F-4 Phantom Pilot, Navy Ace in Vietnam
Now convicted felon, called "most corrupt
By Stephen Sherman, Oct. 2002. Updated March 22, 2012.
An F-4J Phantom, call sign "Showtime 112", roared over the wave tops at 500 knots, below the deck level of USS Constellation on Jan. 19, 1972. While thousands of the carrier's crew watched, Lt. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham made a six G break turn with 90º angle of bank and slammed down neatly onto the deck. He and his RIO, Lt. (jg.) Willie 'Irish' Driscoll, had just scored their first air victory over a North Vietnamese MiG.
"There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to describe what goes on inside a pilot's gut when he sees a SAM get airborne."
"The winner [of an air battle] may have been determined by the amount of time, energy, thought and training an individual has previously accomplished in an effort to increase his ability as a fighter pilot."
"Willie, how long can you tread water?"
Randy "Duke" Cunningham was born December 8, 1941, in Los Angeles, California. After earning his bachelors degree in 1964 and his masters in education in 1965 from the University of Missouri, Cunningham began his career as an educator and a coach at Hinsdale (Ill.) High School. As a swimming coach, Duke trained two athletes to Olympic gold and silver medals.
Cunningham became one of the most highly decorated U.S. Navy pilots in the Vietnam War. The first fighter ace of the war, he received the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, fifteen Air Medals, and the Purple Heart.
In 1967, he earned a commission and pilot wings in the Navy, soon flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. He flew a combat tour over Vietnam from USS America, and then completed the Navy’s "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School.
Cunningham returned to combat with USS Constellation's Fighter Squadron 96 (VF-96, the "Fighting Falcons") in 1971. On 19 January 1972, he and radar intercept officer, Willie Driscoll, flying north of the DMZ spotted a pair of MiG-21s ("Fishbeds," in NATO parlance). He was directly behind them and a few miles away, theoretically in range of his Sparrow missiles. But the Sparrows had proven unreliable, so Duke ignored Willie's call to fire. He switched to the shorter range heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder. When his headphones growled on acquisition, he called "Fox Two," and loosed the missile. The Fishbed broke and evaded the Sidewinder, but Cunningham stayed with him and launched a second Sidewinder. This one caught the MiG about 1200 yards in front of the Phantom. In the explosion, the MiG's tail blew off and the broken fuselage fell to the ground.
Their first victory, it ended a two-year lull in the air war.
8 May 1972
The first "Linebacker" aerial bombardment campaign had just started. On 8 May, Navy A-6 Intruders mined Haiphong Harbor. Duke Cunningham and Willie Driscoll were flying escort, when a MiG-17 leapt out of the clouds, firing at Lt. Brian Grant, Cunningham's wingman. Grant broke away, and the MiG fired a heat seeking ATOL missile. As Cunningham and Grant twisted and banked and shook the missile, two more MiGs zoomed past, briefly out of the action. Cunningham turned on the first MiG and took a long-range shot at him with a Sidewinder. It turned hard to elude the missile, but put himself in front of Duke's Phantom. As the other two MiGs returned and began firing, Cunningham stayed focused on his target. He fired a Sidewinder, which locked in and destroyed the MiG. Cunningham and Driscoll didn't have much time to enjoy this victory, since the other two MiG's were right on them. Cunningham sharply turned to escape, damaging his aircraft in the process, only to look up and see the MiG-17 just above. There was no out-turning a MiG-17, but he could out-run it. He ducked into a cloud and fired up his afterburner to give the MiG the slip.
10 May 1972
This was a bad day for the Vietnamese Peoples Air Force, losing eleven aircraft. Navy fighters destroyed eight MiGs, six by VF-96 in USS Constellation (CVA64). Three of the MiG-17s were downed by one VF-96 crew, LT. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and his RIO, LT(JG) Willie Driscoll, flying a Phantom F-4J, ShowTime 100. Combined with two earlier kills on 19 January and 8 May, the victories would make Cunningham and Driscoll the first American aces of the Vietnam War and the first to make all their kills with missiles.
