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America's Last Fighter Pilot Ace: Downing Two MIGs in 89 Seconds

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"We tell stories of love and courage, where the good guys win." --Glenn Beck, The Blaze

"Anybody who doesn't have fear is an idiot. It's just that you must make the fear work for you. Hell when somebody shot at me, it made me madder than hell, and all I wanted to do was shoot back." --Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF (1922-2007)

When I asked my fighter pilot' friend what fighter pilot I should interview for my next "American Hero Stories" column, he didn't hesitate for an instant. "Steve Ritchie," he said as if I was an ignoramus. Steve Ritchie was "The Last Ace." (Flying Ace)

So that's how it was that I came to be tracking Brigadier General (Ret.) Steve Ritchie across our country, as he and his wife, Mariana moved from Cocoa Beach, Florida to Bellevue, Washington. It was their 33rd move he told me. Ultimately, I had to wait until their odyssey was complete and they had at least some of their things out of boxes.

After 10 years of active Air Force duty and 25 more of reserve duty, the General is comfortable with his busy lecture schedule and family. In Vietnam, his 339 missions, 800 combat hours, totaling over 4,000 hours in the air, resulted in his receiving nearly every award the Air Force offers. (In order for us all to truly understand what these awards are for and mean, I thought we should take a look at some. Let me show you now, what kind of medals a true 'War Hero' receives.)

Air Force Cross (the highest honor in the USAF and second highest the US awards after the Congressional Medal of Honor)
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Four Silver Stars
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10 Distinguished Flying Crosses
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25 Air Medals
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National Defense Service Medal (two awards)
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Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (with Combat "V" for Valor) 2014-05-06-Vdevice.jpg

Vietnam Service Medal (with three campaign stars)
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Air Force Longevity Service Award
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Vietnam Air Gallantry Medal (with Gold Wings)
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Vietnam Campaign Medal
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The fighter pilot personality can be annoying, I know. They are usually uber-confident, wildly competitive, Type A, Alpha egotists. Simultaneously, they are great learners, very curious about how things work and ultra-sensitive about other people. They are also funny as hell, telling the best jokes. Unlike most fighter pilots, much less Aces, Ritchie is self-effacing and humble as they come. When I asked him if he had won the Bronze Star, he just said, "Well, I don't know. I might have."

So this is Steve Ritchie, the man who won all those awards while flying valiantly in Vietnam.

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Here is what he looked like in 1972, around the time he won the title of "Ace."

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Capt. Steve Ritchie (front right) and Capt. Charles "Chuck" DeBellevue reporting for work 8/28/72 on the day Ritchie got his fifth MIG and Ace title

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The other side of that sign

Photo Credit: Allen L. Tucker

Now the definition of an "Ace" is something that can vary. Though not to fighter pilots like Ritchie. It's pretty much settled at a minimum of five combat aircraft downed during wartime, but where there's some strong disagreement is on who is entitled to carry that designation. According to Wikipedia, there were five Vietnam Aces. They do make a distinction though, between the actual pilot Aces and "non-pilot Aces." The majority of the Vietnam era jet fighters were two-seaters and the back-seat officer ("GIB," guy in back) was traditionally the navigator and weapons officer. So that leaves two, front-seat, plane-driving and gun-shooting pilot Aces from that war: the first Vietnam Ace, the Navy's Randy "Duke" Cunningham and General Ritchie, the last Vietnam Ace.

Flying his trusty McDonnell Douglas' F-4D Phantom, Ritchie was a scourge of the Vietnam' skies.

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Ritchie's legendary F-4 sits in a place of honor at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO

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Ritchie's #463 with drag chute open

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Phantom F-4Ds flying over Vietnam

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General Characteristics
Crew: 2
Length: 63 ft 0 in (19.2 m)
Wingspan: 38 ft 4.5 in (11.7 m)
Height: 16 ft 6 in (5.0 m)
Wing area: 530.0 ft² (49.2 m²)
Airfoil: NACA 0006.4-64 root, NACA 0003-64 tip
Empty weight: 30,328 lb (13,757 kg)
Loaded weight: 41,500 lb (18,825 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 61,795 lb (28,030 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-17A axial compressor turbojets, 11,905 lbf dry thrust (52.9 kN), 17,845 lbf in afterburner (79.4 kN) each
Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0224
Drag area: 11.87 ft² (1.10 m²)
Aspect ratio: 2.77
Fuel capacity: 1,994 U.S. gal (7,549 L) internal, 3,335 U.S. gal (12,627 L) with three external tanks (370 U.S. gal (1,420 L) tanks on the outer wing hardpoints and either a 600 or 610 U.S. gal (2,310 or 2,345 L) tank for the centerline station).
Maximum landing weight: 36,831 lb (16,706 kg)

