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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Kenneth William “Pete” Pettigrew, USNR

July 3, 2024 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Kenneth William “Pete” (“Viper”) Pettigrew on 23 June 2024 at age 82. Rear Admiral Pettigrew entered the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) Program in 1960 at Stanford University and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in January 1998 as Reserve Deputy Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. His commands included Reserve Fighter Squadron THREE ZERO TWO (VF-302), NR Naval Air Force Pacific 1094, and NR Naval Reserve Readiness Command, Region ELEVEN. He flew 325 combat missions during three deployments during the Vietnam War and was awarded a Silver Star for shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed fighter on 6 May 1972, making him the only former Top Gun instructor with a confirmed air-to-air kill. He was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, 33 Air Medals (3 individual and 30 strike/flight), and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for service in the Vietnam War, flying the F-4 Phantom II. He was also the technical advisor to the 1986 movie Top Gun.

Pettigrew entered Stanford University in California in 1960, graduating in June 1964 with a degree in biological science, and was commissioned an ensign on 3 June 1964 via the NROTC program. While at Stanford he was a standout swimmer, selected as a member of the 1963 national collegiate water polo team, and was twice selected as an All-American in water polo and the 400-yard medley relay.

In October 1964, Ensign Pettigrew reported to the Naval Air Basic Training Command (NABTC) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, where he flew the T-34 Mentor and T-2A Buckeye jet trainer. In December 1965, he was assigned to Training Squadron TWO FOUR (VT-24), flying the TF-9 and AF-9 jet trainers and F-11 Tiger jet fighter. He was promoted to lieutenant junior grade in December 1965. He was designated a naval aviator in June 1966.

In June 1966, Lieutenant (j.g.) Pettigrew reported to Fighter Squadron ONE TWO ONE (VF-121) “Pacemakers” at NAS Miramar, California, for flight training in the F-4B Phantom II jet fighter-bomber. In December 1966, he was assigned to Fighter Squadron ONE FIVE ONE (VF-151) “Vigilantes” at NAS Miramar, with duty as a landing signal officer (LSO). VF-151 deployed to Vietnam aboard attack carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43) from April 1967 to February 1968, a period of intense carrier strike activity over Vietnam in the face of significantly improving North Vietnamese air defenses, which shot down the squadron’s commanding officer, Commander C. R. Gillespie, on 24 October 1967. Gillespie and his radar intercept officer (RIO), Lieutenant (j.g). R. C. Clark became prisoners of war, but Clark died in captivity. Lieutenant (j.g). Pettigrew was promoted to lieutenant in December 1967. After a quick turnaround, VF-151 and Coral Sea deployed again to Vietnam from July 1968 to April 1969, participating in Operation Rolling Thunder until the bombing halt in November 1968 (although strikes continued against communist targets in Laos and in South Vietnam).

In April 1969, Lieutenant Pettigrew returned to VF-212 as an instructor pilot and senior LSO. Shortly thereafter, he became an instructor pilot at the newly formed (March 1969) Top Gun school at NAS Miramar, flying the F-4 and the A-4 Skyhawk in an adversary role. In December 1971, he was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN (CVAW-11) at NAS Miramar, as the wing LSO. CVAW-11 deployed aboard attack carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) to Vietnam in February 1972. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in March 1972. This deployment coincided with the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive into South Vietnam and the responding Operation Linebacker resumption of bombing of North Vietnam. Lieutenant Commander Pettigrew was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a major strike against a heavily defended North Vietnamese petroleum, oil, lubricant facility near Quang Nap, North Vietnam.

On 6 May 1972, Lieutenant Commander Pettigrew and his RIO, Lieutenant (j.g). Mike McCabe, were flying a Fighter Squadron ONE ONE FOUR (VF-114) “Aardvarks” F-4J and were assigned a barrier combat air patrol mission (BARCAP). Due to a quick turn from an earlier mission, the F-4 only had two AIM-7 Sparrow and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles (half the normal load). Pettigrew took the lead of the MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) section when one of the MiGCAP jets suffered a radar malfunction. The remaining MiGCAP jet, flown by Lieutenant Robert G. Hughes and RIO Lieutenant (j.g). Adolph J. Cruz, flew on Pettigrew’s wing. The fighters were originally vectored by shipboard air controller against a group of aircraft that turned out to be the Alpha Strike they had been assigned to protect. However, after the initial confusion, they were then given a vector to a bogey at 30 miles. McCabe gained radar contact, but then lost it before gaining visual in fading light at 12 miles. The contact proved to be four MiG-21 Fishbed fighters in a tight box “welded wing” formation at 4,000 feet, with the Phantoms at 7,000 feet. In the 90 seconds of maneuvering that followed, Hughes had the better angle and hit the number four MiG with a Sidewinder, and the MiG flew into the ground. Hughes then lined up behind the number three MiG and fired two Sidewinders in succession, one missed to the right and the other went ballistic. Seeing the two Sidewinders miss, Pettigrew fired one Sidewinder at the MiG as Hughes fired his fourth. Hughes’s Sidewinder arrived a fraction of a second ahead of Pettigrew’s, damaging the tail. Pettigrew’s missile flew up the tailpipe and blew the MiG to pieces. By this time, the other two MiGs were out of the fight. Pettigrew and Hughes were awarded Silver Stars for this action (Hughes would later be killed in a mid-air collision). Kitty Hawk returned from deployment in November 1972.
In 1973, Lieutenant Commander Pettigrew transitioned to reserve duty, flying with Fighter Squadron THREE ZERO TWO (VF-302). He was promoted to commander in July 1978. In 1980, Commander Pettigrew assumed duty as commanding officer of VF-302, flying the F-4N and F-4S Phantom II variants. During his time in command, VF-302 was awarded the F. Trubee Davison Award in 1981 as the best Naval Reserve tailhook squadron. Following his command tour in 1982, he was assigned as program manager for F/A-18 Hornet introduction to the Naval Reserve. In October 1983, he was assigned to NR VTU-8592 at NAS Miramar as a special projects officer. During this period, he served as technical advisor to the movie Top Gun, and had a cameo in the movie. He was promoted to captain in March 1985.

