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Profiles In Aviation: Karl Richter Was An Unstoppable THUD Pilot Who Loved Flying And His Fellow Airmen

This Hero Was Shot Down and Killed On What Should Have Been a Milk Run After More Than 200 F-105D “Thud” Missions Downtown

Official US Air Force Photograph

Karl Wendell Richter was born on October 4th 1942 in Holly, Michigan. Karl was the youngest of Ludwig Richter’s three children. By all accounts Karl was an all-around standout at Holly High School. He lettered in football, ran track, and played varsity basketball. He was also class president for four years. But Karl was, by his own admission, not a scholarly student. Karl’s prospects for a college education seemed slim. One of things he enjoyed immensely was aviation. His older sister Betty May helped him pursue his interest in aviation and by the time Karl was getting ready to graduate from high school he was an experienced pilot.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Because Karl wasn’t looking forward to more school at a regular college, Betty May talked him into applying for admission to the Air Force Academy. Although Karl figured he probably wouldn’t be accepted, he completed the admissions process anyway. To Karl’s great surprise two Michigan Congressmen made him their primary appointee to the Academy. Just nine days after graduating from Holly High School, Karl Richter became a cadet in Squadron 8. Karl didn’t magically become a better student at the Air Force Academy, but the word is he excelled at sports. He enjoyed intramurals such as rugby, football, soccer, and boxing. Karl graduated from the Air Force Academy and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on June 3rd 1964.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Karl’s pilot training wasn’t anything unusual for Air Force pilots in those days. He spent 53 weeks at Craig Air Force Base (AFB) in Alabama completing his Undergraduate Pilot Training. From there Karl went to Nellis AFB in Nevada for 26 weeks to complete the Combat Crew Replacement Training syllabus for the Republic F-105D Thunderchief. It was normal, even expected, for a pilot having just completed a little bit more than a year and half of intensive training to take some leave at that point, but Karl decided instead to ferry a replacement F-105D over to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in Thailand. Karl then became the newest member of the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW).

Official US Air Force Photograph

Four days after arriving in Thailand Karl flew his first mission over North Vietnam. Karl was one of those pilots who wanted to be in the air whenever possible. He quickly became an excellent Thud pilot despite his lack of previous experience in the cockpit. He would fly anything he could, anytime he could. He once turned down a trip to the exotic destinations of Hong Kong and Bangkok only to spend his leave flying combat forward air controller (FAC) missions in Cessna O-1E Bird Dogs instead.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Karl bagged a MiG-17 on September 21st 1966. He was flying as an element leader designated Ford 03 near Haiphong in North Vietnam sniffing for surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. When Karl found a SAM site he was getting ready to clobber it when he spied a section of MiG-17s making a firing pass on another Thud in the lead element. Karl maneuvered into firing position and employed his 20 millimeter M61A1 Vulcan cannon to saw a wing off of one of the MiGs forcing the pilot to eject from his stricken jet and the other to bolt for home. Karl was 23 years old when he shot down his MiG, making him the youngest American pilot ever to down a MiG. Richter went to Saigon to receive congratulations and decorations, but he wanted to fly.

Official US Air Force Photograph

There was simply no stopping him. He quickly piled up his first 90 missions, which usually meant that he would fly another ten “soft” missions and rotate back to the world. But not Karl. Karl wanted another 100. He had to glad-hand a bit and do some politicking. Meanwhile, Karl was winning medals for his extraordinary bravery and initiative in the air. He led a Wild Weasel (defense suppression) mission on April 20th 1967 that resulted in the destruction or distraction of a large number of enemy SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) crews. This allowed the strike force with whom Richter was working to eliminate an important railroad target even though Richter’s group experienced  intense enemy fire and dealt with weather that hindered navigation. Because he had already received the Silver Star, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his skill and heroism that day. And those next 100 missions? He got them too.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Karl kept flying missions into North Vietnam and Laos, many of which put him in the teeth of what has been described as the most intense air defense network ever created by man. Flying incredibly risky missions didn’t bother him though. Karl Richter completed his 200th mission and returned safely to Khorat in July of 1967. The Seventh Air Force was ready to send him packing. 200 missions. A MiG kill. Karl’s knowledge would have been a valuable asset were he able to share more of it with new pilots and crews coming in-country. The war, although nobody knew it at the time, still had a long way to go.