Performance
Maximum speed: Mach 2.23 (1,472 mph, 2,370 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
Cruise speed: 506 kn (585 mph, 940 km/h)
Combat radius: 367 nmi (422 mi, 680 km)
Ferry range: 1,403 nmi (1,615 mi, 2,600 km) with 3 external fuel tanks
Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,300 m)
Rate of climb: 41,300 ft/min (210 m/s)
Wing loading: 78 lb/ft² (383 kg/m²)
Lift-to-drag: 8.58
Thrust/weight: 0.86 at loaded weight, 0.58 at MTOW
Takeoff roll: 4,490 ft (1,370 m) at 53,814 lb (24,410 kg)
Landing roll: 3,680 ft (1,120 m) at 36,831 lb (16,706 kg)
Source: Wikipedia

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An F-4J "Showtime 100" armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles

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Those pilots have a great sense of humor

When the General and I first started discussing which of his myriad war stories I would help him tell here, he said, "Have you heard the 'Roger Locher story?'" No I hadn't but before we got too deep into it, I asked, "How many times has that story been told by you or others?" The General replied, "About 5,000 times; it's the most exciting story."

Nah, no thanks, I thought. I cannot tell a story that's been told 5,000 times once again. "How about the second most exciting story? What would that be?" I asked. "Well, that would be the time I shot down two MIGs in 89 seconds." Now he had shot down five MIG-21s during the entire Vietnam War and he had a story where he shot down two MIGs in less than a minute and a half? "Yessir, that'll do quite nicely thanks."

Before we get into the legendary events of July 8th, 1972, let me just give you a sense of the "Roger Locher story." Or, in fact, let me let General Ritchie tell you the story on this YouTube video, "The Rescue of Roger Locher" which has over one million views:

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On July 8th, 1972, then Captain Steve Ritchie already had two confirmed MIG-21 kills (5/10/72 and 5/31/72), so he was already 40% of the way towards his "Ace-ship" of five confirmed kills. By the end of that day, he would be 80% there.

"Everything came together on that day ... July 8th, 1972," Ritchie began. "Everything I worked for, trained for and fought for, came together beautifully. I was very lucky on that day."

Ritchie explains why he feels it was just lucky. "The Sparrow missiles have an 11% PK (probability of kill) rate. That means that using those missiles at that time would hit an enemy aircraft only 11 out of 100 times."

A fighter pilot's life in combat is not your usual schedule, at least not for a normal person. Here's the General's schedule on that portentous day, Saturday, July 8th, 1972: "On that day, just like every other day, we got up around 0330 (3:30am), get ourselves awake and hit the chow hall. Then by 0500 we were in our morning briefing. We had three morning briefings, first was the main briefing followed by the squadron briefing and finally, the flight briefing, in that order. After that intense preparation, we were airborne by about 8 am." What time did you typically go to bed? "We tried to be asleep by 2100 (9pm)." So there was no fighter pilot drinking and carousing or singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" to the ladies the Friday night before. "I didn't want to drink at all before flying; that was throughout my career," Ritchie warned sternly. After all, his life and that of his fellow Americans was at stake.

"We'd had a period of bad weather and I hadn't flown in over a week," Ritchie told me. "I like to fly everyday. If I'm off too long, I don't feel sharp. I was used to flying 12 days straight and then taking one day off, at the time. So I was eager to get back in the air." On this day, in spite of the time off, Ritchie was sharp.

"Now we took off in four flights of four airplanes. And there was a lead grouping of four called the 'ingress' flight and the last flight was the 'egress' flight. I was used to being the first flight in, the 'ingress' flight because I was so experienced; was the flight leader; had MIG kills; and liked being where the action was, so I was very upset to be in the last flight. The schedulers arranged it all the night before and they were friends of mine, so I was pissed off that the schedulers put me at tail end charlie." Ritchie clearly thought it would be a ho-hum day at the office as the last flight; clean-up detail, nap time. He couldn't have been more wrong.

As the mission began, Ritchie and DeBellevue took to the air and immediately met a tanker to top off, as the taxi and take-off process burns a lot of jet fuel. "We headed in-bound (toward Hanoi) on a patrol route."

