History of the
American Fighter Ace.
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 airAces
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.