John Swanson was an All-American fencing champion at the Air Force Academy, then became a …
Steve Ritchie graduated first in his Undergraduate Pilot Training class in 1965, but he almost didn’t even get into pilot training due to injuries sustained playing on the championship Air Force Academy football team. After graduation, he made a personal pilgrimage to see the chief Air Force Flight Surgeon, and was successful in making his case. After pilot training he flew the F-104 for a couple of years, then volunteered to fly the F-4 in Vietnam. At DaNang Air Base, he flew the first F-4 Fast-FAC (Forward Air Controller) mission.
After completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, he attended the Top Gun “PhD of Fighter Pilots” Fighter Weapons School, then remained there as an instructor. But the war in Vietnam raged on, and Steve volunteered to go back. After a short detour, he ended up in the vaunted 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and shortly after he arrived Operation Linebacker was launched against Hanoi. Steve was selected to fly the MiG-CAP mission, and during the next four months downing 5 enemy MiG-21 aircraft, becoming the Air Force’s first (and only) pilot ace of the war.
But perhaps his most important mission was the rescue of his squadron-mate and friend, Roger Locher, who had been shot down on the first day of Linebacker and evaded capture for 23 days. The two-day mission involved over 100 aircraft in the most famous rescue of the war. Another Academy graduate that Steve personally trained, Dale Stovall, flew the rescue helicopter further into enemy territory than any other rescue of the war to make the pickup. (We’ll meet Dale, now a retired Brigadier General, in a future podcast.)
After the Air Force, Steve became a featured motivational speaker and aerial demonstration pilot.