"About 30 to 40 minutes into the flight, we got the radio call from 'Disco' (the call sign for the American airborne radar RC-121 plane that flew supporting the fighters) that an outbound US plane had been hit by a MIG' missile and was leaking fuel and hydraulics. This is a very bad thing for a pilot. He had broken away from his flight and must have panicked because you always stay with your flight mates, no matter what. He was all alone and had been hit and that's when the MIGs all come after you and shoot you down. Knowing he was a sitting duck, I immediately turned north to help him out."

"Very quickly, I then received another alert from 'Disco' that there were two 'Blue Bandits' (MIG-21s) near our pilot in trouble about 30 miles southwest of Hanoi."

Ritchie recalled of that morning, "I picked up the two MIGs at about 10 o'clock and they were trailing our man, preparing to shoot him down. The lead MIG and I passed about 1,000 feet from each other. I could see the pilot in the cockpit. He was wearing a leather helmet, I think."

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"First Pass" by Lou Drendel which beautifully documents the moment Ritchie passes the lead MIG on 7/8/72

"This was a low-altitude dogfight between two MIGs and our four F-4s. Usually MIGs can be found at 15 to 20,000 feet but we had intel and were briefed that they were now changing strategy and going further down."

"We had also learned that the MIGs liked to set a trap by getting our pilots to engage on the first MIG passing and if you turn to get the first MIG, the second MIG is right behind you and shoots you down. They didn't care about the first MIG and would actually sacrifice that one to get you. We (the USAF) never did that. So I let the first MIG pass and engaged the second one that I knew was coming."

"I was able to maneuver behind the MIG #2 and fired two Sparrow missiles at him. The first missile hit him dead-center in his fuselage, breaking the MIG into two pieces and creating a huge fireball. There was debris everywhere. The second Sparrow hit him too going through the fireball and debris. I had to take severe evasive action to avoid flying into the debris and went up and to the left in a split-second. That was 47 seconds into the dogfight, so it happened very, very quickly."

Now there was a little matter of MIG #1. "I call the MIG that day the 'shiny MIG' because most of them were a kind of gun-metal gray but that one gleamed. At that point, the dogfight was in a gigantic rotating circle and MIG #1 was trailing my number four, a young kid named Tommy. It was his first mission. He radioed that he had a MIG on his tail and when I spotted him, there was MIG #2 closing on him. I cut across the circle to get to Tommy quicker and just wanted to get the MIG off his tail; so I shot another missile at the MIG, trying to get him to turn off the kid. Well, the missile hit MIG #2 dead-center too."

Ritchie had radioed in "Splash One" and "Splash Two" (the radio signals for downed MIGs) within 89 seconds, something that had never been done before. "My two MIG kills that day were immediately confirmed by radar and intel sources on the ground."

"There were no victory laps though," the General said, "we had just received radio alerts that two more MIGs had been vectored toward us. We would have stayed and got them too, but we were down to about three minutes of fuel for flight time. So I decided to get us out of there fast."

On this day, Ritchie blew apart two MIG-21s with three missiles hitting their target. "On the second kill, I was just trying to get him to turn around, so I could use my guns on him. The chances of firing three perfect missiles are incalculable."

Did you see the MIG pilots eject? "Oh no, those Sparrow missiles are 12 feet long and about 500 pounds with a 30 pound warhead. They move at 1200 miles per hour above launch velocity (approx. 1600 mph), so there's nothing left of an airplane that gets hit by one."

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A MIG-21 bites the dust. If Ritchie had hit this one, there wouldn't be as much of the plane left ...

Was there much of a celebration upon his return to base? "Oh yes, there was a huge party at the officer's club that night. It was great." Did you knock back a few? I asked. "Definitely, I did. And, I didn't fly the next day either," the General said fondly.
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"When I first came back to Vietnam for my second tour," (he volunteered) Ritchie recalled, "I had been an instructor at FWS (the USAF Fighter Weapons School, the Air Force' equivalent of the Navy's 'Top Gun'). I was asked by my commanding officer what my weapons philosophy was and was telling him. Number One was guns--guns first, if possible. Number Two was our heat-seeking missiles. And Number Three was our radar-guided missiles. There I was, this big expert with all this knowledge, telling my commanding officer how it should be and of course, I ended up shooting down all five MIGs with my radar missiles." At this, Ritchie and I laughed heartily.

