Vietnam ACES

The USAF flop

In March 1965, U.S. air strikes into North Vietnam began. In April, the first dogfights took place. As the fighting grew into a major conflict, the air activity increased accordingly. In May 1966, North Vietnam announced that Captain Nguyen Van Bay had become the first ace of the war.
The results were not encouraging for the U. S. Air Force. During the Korean conflict the air battle exchange rate had been 6.2-1,941 enemy aircraft down against 152 losses. In Vietnam the corresponding figure was to become 2.5-1,184 victories and 75 losses ! In the fifties flight safety and fighter bomber operations had dominated the Air Force thinking at the expense of realistic training and air combat maneuvering.

Captain RICHARD S. RITCHIE  (pilot)

Richard "Steve" Ritchie of the 555th Squadron, of the 432nd Tactical Fighter Reconnaissance Wing, was the second American pilot to become an ace in Vietnam. Ritchie, an F-4 pilot with Captain Charles DeBellevue as his Weapons Systems Operator, shot down his fifth MiG-21 on August 28, 1972. DeBellevue had ridden with Ritchie on four of the victories. He was in the backseat on May 10 when they downed the first MiG- 21. Ritchie scored again on the last of the month with Captain Lawrence Pettit as his WSO. Ritchie and DeBellevue teamed again on July 8 and blasted two more Vietnamese jets out of the air. All five of Ritchie's kills were scored with Sparrow missiles against MiG-21s.


Chuck DeBellevue had four victories against MiG-21s to his credit on September 9, 1972, when he teamed with Captain John A. Madden, Jr. on an F-4D mission to Thai Nguyen.

They engaged a MiG-21, which maneuvered in too close for them to fire their missiles; another F-4 pilot, Captain Brian Tibbett, whose airplane was equipped with a gun, moved in and brought it down. DeBelle- vue then picked up two MiG-19s on his radar and Madden closed to a visual, maneuvering engagement. They brought down both MiGs with Sidewinder missiles. These were DeBelle-vue's fifth and sixth victories, making him the leading MiG killer of the war. Captain Madden completed his tour with three aerial victories.


Jeff Feinstein, WSO, was first credited with downing a MiG on April 16, 1972. His fifth MiG kill came on October 13,1972, in an F-4 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Curt Westphal. Flying protective cover as part of a strike force, they sighted two MiGs coming toward them. As Westphal turned hard, after their first pass, Feinstein locked onto one of the MiGs.
"Whenever you're ready, fire," he told Westphal, who i triggered two Sparrow missiles.

Betting it all ...

When Cunningham bore the big F-4 head on into the MiG-17, the whole nose of the MiG-17 lit up, spitting out cannon bursts. Cunningham pulled the F-4 hard up into a zoom. "I looked back and there was the MiG canopy to canopy with me! He couldn't have been more than 30 feet away I could see the pilot clearly ... we were both going straight up, but I was out-zooming him." The MiG fell right in behind and started shooting again as the F-4 came over on top. Thus began a dogfight in the classic tradition. Advantage ... disadvantage ... disengage ... engage. At first Cunningham thought the other pilot just lucky, then later admitted to himself, "He's flying 'damn good' airplane!" Another zoom brought the same result, with the MiG pulling in behind; but this time Cunningham tried a different tactic - he throttled back to idle power and deployed the speed brakes. The ploy worked, causing the MiG to shoot out ahead of the F-4. The MiG pitched over the top and started down. Now in good position behind the MiG, Cunningham fired a Sidewinder, which scored a hit. The aircraft, bearing Colonel Tomb *, dived straight into the ground.

Lieutenant RANDY CUNNINGHAM (pilot)

Pilot Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll teamed on five aerial victories to become the first American aces of the Vietnam War. On January 19, 1972, they shot down one of two MiG-21s engaged near Quang Lang for the first Navy kill in about 18 months. After a short period back in the States, Cunningham returned to the USS Constellation off Vietnam and began flying missions again during the siege of An Loc. On May 8, returning from a mission to Dong Suong, Cunningham exploded a MiG-17 which was attempting to shoot down his wingman.

The most common problem found could be summed up in the words insufficient training and experience in air-to-air combat. The USAF was collecting the fruits of its peacetime air safety philosophy to the detriment of realistic training.

The Phantom, a «Pentagon aircraft» of the Mac Namara system, required a navigator, second crewmen  a Weapon System Operator (WSO), to effectively operate the fire control system of the F-4s. The 2 men crew received credit for victories.

Two days later, as part of a major strike against the Haiphong rail yards, Cunningham and Driscoll delivered Rock-Eye bombs against a storage building and then proceeded to get their third, fourth, and fifth aerial kills. Their last engagement was against Colonel Tomb*, the leading ace of North Vietnam, who was credited with at least 13 victories over American aircraft.

Both impacted near the MiG's tail. The pilot ejected and disappeared into the clouds below as the aircraft spiraled toward the ground. With this victory, Feinstein became the USAF's third ace. He was the fifth and last man to become an ace in the Vietnam War.

When the fighting ceased,
2 American pilots became aces in the Vietnam War - Randy "Duke" Cunningham (USN) and Steve Ritchie (USAF).
16 Vietnamese pilots earned that honor. (see below) Nguyen Van Coc is the Top Ace of Vietnam War with 9 kills: 7 planes and 2 UAV (Un-manned Airborne Vehicle) Firebees.

All these factors created more Vietnamese aces than American, and created opportunities for a few Vietnamese aces to pile up bigger scores than their American counterparts. Officially, there were 16 VPAF Aces during Vietnam War (13 were MiG-21 pilots, and three were MiG-17 drivers, there were no MiG-19 aces). The number in parentheses indicates the kills confirmed by US sources; they could be increased in the future. The list includes all the Vietnamese credited as aces.

The SUCCESS of Vietnam Air Force

The Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) trained its pilots to exploit the superb agility of the MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 - getting into close combat, where the heavy Phantoms and "Thuds" were at a disadvantage.
The Vietnamese pilots knew that, the American pilots were focused on the use of air-to-air missiles (like the radar homing AIM-7 Sparrow and IR AIM-9) to win the air battles.

The Americans had forgotten that a skillful pilot in the cockpit was as important as the weapons he uses. Only in 1972, when the "Top Gun" program improved the skills in aerial combat of USN Phantom pilots like Randall Cunningham, and the F-4E appeared with a 20 mm built-in Vulcan cannon, could the Americans neutralize that Vietnamese edge.

  Van Coc     Van Bay         Doc Soat

MIG 17

MIG 21


* Readers familiar with American military aviation may have heard of the legendary Vietnamese ace, Col. Toon (or Col. Tomb). Why is he not listed here? Because, he was precisely that, "legendary." No Col. Toon ever flew for the VPAF; he was a figment of the American fighter pilots' imagination and ready room chatter. (In fairness to the Americans, "Col. Toon" may have been shorthand for any good Vietnamese pilot, like any solo nighttime nuisance bomber in WW2 was called "Washing Machine Charlie.")

Robin Olds, the exception : WW II, Korea, Vietnam

When added to his 12 WWII victories, his lifetime victory totaled 16 (4 in Vietnam)
Olds, in order not to be recalled to the States as a " Vietnamese ACE" gave his fifth target to his wingman.