In April 1985, Captain Pettigrew was assigned to NR VTU-9494 at NAS Miramar as mobilization department head. In November 1985, he reported to NR Naval Air Force Pacific 1094 as material officer, and in September 1986 assumed command of the unit until September 1988. His active duty for training (ACDUTRA) assignments as a captain included Naval War College (9–20 September 1985), Naval Air Force Pacific Headquarters, San Diego (9–20 June 1986) for Exercise Present Arms ‘86, Naval Air Force Pacific Headquarters, Pearl Harbor, as command center watch stander (18 May–14 June 1987), and reserve liaison officer (6–17 June 1988). In July 1989, he attended the Senior Naval Reserve Officers Orientation Course at Atlantic Fleet Headquarters, Norfolk.

Captain Pettigrew was selected for rear admiral (lower half) in October 1987 (note: this may be a misprint in his records) and promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 January 1991. In October 1988, he assumed duty as deputy naval component commander, Maritime Defense Zone Sector Aleutians. In October 1989, he assumed duty as deputy chief of staff and the deputy commander, Naval Air Force Pacific Headquarters, San Diego.

His ACDUTRA assignments as a flag officer include: Commander, Maritime Defense Zone Sector Aleutians (22 September–5 October 1989); Commander, Naval Air Force Pacific Headquarters, San Diego (3–11 April 1989); U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, (22 April–4 May 1990); and Naval Reserve Readiness Command NINETEEN, San Diego, as president of the command screening board (6–9 June 1990).

Additional temporary flag officer assignments included: task force commander, Juniper Falcon, a resupply of Israel exercise (March–May 1995); deputy task force commander, Task Force Southwest Asia (September–December 1995); and deputy task force commander, Bright Star Exercise (August–October 1997).
In his reserve capacity, he served as deputy commander, Third Fleet; commander of NR Naval Reserve Readiness Command, Region ELEVEN; and deputy commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.* Rear Admiral Pettigrew retired in January 1998. During his Navy career, Rear Admiral Pettigrew flew 4,500 flight hours with more than 530 carrier arrested recoveries.

Rear Admiral Pettigrew’s awards include the Silver Star; Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit; Distinguished Flying Cross; Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Air Medal (3 individual, 30 strike/flight); Navy Commendation Medal (three awards, two with Combat “V”); National Defense Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. (This section of his service transcript is incomplete and he has additional awards not listed, to include a Battle “E,” probably Navy Unit and Meritorious Unit Commendations, multiple campaign stars on his Vietnam Service Medal, probably a Southwest Asia Campaign Medal, and other Republic of Vietnam awards.)

Beginning from his release from active duty in 1973, Pete Pettigrew flew for Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), which was integrated into U.S. Airlines (USAir) in 1988. As a commercial airline pilot, he amassed more than 16,000 flight hours from 1973 to 2002. He then served as a contract charter pilot through 2014. While at PSA, he served six years as master executive council chairman for PSA Pilots and later served two years as executive vice president for the Airline Pilots Association.

He was also an accomplished triathlete, including placing fifth in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon in his age group. He competed in multiple local San Diego triathlons. He holds a record for the Catalina Channel Swim Relay (six members) in the “Over 70” age group, with a time of 10 hours and 57 minutes. He completed the Maui Channel Swim and won a San Diego handball tournament in his age group. He also served many years as a docent at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

U.S. Navy jets downed 58 North Vietnamese MiG-17/-19/-21 fighters during the war from 1963 to January 1973. Twenty-five of these were downed in 1972, after the establishment of Top Gun Navy Fighter Weapons School to correct air-to-air combat deficiencies identified earlier in the war. As one of the first Top Gun instructors, “Viper” Pettigrew had a significant hand in the improved proficiency later in the war, as Top Gun graduates in turn shared their lessons in fleet squadrons. He became the only former Top Gun instructor to achieve a confirmed air-to-air kill, earning a Silver Star. His flying skill and ample courage were demonstrated in 325 combat missions during the peak years of both Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Linebacker, intense strike operations over North Vietnam. He more than earned his transition to the Naval Reserve in 1973, but nevertheless remained ready to answer the Navy’s call and demonstrated his abilities by leading VF-302 to honors as the best Reserve Tailhook Squadron in 1981. He also served as the technical advisor to the movie Top Gun, which may have been one of the greatest recruiting bonanzas for the U.S. Navy, especially for naval aviation. (It is also no coincidence that the fictional CO of Top Gun in the movie has the call sign “Viper.”) Even in the Naval Reserve, his dedication to duty necessitated considerable sacrifice in personal and family time as he repeatedly accepted assignments of increasing responsibility, including deployments to the Middle East for Joint Task Force Southwest Asia and major Exercise Bright Star. He was described as an “outstanding fighter pilot, officer, and leader,” who “embraced all challenges,” which is probably an understatement. He served our nation and Navy exceedingly well in situations of great personal risk, for which we should all be grateful.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Pettigrew.
* Rear Admiral Pettigrew’s service transcript only covers his career through his selection to flag rank, so I do not have the dates of his promotion to rear admiral (two-star) or of his assignments as a two-star. Also, transcripts for reserve officers only cover time on active duty (in his case nine years 1964–73) and as a captain and flag officer (i.e., his record does not cover 1973–85). I have pieced together my summary of this period from other sources, but it may not be completely accurate.