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Ritchie's F-4D Tail Number 67-463 sits on the tarmac at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand

Photo Credit: Allen L. Tucker

When I suggested that Udorn RTAFB (Royal Thai Air Force Base) didn't look like that terrible place to be based, Ritchie quickly agreed, "No it wasn't and the Thai people are so great. When other guys would complain about being at Udorn, I'd tell them, 'I don't want to hear your bitching and moaning. I spent a year based at Da Nang Air Base, so I don't want to hear it.' When I was bringing an F-4 over to Da Nang the first time, I landed in 90 degree heat with 90% humidity and as soon as the canopy and my helmet was off, I got hit by the most awful smell in the world. It was from the open sewage troughs that ran through the area. That was the worst thing I ever smelled and it was that way all the time."

"There were more than 1,400 Aces in World Wars I and II; 43 Aces in Korea; and two Aces in Vietnam," Ritchie said. What accounted for the dramatic reduction in Aces to today? Why not higher kills? I asked him. "It's the technology. We have stand-off weapons and all sorts of equipment that makes our planes the most efficient and deadly from much farther away. Also, there are not as many airplanes in the sky for combat anymore. There used to be hundreds of aircraft in the sky during battle in the first two World Wars, then in Korea it was dozens and in Vietnam it was much less."

To prove his point, the General told me about May 10, 1972, when his squadron and over 100 American Air Force and Navy aircraft faced off in a busy sky against at least 16 MIG-21s. The Amercians took out 13 of them within a couple of hours and the General downed his first MIG on that day. "The skies won't be as crowded with fighters anymore mainly because of the technology," he told me, "that's why you probably won't see anymore Aces from Iraq, Afghanistan or future air engagements." Ritchie points out that this dogfight has been written about in the book, "One Day in A Long War." This air battle was another of his stories--experiences, really--that comprise who Steve Richie truly is.

After Ritchie's return from Vietnam in 1972, he left active duty in 1974 to run for the US Congressional seat from his native North Carolina. "I ran at the suggestion of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who told me he felt I'd 'be of more service to the military and country as a member of Congress.'" Ritchie lost, ostensibly because of the Watergate scandal and the severe effect it had on Republican candidates, among a number of other reasons. That may have been the first time Ritchie lost at anything big in his life.

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"A Hero's Welcome" Ritchie is met and welcomed right after his fifth MIG kill

The General did not rest. At various times in his post-Vietnam career, he was appointed by Ronald Reagan, director of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, reporting to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Ritchie was later assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For six years he was special assistant to Joseph Coors at the Adolph Coors Brewing Company and later lectured extensively around the country for the Heritage Foundation. In 1999, Ritchie officially retired.

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Hitting the road and speaking became the General's passion, Ritchie quickly found that he loved giving talks to all groups of people: community groups, business conferences and most of all, the military. He traveled exhaustively telling his stories of the military life, dogfights, shooting down MIGs and fighting Communism.

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The General on the occasion of his last Air Force' career flight

But that wouldn't be his last flight by any stretch of the imagination.

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Steve Ritchie flies the F-104 Starfighter at the Winston-Salem Air Show

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The General's old friend takes one last flight, returning full circle back to the place Ritchie learned to fly, at the USAF Academy to rest in honor. Pike's Peak in the background greets her. "Isn't she a beauty?" Ritchie asked.

Then, in April 2010, General Ritchie received an interesting letter to say the least. In the course of writing this article, Ritchie kept saying to me, "Have you received the letter I sent yet?" and "You have to read the letter." Well, I began to think, enough with the letter already. But when I read the letter, I realized that it was one of the most important letters I'd ever read. And I cried.

This letter would have an indelible and momentous effect on the General and his life.

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The writer wanted the General to come and speak at her daughter's school. "We don't have any money," Mariana told Ritchie, "we can't even pay your expenses."

Of course, the General did go out to Seattle to speak to Mariana's daughter's class. But something special was started with that school address to children ... something much more chemical, romantic and enduring.

The letter's sender, Mariana Mickler is now Mrs. Ritchie.

The General and Mariana were married on March 4th, 2011 in the Nellis AFB Chapel on the same day that Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy married 59 years earlier. Mariana's daughter, Jessica was the maid of honor while the General's son, Matt was best man.

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The couple honeymooned at The Mission Inn in Riverside, California in the same suite Ronald Reagan and his new wife Nancy did in 1952, the "Reagan Suite" now. Who knew? No less than nine Presidents have been to the inn and that Richard and Pat Nixon were also married there. The next day, the General took his new bride to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for a surprise visit. You can see and feel the thread of mutual adoration between both the General and Mariana and them toward Ronald Reagan, whose memory they both revere.

