American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category

By Dave Bio Baranek
Oct 18 2022
Sponsored by: Tomcat RIO
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The change was led by Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a retired US Navy commander and former F-4 Phantom pilot, who along with his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Willy “Irish” Driscoll was the first US ace of the Vietnam War.

The American Fighter Aces Association (AFAA) was founded in 1960 to recognize combat pilots – from World War I to the present – who destroyed five or more hostile aircraft in air-to-air combat, thus achieving the status of American Fighter Ace. The association recently changed its policy to include back seaters in its “Ace” category, the top of its membership categories.

American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
Cunningham and Driscoll (US Navy photo)

The change was led by Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a retired US Navy commander and former F-4 Phantom pilot, who along with his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Willy “Irish” Driscoll was the first US ace of the Vietnam War. Cunningham became AFAA president in 2020 and proposed to amend the definition of the membership category of Ace to include back-seaters.

American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
DeBellevue (US Air Force photo)

The AFAA has three categories of membership:

  • Ace: A fighter pilot or back seater who has shot down five or more enemy aircraft in the air while a member of United States services during a time of war.
  • Associate: A fighter pilot or back seater who has shot down from one to four enemy aircraft in the air while a member of United States services during a time of war.
  • Friend: An individual who is committed to preserving the legacy of American Fighter Aces may join as a Friend of the Aces, an auxiliary of the American Fighter Aces Association.
American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
Feinstein (US Air Force photo)

Cunningham’s action echoed events from 1972, when after his fifth kill several senior officers said they would recommend him for the Medal of Honor, US armed forces’ highest decoration. The new ace replied, “Whatever I get, I want Willy to get, or I will not accept it.” In the end, Cunningham and Driscoll were both awarded the Navy Cross, which is the US Navy and Marine Corps’ second-highest award.

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Of the five American Aces from the Vietnam war, two are pilots and three are back seaters. The pilots are Cunningham and Steve Ritchie, a retired USAF brigadier general. In addition to Driscoll, the back seaters are: Charles DeBellevue, a retired USAF colonel who is credited with six kills; Jeffrey Feinstein, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel. Interestingly, after the war both DeBellevue and Feinstein went to pilot training and earned pilot wings. All five aviators scored their kills in 1972, flying F-4 Phantoms, and were at the rank of O2 or O3 when they became aces.

American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
Ritchie (US Air Force photo)

The design and colors of the AFAA logo are full of symbolism. The curved black shape in the center represents the ace of spades, sometimes known as the death card, which represents the high stakes of aerial combat. Superimposed on it is the sword of freedom. The five-star array at the top represents five kills, the minimum to be an ace, and the color gold used in several places represents the wingmen we’ve lost.

American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
The American Fighter Aces Association logo, which is full of symbolism.

The AFAA website, www.americanfighteraces.org, includes a list of American Fighter Aces, merch and lithographs for sale, information on scholarships the organization sponsors, and additional information about aces and the AFAA itself. Membership as a Friend of the Aces is open to anyone interested in preserving and promoting the legacy of American Fighter Aces, regardless of aerial combat experience, and currently costs $50 per year. Benefits of membership include a quarterly newsletter and a one-time 50% discount on a print from the collection of lithographs.

American Fighter Aces Association Changes Policy to Include Back Seaters in its “Ace” Category
This mosaic of images represents some of the aces depicted on the AFAA website.

The AFAA holds an annual reunion. The dates for 2022 are October 27-30; location is San Antonio, Texas.

Bio is an occasional contributor to The Aviation Geek Club and the author of two books, Topgun Days and Before Topgun Days. His latest book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy

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Dave Bio Baranek

Dave Bio Baranek

Dave "Bio" Baranek was an F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor. He retired from the Navy in 1999 and has written three books about his flying experiences. His latest book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020. His website is www.topgunbio.com.

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