. The four MiGs are still coming, so the GCI controllers must not yet have had time to tell the enemy pilots of the oncoming Phantoms.
Ritchie is totally focused — this time and place, this moment, is the only reality as the seconds tick by and the formations streak toward each other.
A Sparrow ignites under Lodge's wing and races forward off the rail, leaving a trail of white smoke. And another.
Two Sparrows shoot forward from Markle's fighter.
The four smoke trails disappear straight ahead into the vast, hazy blue of the sky.
The MiGs are at eight miles, now seven...and two fireballs erupt in the sky ahead.
Both Lodge and Markle have scored!
The formations continue to close. The two remaining MiGs streak across in front of the Phantoms from left to right as the Americans turn hard to close in behind, a classic bounce.
Ritchie sees the remaining enemy planes, two tiny silver specks. He is on Lodge's left wing, so he will take the left MiG, Lodge the right.
DeBellvue has a radar lock on the MiG, which is about six thousand feet ahead. Now comes the hard part: Ritchie must follow every turn of the MiG, keep it in the radar's field of view for four seconds while the seeker in the nose of the Sparrow gets in phase with the plane's radar. When properly phased in, the missile will home on the energy being reflected from the enemy plane, if the complex seeker in the missile functions properly. Alas, Sparrow missiles have a mere 11 percent reliability rate.
Ritchie isn't pondering reliability rates just now — he is intent on keeping the tiny silver MiG-21 in sight, on counting the four seconds, on not squeezing the commit trigger on the stick too soon.
Time's up! Ritchie squeezes the trigger.
Nothing happens, of course, because over ninety electromechanical functions must occur in the missile before it can fire — and that mechanical dance takes another second and a half, during which Ritchie must continue to follow every twist and turn of the MiG ahead.
At this stage a second and a half is a lifetime to wait, so Ritchie releases the trigger and squeezes it again. This commits a second Sparrow to fire.
Now the first Sparrow ignites with a flash and shoots forward off the rail. A heartbeat later the second goes.
Ritchie watches the tableau ahead intently — the silver speck of the enemy plane, the smoke trails converging upon it. He must keep the enemy plane within the cone of his radar, keep it illuminated with his radar beam so that the Sparrows can guide upon the reflection.
If these two Sparrows miss, he will squeeze off two more, then begin blasting with Sidewinders.
The MiG is turning hard, has achieved a good angle off...and the first Sparrow misses.
The second is leading too much...yet at the last instant it turns...and detonates as it passes under the nose of the MiG.
Pieces fly off the enemy plane.
Before Ritchie can decide if he must shoot again, the enemy pilot ejects.
A kill! Three MiGs down, one to go.
Ritchie looks right, toward Bob Lodge and his wingman, John Markle. Lodge is behind the fourth MiG-21, Markle slightly to his right...and almost in formation with Lodge are two silver MiG-19s.
Ritchie is horrified. All his elation is instantly gone.
"Oyster Lead, break right. Break right, Bob. MiGs at your six, break right!" Ritchie shouts into the radio.
The MiG-19s must have been following the MiG-21s, and the Americans inadvertently turned neatly in front of them to engage the 21s.
Ritchie probably has MiGs on his own tail, but he can't rip his eyes off Lodge's fighter. As he watches, the MiGs pull their noses up and yo-yo high to let Lodge extend out. They overran him, now they are maneuvering to open the distance.
"Oyster Lead, break right now!"
Yet Lodge doesn't break. He and his WSO, Roger Locher, are intent on the MiG-21 ahead of them. Lodge must have committed a missile, be waiting for it to fire — target fixation.
The MiG-19s settle in behind Lodge at a range of about six hundred feet and open fire with 30-mm cannons.
The cannon shells immediately register strikes on the F-4. Sparkles appear all over the Phantom where the shells are plastering it.
A spurt of fire erupts from the F-4. It lazily rolls upside down. Now it begins a flat spin, rotating like a Frisbee, on a downward arc.
"Bail out, bail out, bail out!" Ritchie shouts into the radio.
Ritchie has his nose stuffed down, the afterburners on full, as a wave of anguish and desperation sweeps over him. In the space of seconds the tables have been turned — the American ambush of the MiGs has become a MiG ambush. The odds are not three against one, but at least five against three. MiG-19s are much more maneuverable than F-4s: to engage them in a turning dogfight would be dangerous, and the Phantoms don't have enough fuel.
He looks again for Lodge. The Phantom is still burning, still spinning when it disappears into a cloud. He sees no parachutes.