Official US Air Force Photograph

But Karl was determined to fly a tour in North American F-100 Super Sabres and another tour as a FAC after that. When asked why, he would say that if he added those in-country tours to the experience he already had he would become the most qualified expert in the Air Force in the kind of air war being fought in Southeast Asia. Perhaps then he would have gone back to “the world” and passed along all that knowledge. But on July 28th 1967 Richter, then 24 years old, was flying over Route Package I (supposedly a relatively safe area) with a new pilot when Karl sighted a bridge. Karl told his wingman, along for his initial check ride, to orbit and observe.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Karl rolled in on the bridge. An unseen AAA emplacement found the range quickly and hit Karl’s Thud hard. Richter initiated a climb to egress south of the DMZ but the F-105D just wasn’t going to make it back to Korat. His May Day call was received loud and clear. Forced to eject, Richter made it out of his stricken jet and was under a good chute when he disappeared under a low cloud deck. Karl’s beeper was operational and the Sandys and Jolly Greens that scrambled when his May Day call went out were on-scene quickly. The terrain into which Richter descended in his chute was rocky and as best as can be determined Karl W Richter was severely injured, breaking his neck, when he landed. Although the Jolly Green pulled him out he passed away on the way back to the hospital.

Official US Air Force Photograph

When First Lieutenant Karl Richter died he had flown 198 missions into North Vietnam- more than any other airman at the time. Karl was always willing to do the hard thing; the thing worth doing. He exemplified the kind of selfless dedication to his fellow airmen and comrades in arms that had become so rare during that time. Karl was posthumously awarded the 1969 Air Force Jabara Award for Airmanship. In 2005 he was named the Exemplar for the Air Force Academy Class of 2008, thereby joining some elite company. Other Academy Class Exemplars have included men like Jimmy Doolittle, Billy Mitchell, Lance Sijan, Dick Bong, Eddie Rickenbacker, George Patton, Tooey Spaatz, and Gus Grissom.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Lieutenant Richter’s decorations and service awards include the Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 21 oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart. A cafeteria located in Arnold Hall, the cadet social center at the Air Force Academy, is named in honor of Lieutenant Richter. The schools administration building in Karl’s hometown of Holly, Michigan was named after him. Statues of Karl Richter have been erected on the Mall of Heroes at the Air Force Academy and at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.  At Maxell the statue is inscribed:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8). No quotation could be more appropriate for First Lieutenant Karl Richter United States Air Force.

The Air Force Cross (Official US Air Force Photograph)

On April 20, 1967, First Lieutenant Richter was awarded the Air Force Cross. His citation reads:  “The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, awards the Air Force Cross to First Lieutenant Karl W. Richter for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as the leader of a flight of F-105s on a mission over North Vietnam on 20 April 1967. The target, a very important railroad facility, was defended by several hundred antiaircraft artillery emplacement and SA-2 missiles. Lieutenant Richter’s mission was to destroy or limit fire from these defenses immediately before a strike on this facility by fighter bombers. Arriving over the approach to the target, he found clouds obscuring navigational references and increasing the danger from unobserved SAM launches. Despite weather conditions, Lieutenant Richter, with great professional skill and undaunted determination, led his flight through a barrage of missiles to the target. Braving the heavy concentrated fire of the antiaircraft artillery, he positioned his flight and attacked the defenses, causing heavy damage. As a result of his efforts, the fighter bombers of the main strike force encountered only limited defensive fire and destroyed this vital railroad facility. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, First Lieutenant Richter reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

Here’s a short video segment uploaded by Aviation Technology Space Channel about Thuds in Vietnam.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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