NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR STEPHEN COONTS BRINGS TO LIFE THE MOST THRILLING MOMENTS AND THE MOST LEGENDARY FLYERS IN AIR WARFARE
In this collection of true tales of aerial combat, you'll meet some of the greatest figures in aviation history from all nations: American, British, German, Japanese, and more. Witness the courage and charisma of America's first air hero, Captain Eddie V. Rickenbacker, whose exploits set the standard for all fighter pilots to follow; "The Doolittle Raid," in which sixteen B-25 Bombers struck hard at the heart of the Japanese empire; "The Flight of Enola Gay," the mission that changed the world forever; and "The Last Ace," an original account of the first victory of Vietnam jet ace Captain Steve Ritchie.
These are not stories about airplanes, but rather of the heroes who flew them -- of the steady hands, bold hearts, and raw nerve that it takes to survive when the sky becomes a battlefield.
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Stephen Coonts is a decorated Navy attack pilot who flew combat missions from the USS Enterprise during the Vietnam War. All of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. He is also the author of The Cannibal Queen, the acclaimed nonfiction account of his flight across America in a vintage biplane. A former attorney, he and his wife, Deborah, reside in Las Vegas, Nevada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From The Last Ace
by Stephen Coonts
A fighter pilot who scores five victories has been regarded as an ace since World War I. As this is written -- in the summer of 1995, eighty years after the first ace, Roland Garros, scored his fifth victory -- one can legitimately ask if the era of the aces is over. Will the ace fighter pilot prove to be a phenomenon of the twentieth century, as unique to his time and place as the Japanese samurai or the English longbowman?
The collapse of communism ended the threat of an all-out conventional or nuclear conflict between the two largest superpowers -- the Soviet Union and the United States -- and their allies. Simultaneously, extraordinary advances in computers, lasers, composite construction, metallurgy, miniaturization, and a host of other fields obsolesced entire weapons systems at an ever-accelerating pace and drove the cost of new, state-of-the-art systems into the realm of pure fantasy.
In his 1983 book, Augustine's Laws, Norman Augustine pointed out that in every decade since the Wright brothers, the cost of warplanes has quadrupled. He noted that if that trend continues, by the year 2050 the purchase price of one fighter will consume the entire American defense budget. The trend appears to be continuing: ten years after Augustine's observation the U.S. government's first buy of B-2 bombers was a mere twenty airplanes...for $2.2 billion each!
Manned strategic bombers are today artifacts of a bygone age. It is beyond dispute that airplanes costing $2.2 billion each are purchased for political reasons, not military ones. They are too expensive to be flown for training purposes, too expensive to bear the political risks of a training accident, too expensive to be exposed to hostile fire, and too few to be a military factor in future conflicts.
As this is written, governments throughout the world are drastically reducing the sizes of their air forces. This course of events is perhaps inevitable, but it has profound implications for future armed conflicts. The 1991 Gulf War proved that a second- or third-rate power cannot hope to contest air superiority today or in the foreseeable future with a superpower, which by definition is a nation that can field well-trained, modern armed forces equipped with state-of-the-art weapons.
One suspects that in future conventional wars the inferior air force will be destroyed on the ground or flee to a neutral country. If a nation cannot contest air superiority, one wonders exactly how it could sustain a conventional army on a future battlefield. The answer may well be that it cannot, and if so, conventional wars as we knew them in the twentieth century will not occur again.
In any event, one can confidently predict that fighter pilots in the twenty-first century will come in two varieties -- they will either be highly trained specialists flying state-of-the-art superplanes with sophisticated, computerized weapons systems, or they will be undertrained cannon fodder flying obsolete equipment cast off by a superpower or some cheap volksplane with limited capabilities. Whichever, we can predict that since air forces will continue to shrink, there won't be many fighters or fighter pilots. Future conventional wars will be almighty short, with durations measured in hours, not years, and there will be drastically fewer targets aloft for winged warriors to shoot at. The chances of any individual pilot achieving five kills under such circumstances are poor indeed.
The Israeli Air Force, which has fought more conflicts in the jet age than any other power, is notoriously closemouthed about the records of its active-duty pilots. Still, Israel is known to have at least two high-scoring aces on active service as this is written; one with seventeen kills, one fifteen.
The Vietnam War may prove to be the last war on this planet in which the aerial conflict lasted long enough for pilots to become aces. The American side of the seven-year Vietnam conflict produced only two, Navy Lieutenant Randy Cunningham and Air Force Captain Steve Ritchie. Both scored five victories in F-4 Phantoms, then were removed from combat by their respective services.
Legend has it that there was at least one Vietnamese ace, Colonel Tomb, with thirteen victories scored in MiG-19s. Tomb was supposedly the fifth and final victim of Randy Cunningham and his radar intercept officer, Willie Driscoll.
