Member of Fighter Mafia Passes

(Photo courtesy of James Stevenson.)

Colonel Everest E. “Rich” Riccioni USAF (ret.) passed away on April 15 in Monument, Colorado, at the age of 91. We at the Project On Government Oversight were privileged to have a fighter aviation expert of his stature as advisor, consultant, and contributor to our work. We will miss the brilliance of his insights, his lucid analyses of airpower and its costs, his dedication to improving national defense while reducing its burden on the taxpayer, his unforgettable, larger-than-life personality, and his passionate advocacy of all things Italian.

To say he was a colorful character is a vast understatement: his business card included Raconteur, Bon Vivant, and World’s Third Greatest Fighter Aircraft Designer. Whether lecturing as a charismatic professor of Astronautics at the Air Force Academy or leading radically innovative aeronautical programs in the Pentagon, he always carried an arrow, both as a pointer and as a reminder of the real fundamentals of war. The Academy cadets loved him for it. The Pentagon generals hated the reminder.

Rich had a long and storied career. He joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943, eventually flying C-46 transports on dangerous missions over the “Hump” in the India-Burma Theater, then service-testing newly assembled P-38s, P-51s and B-24s. After a brief stint away to get his aeronautics and mathematics degrees, he returned to the Air Force in 1949. He became a test pilot at the Air Force’s legendary Edwards test base and then an instructor at the Experimental Test Pilot School, the beginning of his lifelong love of teaching. All told, Riccioni flew 55 military aircraft of all types, particularly fighters, logging 5,500 hours in the air over the course of his career.

In the wake of Sputnik, the Air Force selected him for advanced graduate work in Astronautics at MIT, then tasked him to develop and teach the Academy’s first high-level Astronautics course. In four years of inspired teaching, Riccioni left behind hundreds of awestruck, devoted students. After several more stints in fighters including F-100s, F-104s, and F-4s, he was transferred in 1969 to Air Force HQ in the Pentagon to work on F-15 R&D.

There Rich quickly became disenchanted with the unnecessary complexity and large size of the F-15, convinced that its high cost would destroy the possibility of acquiring an adequate number of fighters. Despite the Air Force’s enormous pro-F-15 career pressures, he courageously joined forces with two like-minded Pentagon dissidents, Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s greatest air-to-air tactics innovator, and Pierre Sprey, the OSD “whiz kid” hated throughout the Air Force for his anti-bombing, pro-fighter analyses. They formed a triumvirate that Rich quickly dubbed the Fighter Mafia, dedicated to producing the most unbeatable, smallest, and cheapest air-to-air fighter in the world. At great risk to his career, Riccioni created and funded the initial covert design program that launched the unprecedented F-16 versus F-17 prototype flyoff competition.

It took five more years of incessant bureaucratic guerilla warfare in the corridors of the Pentagon and the Capitol to shape the design and then nail down production funding, but the Fighter Mafia prevailed: the F-16 became the backbone of the USAF fighter force and the F-17 morphed into the F-18 to become the dominant Navy fighter. It was Riccioni’s proudest achievement but it ended his military career: the USAF Vice Chief of Staff banished him from the Pentagon to Korea and thence to a career-end tour as the commander of the Wright Patterson Flight Mechanics Division, a staid bureaucracy he shook to its roots with his crusading advocacy of supersonic cruise for fighters.

Rich retired from his beloved Air Force in 1976 and started a distinguished 15-year civilian career leading path-breaking design and analysis projects, including supercruising fighters, in Northrop’s Advanced Design department. Retiring from Northrop in 1981, he branched out on his own as an aviation consultant.

In the late 1990s, Riccioni and POGO began working together, primarily on cutting back the technically flawed and hugely expensive F-22, a fighter Rich passionately opposed. The plane’s grossly excessive complexity destroyed the supercruise capability that he had been advocating for 20 years; even worse, he saw that the fighter’s unaffordable and burgeoning sticker price—eventually $419 million per fighter—was forcing the Air Force into "unilateral disarmament.” Rich’s vision was soon vindicated: in 2009 Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated the F-22 at a uselessly small force of 187 aircraft. You can see some of his prophetic work with POGO here:

Will We Ever Fly Before We Buy? F-22 Doesn't Meet Basic Testing Criteria, January 2, 2001

Riccioni Responds to F/A-22 Advocates, March 23, 2005

For other points of view on Riccioni’s fascinating life,see the excerpts from Robert Coram’s meticulously researched and superbly insightful biography of Col. John Boyd (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War, Robert Coram, 2004) and from Col. Riccioni’s own short autobiographical essay, written in 2014 and printed below:


Brief Summary of My Background and Major Achievements


I volunteered to be an Aviation Cadet in WW-II. On graduation from flight training as a 2nd Lieutenant, I wanted to be a fighter pilot but was assigned to instruct in BT-13s. I left to fly Curtiss 46 transports in Cairo and Karachi, India. In India I did limited service testing of P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightings, and B-24 Liberator bombers, assembled for the war in China.

Discharged as a 1st Lieutenant, I attended the University of Minnesota to gain two degrees – a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, and a Master of Science degree in Applied Mathematics minoring in Physics and Aeronautical Engineering.