Inside the stricken Phantom, a conscious Bob Lodge tells Roger Locher to eject if he wishes. The fighter is inverted, spinning, passing seven thousand feet. Locher pulls his ejection handle. He will land only five miles from the Yen Bai airfield and evade capture for twenty-three days, then be plucked from the jaws of the tiger in one of the most daring rescues of the Vietnam War. Apparently Bob Lodge chooses, as he always said he would, not to eject. He is never heard from again.
Steve Ritchie scans behind one more time, then glances ahead. The ground...it is rapidly coming up at him.
Ritchie pulls out of his dive, looks behind for his wingman. Feezel is there, thank God!
Ritchie looks ahead...and is staring at a giant tree on a ridge. Coming straight at him. He is going to crash into it.
He jerks the stick back and slams the rudder over. Miraculously, the now-supersonic Phantom misses the tree by inches.
There is no elation at Udorn when Ritchie, Feezel, and Markle land. There is no word from Lodge or Locher. The flight has shot down three MiGs but lost one of their own, a very poor trade. Losing two good friends is damn rough.
Ritchie feels drained. Yet somehow he feels he has made up for breaking away from the MiG two days before, so that nightmare disappears, never to return.
On May 31, 1972, with Capt. Larry Pettit as his WSO, Ritchie shot down another MiG-21. On July 8, with Chuck DeBellvue in the backseat, he scored a double, two MiG-21s.
Ritchie was now the subject of intense interest within the Air Force, which desperately wanted an ace pilot to lionize after all the bloody years of conflict in this no-win war. A cheer for an ace would be a cheer for all the men who never came back, all the mechanics, all the pilots, all the support personnel, all of those men and women who had done their best in an unpopular war simply because their country asked it of them.
Ritchie got his chance on August 28, 1972. As fate would have it, he was flying the same aircraft in which he had scored his first kill. Chuck DeBellvue was again in the backseat.
Like the initial contact on May 10, Ritchie closed the MiG almost head-on, with a combined closure speed of 1,200 miles per hour. This day he was not "first in," so he was unable to fire until he had visually identified the MiG.
The two planes were within two miles of each other when he saw it.
Ritchie turned hard to get behind the MiG, which continued on course, descending. Now he fired two Sparrows...out of range. Two misses.
With afterburners plugged in, Ritchie used the raw power of the Phantom to close the distance as the MiG dove for the clouds ahead. Ritchie squeezed off his last two Sparrows. The first one missed left, frightening the enemy pilot into a right turn, squarely into the oncoming last missile, which converted the tiny silver fighter into a mushrooming fireball.
Chuck DeBellvue stayed in Southeast Asia to complete his tour and helped another pilot, Capt. John Madden, score two kills, giving him a total of six as a weapons system operator. At this writing he is still serving on active duty in the U.S. Air Force as a colonel.
And Steve Ritchie?
Well, he is happily married and living in Colorado. A brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, he devotes much of his time to helping the Air Force recruit good people. Yet if you saw him in civilian clothes, at dinner or in a mall or on his Harley, you would never suspect that this soft-spoken man with graying blond hair and a charming grin was a fighter ace, the last of the breed.
Copyright © 1996 Stephen P. Coonts and Martin Greenberg
|"The First Air Hero" from The Zeppelin Fighters||1|
|"An Overrated Pastime" from Flying Fury||12|
|"The Hero's Life" from Fighting the Flying Circus||26|
|"The Reprieve" from Nine Lives||35|
|"Scramble" from Ginger Lacey, Fighter Pilot||41|
|"Spitfire Tales" from Fly for Your Life||52|
|"Spitfires Get the Kommodore" from The Greatest Aces||62|
|"The Doolittle Raid" from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo||77|
|"Kimigayo" from Miracle at Midway||94|
|"Saved for Another Day" from A Proud American||109|
|"Target: Hong Kong" from God Is My Copilot||125|
|"Long Flight Home" from Thunderbolt!||135|
|"A Fighter Pilot's Christmas" from Baa Baa Black Sheep||159|
|"The Stars Still Shine" from Bomber Pilot||163|
|"The Runner" from Stuka Pilot||176|
|"The Greatest Ace" from The Blond Knight of Germany||194|
|"Cross of Lead" from The First and the Last||204|
|"The Last Samurai" from Samurai! by Saburo Sakai||213|
|"The Flight of Enola Gay" from Enola Gay||226|
|"Spad Pilot" from Skyraider||248|
|"Ia Drang Valley" from Chickenhawk||255|
|"A Filthy Little War" from Thud Ridge||276|
|"The Professionals" from On Yankee Station||291|
|"Carrier Pilot" from The Heart of a Man||295|
|"Hotdoggin' It" from Low Level Hell||304|
|"The Last Ace"||319|