I asked the General when he knew he was going to marry Mariana. He didn't hesitate for an instant, "As soon as I read the letter," he said firmly, sounding as if he was grinning. And when did you know Mariana? "The first time I was fully aware that Steve was the one was when I received his email at work that he was coming out to Seattle to speak to the class. His email said 'I will come. After that letter, I cannot say no. I will be there and I won't accept anything in return.' I broke out into tears right at work; people were asking if I was OK. I knew right then that he was the one. That this was going to be the man that I marry."

As "The Letter" states so resolutely, Mariana unconditionally loved Reagan while growing up behind the Iron Curtain (of shame and despair). And it makes perfect sense that she did and does, because after all, it was Reagan who first had the guts, the steadfastness and caring human vision to state at the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

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And Reagan did it without Facebook, Twitter or the Internet. "Ronald Reagan was such an important figure to those living under Communism. You can't imagine how important and loved he was. He gave hope and spirit and shined a light on our darkness," Mrs. Ritchie said dramatically. It was readily apparent from the tone and thrust of her voice, that for her, Reagan was a life-saving character.

Mariana told me, "I grew up dreaming of an American fighter pilot who would take me away to America, not a knight on a white horse who would take me on his horse to a castle."

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"A Dream Come True for the Little Girl Behind The Iron Curtain"

Growing up in Timișoara, Romania, Mariana spoke to me both sadly and angrily. "Timișoara is the second largest city in Romania and used to be called 'Little Vienna.' But the Communist government became so intrusive; they bugged our rooms; we had to watch everything we said. It was killing our spirit. My grandfather was a priest and both of my parents were strong anti-Communists. We were harassed all the time. When I asked my father why he, everybody did not fight back against the Communists, he told me, 'They would've killed us.' I said in return, 'OK, then they kill you. It's better than living this way.'" But Mariana would not have to live that way much longer.

Mariana landed at JFK airport in NYC on September 20, 1986. "As soon as I stepped off that plane and got well away from it, that was the first time in my life I felt safe. In all my years in America, I always felt I was an American born in Romania. I never felt like I was from there, from Romania."

"I love this country so much! I would do anything for this country! I'm just so proud that I'm an American now and part of this great, great country," she told me with tears in our eyes.

Though she has been assimilated into American society beautifully; loves America more than some of those born here; and even speaks with a bit of an American accent, this lady hasn't even begun to forget the Communists and their lethal regime. She never will.

The General and Mariana even have a favorite Reagan quote, his "Rendezvous with Destiny": "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done."

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General Ritchie with Mariana in Aviano, Italy with his famed "Triple Nickel" 555th TFS for the 40th anniversary of his fifth MIG kill

General Ritchie travels regularly and extensively give talks, chats and speeches to every military base, community group, school, university, association and business group that invites him. He is indefatigable about his speaking.

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And, Mariana accompanies him everywhere, at his side, speaking too. They make a powerful couple with a compelling message. As Ritchie told me, "I talk about fighting Communism in Vietnam and Mariana talks about growing up under that kind of tyranny in Romania." Mariana chimed in, "What I'm trying to do now is give Americans a view of the oppressed ... what it's like to be dreaming of freedom ... what it's like to be willing to die for just a little liberty, just a little freedom."

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Then, General Ritchie gives me the perfect closing quote from him. "When you've lived through 339 combat missions, you're very humble. Especially, when so many died. My best friend died. There were ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people working on the ground and in the air. I was fortunate that I had five wins but that never would've happened without all those other people working so hard and risking their lives. My heart is filled with gratitude and so humble." It's seems rare to find a humble fighter pilot.

Well, that's my story about General Steve Ritchie, America's Last Ace. He's certifiably one of America's great heroes. And I hope this story lived up to the quote that began it. To me, Steve Ritchie's story certainly is one of "love and courage." For him, the courage came first and the love followed.

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"And I have yet to find one single individual who has attained conspicuous success in bringing down enemy aeroplanes who can be said to be spoiled either by his successes or by the generous congratulations of his comrades. If he were capable of being spoiled he would not have had the character to have won continuous victories, for the smallest amount of vanity is fatal in aeroplane fighting. Self-distrust rather is the quality to which many a pilot owes his protracted existence." --Captain Edward V. 'Eddie' Rickenbacker, USAS (1890-1973)

"Each of us has to earn freedom anew in order to possess it. We do so not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our children, so that they may build a better future that will sustain over the world the responsibilities and blessings of freedom." --Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)