"Colonel Ritchie was a Vietnam hero," says an Air Force Academy spokesman. "Everyone out here knows about him."

Thirteen years ago in Vietnam, Steve Ritchie, a former halfback on the academy's football team, became the only American pilot to shoot down five MiG21 jet fighters. He flew 339 combat missions, picking up the Air Force Cross, four Silver Stars, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 25 air medals.

Today Ritchie's cockpit is a desk in the Health and Human Services Department and his targets are parents who have avoided making child-support payments.

The soft-spoken flier followed a path similar to Ronald Reagan's to his new job as chief of the Office of Child Support Enforcement. His mandate now, he says, is to "make a good program even better."

Although many people were skeptical about the program when it was created in the mid-1970s, "we've come a long way" since then, Ritchie said in an interview.

"There's been $13 billion collected since 1975 -- over 1 million paternities established," in part through blood tests that can now determine with 95 percent certainty whether a man is the father of a child.

The program helps obtain payments not only for mothers on the welfare rolls but for other parents who are entitled to child support but aren't receiving it. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of the cases involve women who are behind in their payments to the fathers.

"In fiscal 1984," Ritchie said, "$2.37 billion was collected by the program and the total cost was $723 million -- about $215 million paid by the states and $507 million by the federal government." HHS covers 70 percent of the states' administrative costs and 90 percent of their costs for developing computer systems to track child-support payments.

Although the program has collected a great deal of money in the past, HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler and members of Congress of both parties worked together last year to get a law passed that Ritchie says should allow even more money to be collected, once the states pass the necessary implementing legislation.

To make that point, he refers to a 1981 Census Bureau report that found that about 8.4 million women had children under 21 living with them without their father present. About 4 million of them had court orders or legal agreements entitling them to child support, but only 1.9 million were receiving the full amount. Another 1 million received partial payments, while 1 million received nothing.

"The guts of the new law is wage withholding," Ritchie said. "Employers will be required to withhold wages when support is 30 days overdue." If the program works properly, parents won't have to go to court each time a payment is late. Instead, a state administrative agency will go directly to the employers and have them withhold money for support payments.

Ritchie's first priority is to get the states to pass implementing legislation. As of March 20, only six states had passed mandatory wage-withholding laws that met HHS's standards, and only 17 states had laws that allow them to deduct overdue child-support obligations from state income-tax refunds. Virginia and Maryland, however, appear to be on their way to meeting the requirements.

"Then," Ritchie said, "we want to work with the private sector in a couple of ways -- to get them to make the transition to automatic withholding and relaying information from a positive point of view. We want to work with opinion leaders to change the national attitude. We want to work on interstate enforcement -- with our mobile society it becomes more and more of a problem."

Finally, he said, "automation at the state and local level . . . is one of the most important things for future success. So much of their operation has been manual and not a top priority."

Ritchie said that in the seven weeks he's been on the job, he's learned that it's not just low-income fathers who don't make their payments. "I end up here in the evening, and and the other day I answered the phone -- a lady from New York was calling. She said she had a support order for $2,600 a month plus expenses; she claimed her children's father was $9,000 in arrears and he worked for a large company and made over $100,000 a year."

Ritchie had a brilliant career in the Air Force, but in 1974, at the urging of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), he gave up his commission to run for Congress in North Carolina.

"I ran as a Republican during Watergate against a popular incumbent, Richardson Preyer," he said. "In a district with 18 percent Republican registration, I got 37 percent of the vote, so I thought I didn't do badly."

In 1975 he joined the Adolph Coors Co. and served as a special assistant to Joseph Coors for six years. Part of his job involved planning and conducting seminars and speeches about American government, national security, the democratic way of life and the market economy.

"There is a large amount of misunderstanding about our country, our national security, the marketplace," he said. "In Vietnam, hundreds, thousands of Americans did an incredible job. We've basically heard the bad news, not very much of the good."

During that time, and for a few years afterward when he did the same type of speaking for a company of his own, his activities mirrored those of Reagan, when he was making his transition from movies to politics.

Ritchie ran programs and seminars for such companies as Fluor, Amoco, Gulf, AT&T, Marriott and Westin Hotels. He also spoke on many campuses -- Ohio State, Texas A&M, Adelphi, West Point -- and before veterans' groups.

A while back, he said, someone passed his name along to C. McClain (Mac) Haddow, Heckler's chief of staff, as someone the secretary should consider bringing into the department. Now he's there, applying his engineering experience from the Air Force Academy to the problems of automating child-support systems.

"The essence of our military mission is to guarantee the freedom and security that every American needs to be the most he can be," he said. "The child-support program has the same mission domestically -- to help provide kids the opportunity to be the most they can be."