This article originally appeared
in the November 1967 issue of The Airman Magazine
First Lieutenant Karl W. Richter was a fighter. He'd found something he
could do really well and he wanted to go on doing it. He hated anything
that stood in
the way of total success. That was his philosophy and he lived - and died
- by it.
That's why some people called him a rebel. Maybe that's also why he was
outstanding flyer; and even more than a flyer. He was, in fact, a natural
pilot who excelled at combat. A rebel? Yes, in the sense that he rebelled
mediocrity, at leaving a job half done. 1st Lt. Karl Richter and his
Thunderchief were an inseparable team. He was fascinated with that
even gives me a thrill to taxi that F-105," he often remarked.
lieutenant and his plane flew more strike missions into North Vietnam
other man and machine - 198*) in all. Their capabilities were never
know North Vietnam like I know the back of my hand," Richter often
said, and the
men who flew with him knew he wasn't bragging. "I know every rock,
They've got me leading flights now-newly arrived majors and lieutenant
flying my wing. I think I can help these people become really effective a
That was the young veteran talking when he was fighting for a second tour
Thailand. He'd laid his plans on the line. After 200 missions over North
wanted to fly an F-1OO tour and then another as a forward air controller
Vietnam. Why? "If I can add an in-country tour to my present
emphasized, "I believe I can become the most qualified expert in the
Air Force on
this kind of air war." Lieutenant Richter meant what he said. He was
Perhaps determined and aggressive enough to have reached his lofty goal.
Nobody will ever know. Fate stepped in.
On July 28, 1967 , the 24-year-old combat veteran piloted his
northward, past the DMZ into "package one." It was to have been
a relatively easy
mission. His wingman was a newcomer; this was his checkout mission.
one" is the safest of the six territories American airmen have
designated in North
Vietnam. "Package six," the Hanoi-Haiphong area is the
roughest, the most
dangerous as determined by the intensity of ground fire. Richter and his
saw a bridge. Instructing the new man to stay above and watch, the young
rolled his 105 and dived. Suddenly, communist triple A opened up. The
rounds spit upward, hitting the Thunderchief on its way down.
pulled up. His fighter-bomber grabbed at the sky and gained altitude.
toward home - Korat, Thailand - but the crippled jet couldn't make it.
"May Day! May
Day!" Richter called and then punched out. He ejected safely and had
chute. Then he disappeared into the fog bank and cloud cover. The valley
was full of karst (coral and limestone rocks). Normally hostile forces
area because of the rough terrain. Richter should have been comparatively
until an HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant' could get there. The rescue
nearby. Its crew picked up the lieutenant's beeper signal immediately and
to get the downed pilot. No one will ever know exactly what happened.
interfered with Richter's descent. Either he swung into the side of a
or his chute hecame snagged on a protruding tree. In any case, the
have collapsed causing the pilot to plunge onto the rocks. When the
found him he was in critical condition with multiple broken bones. He
died en route
to a hospital. Just a few months earlier, at the time he signed on for
his second 100
combat missions, the young man had stated, "They'll never get me,
I'm too mean."
They didn't! An unusual accident did.
Richter needn't have been over North Vietnam that day. He'd served his
fulfilled his obligation according to regulation. He could have returned
home a hero.
But, that wasn't Karl Richter's way. He was a fighter and the job wasn't
thought -he knew he could contribute more to the cause of freedom in
Asia. He'd always had a problem with books and studying, but, he'd
studied this air
war and he wanted to learn even more.
Eight years ago, Karl Richter was preparing to graduate from high school
Michigan. He was very popular - had been his class president four years,
football, had played basketball and run track. But, his future was dim.
By his own
admission, he wasn't an honor student. The thought of more schooling
appealing at all. Then his sister, Betty May, who was a flying
encouraged him to apply for entrance to the US Air Force Academy.
"it didn't cost anything to try," he filled out all the papers
and completed the tests. "I
thought I had less than nil chance of getting in," he admitted, but
Congressmen, Senator Philip A. Hart and Representative William S.
thought differently. They made him their primary appointee and nine days
graduating from high school Karl Richter became a "doolie" at
Again, he was not an outstanding student. He did excel at intramural
especially the close-contact activities - rugby, soccer, football and
boxing. He really
liked boxing; standing there toe to toe, matching skill with an
graduated with the Class of 1964. After only a short leave, he went to
Alabama, for basic pilot training. That's where he saw his first F-105.
He wanted to
fly that bird. His next assignment was Nellis AFB, Nevada, where, after
survival training at Stead AFB, Nevada, he began advanced flying training
Thunderchief. The F-105 was his "baby"; flying his whole life.
Recognized for his
outstanding ability in this aircraft, Lieutenant Richter was accorded the
honor of highflying an F-105 across the Pacific to Southeast Asia after
flying training. This is an honor rarely given to a young lieutenant.
jumped at the opportunity. He didn't even take a leave before going
April 6, 1966, he arrived at Korat. Four days later he was flying his
over North Vietnam. One mission led to another and his flying proficiency
quickly. Richter became a highly professional fighter pilot. With only
two years' Air
Force experience and even less in combat, Lieutenant Richter became an
leader. He seemed to have a complete lack of selfconcern in combat. His
enthusiasm for every flying activity was contagious. Once, while on
R&R leave, he
turned down a trip to Bangkok or Hong Kong and went instead to Nakhon
where he flew combat missions in an 0-1E Bird Dog. According to his
commander, Maj. Fred L. Tracy, Lieutenant Richter was good - one of the
fighter pilots in his unit. This became obvious when, with only five
months in SEA,
the determined young airman carved his name in aviation history.
