By Jim Stanley
The 47th annual meeting of the American Fighter Aces Association was held at the Hyatt Regency June 29 through July 2, in San Antonio, Texas. In the simplest terms, the purpose of the AFAA is to preserve the distinguished heritage and legacy of our fighter aces for military aviators, historians and the general population.
“Like all the past aces’ reunions, this one has been an outstanding success—an event to remember,” said Col. Arthur F. Jeffrey, USAF (ret.), retiring AFAA president.
In 2002, the AFAA moved its headquarters from San Antonio to Seattle and joined with The Museum of Flight, which promised overall support and resources to properly house and maintain the extensive archives of the association. The AFAA initially boasted a membership of 1,442 pilots who had reached ace status by destroying five or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat. Membership numbers have fallen to the current 272, due to the passing of individuals through the years and the unlikely addition of new inductees. Advancing technology has effectively ended man-to-man combat action.
The youngest member of AFAA, at 64, is Capt. Steve Ritchie, USAF, who scored five victories in Vietnam. Upon retirement, Ritchie remained active in the Air Force Reserve, and was promoted to brigadier general in 1994. The oldest ace present was 91-year-old Brig. Gen. David Lee “Tex” Hill. His distinguished record as a triple ace was achieved with the Flying Tigers and later in command of the 23rd Fighter Group under General Claire Chennault in China.
In response to a question about his health, Hill tapped his finger on his left knee and indicated that it was very painful.
“I broke the kneecap and the leg and really never had it fixed,” he said. “It finally gave me so much pain that I went to the Mayo Clinic. They told me that if they cut on it, I would probably lose the leg; I had waited too long. I decided to tolerate the pain.”
Twenty aces have passed ad astra since the last reunion in 2005. Among those was Brig. Gen. Robert Lee Scott, West Point class of 1932 and author of the best-selling book, “God Is My Co-Pilot.” He was 97 years old.
On Friday night, the group met for dinner at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, a unique establishment very close to the Hyatt. The Buckhorn opened in 1881 and portrays wildlife and the Wild West in 33,000 square feet of exhibits covering the walls, open floor spaces and every nook and cranny.
The after dinner program introduced distinguished guests and noted certain aces for special recognition. Maj. Kenneth Dahlberg, triple ace in the Ninth Air Force in Europe, was asked to stand and be applauded as the date, June 30, was his 89th birthday.
Each year fighter pilots from the three flying services are designated “Top Gun,” based on test scores achieved in all aspects of combat flying and associated ground and organizational subjects. Two past Navy winners of this award were present, Lt. Todd Homan for 2001 and Lt. Matt Culp for 2002. They each spoke of their experiences flying from the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during missile attack missions in Iraq and the amazing traffic control of the dozens of assigned aircraft.
“On the climb-out from the carrier, you could see the lights of two rivers of airplanes—one stream heading out toward the targets, the other on the opposite side of an imaginary line, heading home,” Culp said.
Members of the AFAA who aren’t fighter aces are called Friends of the Aces. Many of the attendees at the meeting were Friends members, who currently number more than 700.
A formal banquet on Saturday night at the hotel concluded the festivities. The highlight of the evening was a speech delivered by Brig. Gen. Robert F. McDermott, USAF (ret.), chairman emeritus of USAA. He worked for USAA, one of the largest automobile, household and life insurers in America, as the CEO for 25 years.
McDermott graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served as a command pilot in World War II, flying 61 combat missions in Europe. President Eisenhower appointed McDermott as dean of the faculty of the Air Force Academy, a post he held throughout the first 10 graduating classes.
The meeting concluded with the naming of the elected officers and members of the board for 2006, and recognition of distinguished guests, including Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, former NASA astronaut and president of The Museum of Flight, and Captain Brad Orgeron, the 2006 winner of the Air Force Top Gun award, who traveled from Kadena, Japan, to attend.