Retired Brig. Gen. R. Steve Ritchie visits the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy, prior to celebrating the 40th anniversary of him becoming an ace Aug. 28. Ritchie became an ace while assigned to the then 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron following his fifth aerial victory when he shot down a MiG-21 fighter Aug. 28, 1972 while supporting operations in Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz)
Retired Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie, a former 555th Fighter Squadron member and ace pilot, flies a simulated jet at Aviano Air Base, Italy Aug. 28. Ritchie, who became an ace pilot Aug. 28, 1972, shot down two more aircraft during the simulation.(U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz)
Staff Sgt. Jonathon Douglas, 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, shows retired Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Aug. 27. Ritchie visited the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano to celebrate the 40th anniversary of him becoming an Air Force ace pilot.(U.S. Photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz)
Retired Brig. Gen. R. Steve Ritchie, the last Air Force pilot to earn the title of ace, poses in front of an F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy Aug. 28. Ritchie became an ace while assigned ot the then 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron following his fifth aerial victory in Aug. 28, 1972 while supporting operations in Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz)
Retired Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie wears a bracelet in memory of a fallen Airman and an Air Force ring while visiting the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy Aug. 28. Ritchie wears the items as a reminder of his fellow Airmen and the hard work everyone is respondsible for while accomplishing the mission. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz)
by Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz
31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
8/30/2012 - AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The Air Force's only Vietnam pilot ace visited Aviano's 555th Fighter Squadron Aug. 28 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his fifth aerial victory while supporting operations in Vietnam.
Retired Brig. Gen. R. Steve Ritchie, a native of Reidsville, N.C., earned the ace designation during the Vietnam War while assigned to the then 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which has since been renamed and moved to Italy.
"I am incredibly grateful to have been a part of one of the greatest fighter squadrons in history, and four decades later, to be able to say thank you to the 'Nickel' and those in the support and maintenance arena," said Ritchie. "When I thought about where I wanted to be for this significant anniversary, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be than right here with the Nickel."
Ritchie's five victories were spread over three months of operations, with the third and fourth came within eighty-nine seconds of each other. Even with these victories in the air, he learned the value of teamwork on the ground.
"I learned early on that one of the keys to my success was getting to know every single person that had to do with the mission, and particularly with the airplane, because I knew that my life and my success depended on what they do."
Although it took many Airmen to accomplish his aerial victories, Ritchie said the teamwork demonstrated during a rescue mission will always hold a special place in his career.
"The two MiG kills or maybe when we downed number five; most would think those had to be the most exciting and the most important missions," said Ritchie. "No way! They don't even compare to the rescue missions. They were the most important. Without question, far and above, the Roger Locher mission was the greatest moment I've ever had in my military career"
During the rescue, hundreds of aircraft and thousands of Airmen came together for a single purpose; rescuing Capt. Roger Locher, a 555th TFS weapons officer whose aircraft was shot down during an operation in Vietnam.
Ritchie said this devotion, dedication, pride, and camaraderie demonstrated by Airmen is the reason the U.S. Air Force is the greatest in the world.
"Being an ace pilot ... to be able to have one victory, much less five, is something that's hard to explain. I am extremely lucky and fortunate to have been a part of a great team," said Ritchie. "This would have never happened without thousands of people. It takes thousands and thousands of people across the board in a wide variety of support functions to make it possible for us to fly and fight, and in particular to be victorious. I'm incredibly grateful."
Prior to celebrating the 40th anniversary of his historic aerial victory, Ritchie spoke with pilots and maintainers, toured an F-16 Fighting Falcon, and downed two more aircraft in the simulator.
"It was very humbling to meet Brig. Gen. Ritchie and have the opportunity to listen to him talk about his experiences in air combat and life," said Lt. Col. Michael Cowan, 555th FS director of operations. "I enjoyed hearing his perspective on the importance of quality leadership and team effort for combat as well as everyday operations."