They were participating in a strike against the Hai Dong railyards, on flak suppression, when a score of enemy fighters challenged them.
Cunningham's Phantom carried two AIM-7E Sparrow long-range missiles, four AIM-9J Sidewinder short-range missiles, and six "Rockeye" cluster bombs. After dropping their bombs on some warehouses, Showtime 100 loitered to cover the A-7 fighter-bombers still engaged. Responding to a call for help, Cunningham took his F-4J into a group of MiG-17s ("Frescoes"), two of which promptly jumped them. Heeding a "break" warning from Grant in Showtime 113, Cunningham broke sharply and the lead pursuing MiG-17 overshot him. He instantly reversed his turn, putting the MiG dead ahead; he loosed a Sidewinder and it destroyed the MiG.
Showtime 100 and his wingman Grant climbed to 15,000. Looking belwo, Cunningham saw a scene "straight oout of The Patrol." One flaming MiG was plunging down, eight more circled defensively, while three Phantoms went after the MiGs within the wheel. These were at an extreme disadvantage, due to their low energy state.
VF-96 Exec, Cdr Dwight Timm had three MiGs on his tail, one being very close, in Timm's blind spot. Seeing the danger to the XO, in Showtime 112, Duke called for him to "break," to clear the Phantom's hotter J-79 engines from the Sidewinder's heat seeker, thus permitting a clear lock on the bandit. But Timm thought the warning was about the other two, distant MiGs, and didn't heed Duke's first call.
After more maneuvering, Cunningham re-engaged the MiG-17 still threatening his XO. He called again for him to break, adding, "If you don't break NOW you are going to die." The XO finally accelerated and broke hard right. The MiG couldn't follow Showtime 112's high speed turn, leaving "Duke" clear to fire.
Calling "Fox Two," Cunningham fired his second Sidewinder while the MiG still inside the minimum firing range. But the high speed of the Fresco worked against it, as the Sidewinder had time to arm and track to its target. It homed into the tail pipe of the MiG-17 and exploded. Seconds later, Cunningham and Driscoll, finding themselves alone in a sky full of bandits, disengaged and headed for the Constellation.
The Third MiG
As they approached the coast at 10,000 feet, Cunningham spotted another MiG-17 heading straight for them. He told Driscoll to watch how close they could pass the MiG's nose, so he could not double back as easily to their six o’clock. While this tactic worked against A-4s back in training at Miramar, it turned out to be a near-fatal mistake here. ... A-4s didn’t have guns in the nose.
The MiG's nose lit up like a Roman candle! Cannon shells shot past their F-4. Duke pulled up vertically to throw off his aim. As he came out of the six-G pull-up, he looked around below for the MiG. MiGs generally avoided climbing contests. They turned horizontally, or just ran away. He looked back over his ejection seat and was shocked. There was the MiG barely 100 yards away! He began to feel numb and his stomach knotted, as both jets roared 8,000 feet straight up.
In an effort to out-climb the MiG, Cunningham went to afterburners, which put him above the enemy aircraft. As he started to pull over the top, the MiG began shooting. This was Cunningham's second near-fatal mistake; he had given his opponent a predictable flight path, and he had taken advantage of it. Duke rolled off to the other side, and the MiG closed in behind.
Not wanting to admit he was getting beaten, he called to Willie, "That S.O.B. is really lucky! All right, we’ll get this guy now!" With the MiG at his four o’clock, he nosed down to pick up speed and energy. Cunningham watched until the MiG pilot likewise committed his nose down. "Gotcha!" he thought, as he pulled up into the MiG, rolled over the top, got behind it. While too close to fire a missile, the maneuver placed Duke in an advantageous position.
He pulled down, holding top rudder, to press for a shot, and the MiG pulled up into him, shooting! He thought, "Maybe this guy isn’t just lucky after all!" The Communist pilot used the same maneuver Duke had just tried, pulling up into him, and forcing an overshoot. The two jets were in a classic rolling scissors. As his nose committed, Duke pulled up into his opponent again.
