History of the American Fighter Ace: Vietnam War
By Bill Hess with expanded text by Bill Martin
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.