The Last American Aces

Members of an exclusive club tell what it takes to make ace.

Cmdr. Dean S.“Diz” Laird is the only U.S. Navy ace to have scored combat victories in both the European and the Pacific theaters of World War II. (Robert Seale)
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He was a West Point graduate flying F-86 Sabres in Korea 63 years ago. Last May, as president of the American Fighter Aces Association, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland received a Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. House and Senate leaders on behalf of the 1,447 U.S. pilots who destroyed at least five enemy aircraft during air-to-air combat.

With aerial warfare shifting away from dogfights and toward the use of unmanned aircraft, it’s possible the American Fighter Aces will never get another member. At the group’s annual convention, held last June in Texas, 10 aces, ranging in age from 73 to 95, renewed friendships at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, where all but one of the following portraits were made.

Brig. Gen. Richard Stephen "Steve" Ritchie, USAF

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(Robert Seale)

“I miss combat flying to this day,” says Ritchie (photographed with an F-4 Phantom at Ellington Airport in Houston), who logged more than 4,000 hours during his Air Force career. As an F-4 pilot in Vietnam, he shot down five MiG-21s. “During the minute or so of a dogfight, most of what we did was due to instinct, reflexes, study of the latest intelligence, and on-the-job training,” he says.

Ritchie is also quick to credit others: “I would not be a fighter ace had it not been for tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel in the entire support community.” Since retiring in 1999, Ritchie has traveled the world, giving lectures on how to succeed.

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