September 21, 1966, was a red-letter day in Lieutenant Richter's young
was flying as element leader, 30 miles north-northwest of Haiphong on a
seek out SAM sites. His flight located a suspected site. The lead and
element prepared to strike while Richter wheeled wide to follow them in.
swung back around he saw two Mig-17s making a pass on the first element.
number four on his wing, Richter moved in toward the enemy. As he later
the contact: "They slid in front of us beautifully - about a mile,
mile and a half or two
miles out."It was funny - we have so few contacts (with Migs), it
takes probably a full
second before it jogs your mind... those are not airplanes like any we
fly. "Well, right
away the only thing that passed into my mind was set up your sights,
babe, there's a
Mig out there." During the next couple of seconds, he sized up the
Advising number four, who was behind him, that he was dropping his
Richter began closing in on the enemy aircraft. "I cleaned my bird,
lit the burners,
and started in after them. Wanted to be careful. Didn't want to move in
with the burner going - just get an overshoot - 50 rounds at him and go
by. First thing I'd know then, there'd be a Mig behind me, which is not
(situation). "We moved in. He made an easy turn. I moved the pipper
out in front of
him and started firing. He's going to break, I kept saying to myself:
break... he'll break into the shells and maybe I'll get a couple of hits
on him that way
"But he didn't break and I kept firing. I thought 'boy, this is
going to be
embarrassing' you know? I shoot for three or four seconds; three or four
rounds of good 20mm ammunition. I thought this is really going to be
if you miss this guy... Then, four was calling, "You're hitting him,
you're hitting him..
Then, I saw fire coming out the back end of the Mig. I didn't think he
was in burner -
but he still seemed to be moving through the sky pretty good." The
and Richter reversed with him, fired again and saw his bullets impacting
enemy's right wing. Just as the F-105's guns went empty, the Mig's wing
pieces flew out the tail and another big chunk flew loose from the plane.
Richter pulled up to evade the debris, saw the Mig pilot eject and heard
four's radio call, "He's got a good chute." "You know,
that's pretty good," the
Academy grad thought to himself "lt's strange, but, in a way, I was
happy he got a
good chute. I guess that's the thought that runs through all our minds.
He's a jock
like I am, flying for the enemy of course, but he's flying a plane, doing
a job he has to
do." Lieutenant Richter banked over and watched the Mig crash. When
it hit the
ground, he knew it was his. At the age of 23, Lt. Karl Richter had become
youngest American pilot to blast a communist Mig out of the skies over
One mission followed another and, on October 13, 1966, the lieutenant
100th strike over the north. But he wasn't ready for rotation. He liked
it in Thailand.
He requested and finally got approval for another 100 combat missions.
"lt's a good
tour". he said. "Over here, the major emphasis is on whatever
it takes to get the
mission done.I like that. I enjoy working at 100 percent capacity."
He thought he
could help the overall mission in SEA. That was the main reason he
another November 1967 round. But that was just one of the reasons.
a bunch of reasons", the lieutenant said. "The major one could
be...," he hesitated,
"one of them is...," another pause while he searched for the
right words, "it will
seem strange to say it, hut I kinda believe in what we're doing over
here. I believe in
the work." Then he revealed another facet of his personal character
"I signed that
paper, you know, to be a, fighter pilot, to come in when there's a job to
be done and
to do the job. Getting in there with a lot of guys and mixing it up with
airplanes and you know, the whole nine yards. "I really like the
work. It seems like a
strange thing to say, but you know, I really enjoy flying. lt's so good,
I can't believe it."
Lieutenant Richter went into Saigon twice, once to receive the personal
congratulations of Lt. Gen. William W. Momyer, Commander, Seventh Air
shooting down the Mig, and again at the personal invitation of Premier
Ky. The latter occasion was New Year's Eve, 1966. There was a party at
Vietnamese Air Force officers' club. He occupied a seat of honor that
night, next to
the charming wife of Premier Ky. He was decorated with the Vietnamese
Distinguished Service Medal and he danced with Mrs. Ky. But most of the
he spent his time talking to top officers, trying to convince them that
he should be
allowed to fly an additional tour after completing his second 100
Lieutenant Richter went back to Thailand and kept right on flying; doing
his Job. He
liked the challenge. He'd always accepted the challenging things in life.
routine failed to hold his interest. His father and mother, Mr. and Mrs.
Richter, were never surprised at their son's activities. They understood
"That's the way he is," his father related when Karl signed up
for his second tour.
"Once he starts something in which he believes, he will either
finish it or die trying."
Karl Richter believed his combat missions were "sort of a Ph.D. in
weapons." Someday he had hoped to'return to the United States and
instructor, believing full well that he could help other young fighter
pilots on the way
up. Here was a self-acknowledged rebel who once quipped that his last
school was the best one. Yet, he realized the value of formal education
as well as
practical experience for anyone hoping to become a top-notch fighter
pilot. In his
own way he hoped to contribute to the US Air Force fighter pilot flight
program. One day, many years ago, another American veteran of another war
"You never know how far a man will cast his shadow until he stands
Lieutenant Karl Richter stood up. And he stood tall.
The Airman Magazine, 1967
= Word has it that after Lt. Richter's death, close scrutiny of his flight
records revealed that he
actually already surpassed the 200 Missions milestone.