I returned to the Air Force in l949, and was assigned to the Experimental Flight Test Center to perform three roles - one as a flight test engineer; after graduation from the Experimental Flight Test Pilot School I did some flight test programs; and the lastly as an instructor in academics and flight test techniques in the EFTPS. I was promoted to Captain. Qualified to fly 12 aircraft, I was privileged to fly all the fighters, bombers, and transports at Edwards FTC. I managed to get a six week program to Nellis AFB in the Fighter Weapons School. Flight-testing fighters does not transform one into a competent operational fighter pilot, so I transferred to the 36th Day Fighter Wing in Germany, flying F-86Fs and F-l00Cs, the first operational supersonic fighter. While there I was selected for astronaut training in the first class. I declined the privilege… My wife presented me the first of three wonderful children.

Russia launched ''Sputnik" so I was assigned to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for almost four years of advanced studies in Astronautical Engineering. I was promoted to Major and I flew T-33 jet trainers. The following assignment was to the USAF Academy where I was assigned to create and teach ASTR0-551, one of the two most advanced engineering courses at the USAFA. I flew T-33 jets with the AF and F-l00Cs with the Colorado Air National Guard. I was promoted to Lt. Colonel. During the lax summers I created a program for the USAFA pilots to retain their flight currency. I was ordered to Nellis AFB to become current in F-100s.

On separate summers, I was ordered to fly F-104s at Luke AFB, F-105 Thunderjets at McConnell AFB, and F-4C Phantoms at George AFB preparatory to a quick short combat tour n Vietnam. That short program was cancelled. While still teaching at the Academy, I wrote a manuscript defining modem fighter tactics - TIGERS AIRBORNE. It was published by the USAFA, together with the course book for Astro 551. My wife presented me with children four, five, and six.

Next assignment was to the Air War College. While there, I completed a Master of Science degree in International Relations with George Washington University. Then on to a year of flying F-4Ds at Homestead AFB for the Combat Readiness Training Program in preparation for assignment in Vietnam. At Homestead, I was promoted to full Colonel, which promotion kept me from being assigned to the Vietnam war that was winding down.

Next assigned to the F-15 Office in Tactical Fighter Requirements on the Air Staff in the Pentagon in 1969. I achieved little to improve the F-15, however, on seeing the threat to our airpower posed by the expensive F-15 (its cost would shrink Tactical Air Command and never allow the USAF sufficient numbers for future wars), I assigned myself the additional duty of solving the numbers deficit by conceiving a new low­cost fighter. Together with Col. John R. Boyd, a famous Air Force pilot, and Pierre M. Sprey, a "whiz kid" in the Office of the SecDef, we described the need for it and determined its performance, range, speeds, and maneuvering requirements. My desires and efforts would have been fruitless, but for these two geniuses who believed in me and my program and joined me to form a triumvirate still renowned as the Fighter Mafia. Boyd and I briefed the USAF and the aircraft contractors on the concept. The generals wanted only F-15s for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, I was allowed to work on my self-assignment, but the Air Staff generals "knew" they could and would prevent the program from maturing. But the other two Mafia members involved the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, and the Congress to overrule the recalcitrant generals. The F-16 won the competitive fly-off, and went into production concurrently with the F-15 in 1974. These two geniuses made my dream of increasing (doubling) the size of the USAF fighter fleet a reality. Further, through no effort of the Fighter Mafia, two aircraft contractors convinced the US Navy that a navalized version of the F-17, i.e., the F-18, would be an excellent fighter for the USN. Today the F-15 has essentially disappeared, and the then-prime USN carrier defense fighter, the F-14, is long gone. Advanced versions of the F-16 and the F-18 are still in production after 47 years - a world record. Many of the world's countries bought them, returning much gold to the US. The Fighter Mafia determined the nature of the fighter forces and the air order of battle for the USAF, the USN, and much of the world.

As a "reward" for this achievement, I was banished (punished) by the Air Staff to a year in South Korea, as Director of Operations and Training of the 314th Division at Osan Airbase i n 1973. My formal request to be assigned to Vietnam was turned down, without explanation. Next assignment was a compromise banishment tour to Hawaii as Deputy Commander of the 326th Air Division in Hawaii and as an analyst in PACAF HQ. Despite differing with two major generals, I was finally deemed "rehabilitated" in two years and assigned to command the Flight Mechanics Division at Wright Patterson AFB in 1974.There I managed the research on supersonic cruise fighter design, convened the first nationwide Secret Supersonic-Fighter Design Conference and inspired the second. I retired from the USAF at WPAFB in September of 1976.

Soon I was employed by Northrop Aircraft Division as Staff Assistant to support the Head of Advanced Design. I managed several projects to enhance their current aircraft, e.g., mounting the powerful GAU-13 30 mm anti-tank cannon underneath their smallest fighter. I was allowed to manage the design of several aircraft, among them a high performance supersonic-cruise fighter. I was selected by the B-2 Division to assist in several important projects – one of them quite critical. Two vice presidents ordered me to analyze the future that conventional (non-nuclear) weapons held for the B-2. They were surprised by my answer, but accepted it. I retired from Northrop in 1981.