As they slowed to 200 knots, the MiG's superior maneuverability at low speed would gave him more advantage. A good fighter pilot, like Kenny Rogers' poker player, "knows when to hold, and knows when to fold." This was the MiG's game; it was time to go. When the MiG raised his nose for the next climb, Cunningham lit his afterburners and, at 600 knots airspeed, quickly got two miles away from the MiG, out of his ATOL missile range.
But maybe Duke wasn't such a good poker player, because he went back for more. Cunningham nosed up 60 degrees, the MiG stayed right with him. Just as before, they went into another vertical rolling scissors.
As the advantage swung back and forth, Driscoll called, "Hey, Duke, how ya doin' up there? This guy really knows what he’s doin’. Maybe we ought to call it a day."
This enraged Duke; some "goomer" had not only stood off his attacks but had gained an advantage twice! Not what he wanted to tell his squadron mates back on the Constellation.
"Hang on, Willie. We’re gonna get this guy!"
"Go get him, Duke. I’m right behind you!"
Driscoll strained to keep sight of the MiG, as Duke pitched back towards him for the third time.
Once again, he met the MiG-17 head-on, this time with an offset so he couldn’t fire his guns. As he pulled up vertically he could again see his determined adversary a few yards away. Still gambling, Cunningham tried one more thing. He yanked the throttles back to idle and popped the speed brakes, in a desperate attempt to drop behind the MiG. But, in doing so, he had thrown away the Phantom's advantage, its superior climbing ability. And if he stalled out ...
The MiG shot out in front of Cunningham for the first time, the Phantom’s nose was 60 degrees above the horizon with airspeed down to 150 knots. He had to go to full burner to hold his position. The surprised enemy pilot attempted to roll up on his back above him. Using only rudder to avoid stalling the F-4, he rolled to the MiG’s blind side. He tried to reverse his roll, but as his wings banked sharply, he briefly stalled the aircraft and his nose fell through. Behind the MiG, but still too close for a shot. "This is no place to be with a MiG-17," he thought, "at 150 knots... this slow, he can take it right away from you."
Now the MiG tried to disengage; he pitched over the top and started straight down. Cunningham pulled hard over, followed, and maneuvered to obtain a firing position. With the distracting heat of the ground, Cunningham wasn't sure that a Sidewinder would home in on the MiG, but he called "Fox Two," and squeezed one off. The missile came off the rail and flew right at the MiG. He saw little flashes off the MiG, and thought he had missed. As he started to fire his last Sidewinder, there was an abrupt burst of flame. Black smoke erupted from the Fresco. It didn’t seem to go out of control; the fighter just kept slanting down, smashing into the ground at about 45 degrees angle.
The pilot was mis-identified as North Vietnam’s leading ace, "Colonel Toon," allegedly with 13 aerial victories.
Exactly whom "Duke" shot down on his final kill of the day, the one that made him an ace, has been the subject of conjecture. Early on, sources claimed the pilot was the top Vietnamese ace known as "Col. Tomb" in the media. Later research has shed more light on the subject; in fact, "Col. Tomb" did not exist. He was most likely a flight leader or squadron commander of the 923rd Regiment.
Whoever the Vietnamese pilot was, the historic dogfight made "Duke" Cunningham the first US ace of the Vietnam conflict.
Into the Water
While headed back to the carrier, Cunningham’s Phantom was hit by a SAM over Nam Dinh.
Despite extensive damage, including both hydraulic systems, Duke somewhat controlled the Phantom with the rudders, enabling him and Driscoll to stay in the crippled jet. Fire warnings sounded in the cockpit, but they worried more about becoming POWs. Every extra second in the cockpit brought them closer to the coast and rescue. Finally the last systems failed and the Phantom began to spin uncontrollably. To stabilize the spin, Cunningham deployed the drag chute, "I could see ocean, then land, then ocean, then land. We were in a flat spin. I thought 'Wind blows from ocean to land. If we eject now we will be POWs.' I told Willie to stay with me just a few more seconds, as my radio filled with pleas from the other pilots to eject."