Cunningham scored his last three kills on just one mission on May 10, 1972, one of the most eventful days of that long war. Laser-guided bombs -- LGBs -- were first used by the Americans that day against two of the most heavily defended, brutally tragic targets in North Vietnam, the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi and the railroad bridge at Thanh Hoa. Both bridges fell, finally.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but that day the North Vietnamese elected to launch their largest aerial effort of the war against inbound American strikes. That they still had intact airplanes at usable airfields with which to oppose the Americans illustrates not the military genius of the North Viet communists, but the grotesque stupidity of the American politicians who committed their nation to an Asian war and then foully mismanaged it. As usual in that war, the execrable decisions of these criminal incompetents would this day cost American lives.
And it was on this day, May 10, 1972, that Steve Ritchie scored his first kill. Let's fly now with the pilot destined to become the last American ace as the battle for air supremacy in the skies over North Vietnam reaches a grand crescendo.
THE BRIEFING FOR FLIGHT CREWS IN THE 555TH Fighter Squadron at Udorn Air Force Base, Thailand, began before dawn, at 5 A.M. The briefing always began at this ridiculously early hour, according to sour GI humor, so that the crews would have more time for weather delays, which occurred almost every morning at this time of year.
Capt. Steve Ritchie, a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was on his second combat tour in Southeast Asia. On his first tour he flew 195 combat missions and helped inaugurate F-4 Fast-FAC missions, in which the Phantoms' crews called in aerial strikes in areas too hot for the slower prop or turboprop machines flown by conventional forward air controllers. This morning Steve and his guy in back, or weapons system operator -- WSO -- in Air Force terminology, Chuck DeBellvue, were scheduled for another such mission.
Ritchie was in a grim mood. Two days before, on the eighth of May, he had finally engaged an airborne MiG. He was flying as a wingman, yet when his flight lead's weapons system malfunctioned, Ritchie got the communist fighter in his sights. He was just a trigger squeeze away from launching a missile when he broke off. He was below bingo fuel, the fuel state necessary to return to base safely, so he terminated the encounter. For two days the memory of that moment, and that decision, has haunted him.
The North Vietnamese rarely committed their meager air forces to aerial combat. More than half the American fighter pilots who flew north of the DMZ never even saw an enemy plane airborne, and only a few got a shot.
Although Ritchie's decision to break off was dictated by squadron doctrine and his years of training, still...He now felt that he had had a rare opportunity, and he had blown it. Worse, the enemy pilot was still alive, still had an airplane that was a lethal threat to every airborne American. The thought that that pilot might someday kill one of Ritchie's friends gnawed at him mercilessly.
He is still stewing when he learns that the number three pilot of a flight of four Phantoms scheduled to precede the bombers to Hanoi this morning has failed to appear for the brief. Ritchie quickly volunteers to fly in his place.
The call sign of the flight will be Oyster. The flight leader is Maj. Bob Lodge, a close friend of Ritchie's and a '64 classmate from the Air Force Academy. Lodge is on his third combat tour and has a reputation as the best highly experienced combat flight leader in Asia. Ritchie considers him to be a superbly competent fighter pilot, a man destined for a great Air Force career. It is an honor, Ritchie feels, just to fly with him. Lodge's wingman will be 1st Lt. John Markle. Ritchie's wingman will be 1st Lt. Tommy Feezel.
Lodge has concocted a special plan. On several previous missions North Vietnamese MiGs have orbited northwest of Hanoi, near the Yen Bai airfield, while waiting for American strikes on their way to Hanoi. When the Vietnamese GCI controllers felt the time was right, they vectored the MiGs southwest toward the inbound Americans.
Predictability is vulnerability in combat, so today Lodge hopes to ambush the Vietnamese. His plan is to lead his flight into North Vietnam at a few hundred feet above the treetops, below the radar horizon of the communists. He hopes to establish an orbit at a location that will allow him to remain undetected by enemy radar. Then, when the MiGs leave their orbit to attack the inbound American strikes, Lodge's flight will pop up and execute a surprise head-on attack.
Timing will be crucial to the success of this plan. Fuel will be critical, time on station too short. And yet, if Lodge can get his flight into position at just the right time, perhaps they will be able to break up the MiGs' attack on the Americans. Maybe the Americans will even get a shot or two.
The key to being in the right place at the right time will be knowing where the MiGs are. The Americans have a top-secret gadget to help solve this problem, the APX-81, a black box that tells the U.S. pilot the distance and bearing to the enemy aircraft, and what kind of aircraft the enemy is flying. Three of the four aircraft on this morning's mission will be equipped with this device.
When Lodge finishes briefing the specifics of this mission, he has a few words to say about emergencies. Although F-4 crews are trained to eject if their aircraft is visibly on fire, Lodge recommends staying with the...
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