The family of an Air America pilot stops at nothing to bring him home

Julia LeDoux
September 18, 2019 - 2:43 pm
George Ritter

Photo courtesy of Philippe Ritter

Philippe Ritter can tell you exactly where he was, what he was doing and who he was with when he learned that his father’s plane had been shot down over Laos in 1971.

George Ritter was a retired Air Force major and World War II veteran who loved his family and flying, Philippe said.

“We, of course, were a typical military family,” he added.

When George retired from the military in 1963, he planned to teach history at a junior college in Florida.

“But he still had mouths to feed and the love of flying,” Philippe explained.

That led George to become a pilot for Air America, a passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 that was covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Air America supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

By 1964, the family had relocated to Thailand, Philippe said.

 “My father was flying out of Saigon until just after Tet,” he said. “While stationed in Saigon, he would fly in once a month for a week to visit.  Many Air America pilots and crews had their families in Bangkok.” 

George transferred to Laos in 1969, where he flew C-123Ks. Fast forward to Dec. 26, 1971. George Ritter was scheduled to fly out of Thailand for five days.

Ritter plane
Photo courtesy of Philippe Ritter

“The next morning, I was out at the Air America operations airport with some friends to eat lunch,’ Philippe recalled.  “Someone in the operations building heard my name.”

They asked if he was George Ritter’s son.

“I was taken to a large office and the Air America base manager told me my dad was overdue,” he said. “I was the first in my family to know.  We then drove out to tell my mom and gather some wives and friends to come to the house to be with her. I will never forget the look in my mom’s eye when I met her at the backdoor with the Air America guy.”

Philippe said his father was flying too close to an area known as the “Chinese Highway” when he was shot down by Chinese forces.

“The Chinese manned this road with soldiers, work crews and radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns,” he said. “They didn’t even have to see my dad’s plane.”

The years went by and Philippe became a board member of the National League of POW/MIA Families.   

In 2015, he had a life-changing moment when he visited the crash site.

“We talked with an eye witness of that day,” he said. “Based on everything that I had learned over the years, it assured me that my father died that morning in the plane.”

Two years later, Philippe was on hand when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency started the first excavation of the site.

Ritter excavation
Photo courtesy of Philippe Ritter

“We were the first family members to ever be at a crash site during their excavation,” he said. “I wanted to see the excavation myself.”

After the excavations, the remains of George Ritter and two other crewmen were recovered and identified.

 “My dad absolutely loved flying for Air America,” Philippe said. “He told my mom about six months before being shot down that if he died doing this, he would die happy. That did not thrill my mom.”

The League was formed in 1970 and has as its mission the return of all American prisoners of war and as full an account as possible of those who are missing. said executive director Ann Mills-Griffiths.

“Toward that objective, we’ve had highs and lows,” she said.

To date, the remains of 1,057 service members have been accounted for from the Vietnam War, Mills-Griffiths said.

“That’s more than presidential administrations and members of Congress and others ever thought would be possible,” she added.

The number of American service members who remain missing and unaccounted for as a result of the Vietnam War is 1,587, according to the League.

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