Seeing that the drag chute was useless, Duke ordered his RIO to eject. "I had told Willie never to eject until he heard me say 'Eject! Eject! Eject!... I got out the word 'Eje...' and BAM! Willie was out of the aircraft!".
ShowTime 100, BuNo 155800, fell into the South China Sea minutes after achieving her niche in the history books.
When Cunningham's chute popped opened, the cable or the metal piece on the drogue gun burned and bruised the side of his neck and the jolt gave him a lightning bolt of pain in his back. Ejecting from a high speed fighter jet hurts like Hell, but is better than the alternative.
Neither of them had ever used a parachute. Before Cunningham hit the water, he dropped his raft. He wanted to get out of the parachute as quickly as possible, to get away from the enemy gunners shooting at them and to avoid getting tangled in the chute. The wind picked up the raft and began swinging it side to side. On every upstroke of that pendulum, the parachute tucked under the downwind side. Cunningham worried, "That chute is gonna fold up and stream!" Later, the riggers told him that it would not have done that, but he didn't know it at the time.
The raft hit the water, and Cunningham looked down, trying to see over his bulky MK3C life preserver. He leaned way forward against the risers, released the fittings, and from 20 feet, dropped into the water.
He went under and clawed back up to the surface. He hit something fleshy, and thought it was a shark. But it turned out to be the rotting corpse of a North Vietnamese that had floated downstream, decaying, with its teeth showing. He told Willie later, "I thought it was you at first, but the guy was too good looking."
As soon as he got into the raft, Cunningham looked for his pistol. He had been shooting on the way down because he wanted them to know he was armed. When he got into the raft he could see enemy PT boats, so he eased himself over the side to maintain a lower profile. He almost threw away his helmet, but then remembered his training instructions to keep it for the helo pickup. He started swimming out to sea, and deflated his MK3C which hampered his swimming. When the helo arrived, he let the raft go. That could have been a mistake. because he had abandoned both his raft and the life preserver before the Okinawa helicopter picked him up. But both he and Driscoll were recovered without further difficulty.
Cunningham was the only American to shoot down three MiGs in one day. He would receive the Navy Cross for his heroism and superior airmanship on this day.
After his return from Vietnam, Cunningham served a tour as a Top Gun instructor, then a tour with VF-154. After a staff tour at the Pentagon, he returned to VF-154 as the Operations Officer. His next assignments were on the staffs of Commander, Seventh Fleet, and of COMFITAEWPAC. His final tours were as XO, then CO, of VF-126, an adversary squadron, that specialized in realistic air-to-air training for Navy fighter and attack crews.
After he retired as a Commander in 1987, Cunningham became Dean of The National School of Aviation, and started his own aviation marketing company, Top Gun Enterprises.
CongressFirst elected in 1990, he represented the 51st District of California and was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, with subcommittee assignments in Defense Appropriations; District of Columbia Appropriations; Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations. Congressman Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, have three children.
Corruption and Conviction
Cunningham resigned from the House on November 28, 2005 after pleading
guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and underreporting
his income for 2004. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy
to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. On March 3,
2006, he received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison
and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
I gave a lot of thought to the whole matter of Cunningham's disgraceful
conduct. At first, I wanted to excuse it, or minimize it. But the more I
thought about, the madder I got. "Goddam it, this guy is supposed to be
someone that people look up to, a role model. And he does this."
I understand that fame and being a hero may not be easy. Look at
Pappy Boyington and Ira Hayes. But they only messed up their own
lives; they didn't steal millions at the public trough. Duke Cunningham
is a disgrace, to his country and to every American pilot
that I have dedicated this website to.
Randy Cunningham interview with Aerosphere.com (website no longer active).