JON CROOKE'S MODEL WORLD for large scale model builders
BACK to the first page of this story



"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?"
Commander Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, USN, after his and Willie's F-4 took a missile hit over NVN and he dashed for the coast.

January 1972

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-21's ("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, eight AIM-9J Sidewinder short-range missiles, and twelve "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 dwon, 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 hasd 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.

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.

"Duke" fought for his country as a Naval Aviator during and after the Vietnam War. He served until his retirement from the U.S. Navy as a Commander in 1987. One of the most highly decorated pilots in the Vietnam War, he completed two combat cruises with Fighter Squadron 96 aboard the USS America (CV 66) and the USS Constellation (CV 64). He flew a total of 300 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos.

On January 19, 1972 he and his back-seater, Bill Driscoll, engaged three MIG-17s north of Quang Lang Airfield and shot down the lead aircraft.

On May 8, 1972 he engaged three MIG-17s and destroyed the MIG chasing his wingman while he was being fired upon by the other two aircraft.

On May 10, 1972, in one of the most famous air battles in history, Cunningham was pulling off target after a flak-suppression mission south of Hanoi when his flight was attacked by 22 MIG-17s, MIG-19s and MIG-21s. During this dog fight he shot down three of the 22 MIGs giving him a total of five victories and forever designating him as the first ace in Vietnam, a feat that only one other pilot accomplished during the entire Vietnam War.

One of these kills was a MIG-17 he shot off his executive officer's tail while he was being directly attacked by four MIG-17s, two MIG-19s and four MIG-21s. For this action, "Duke" Cunningham was nominated for the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor.

After his third victory of the day, he turned to the sanctuary of the Gulf of Tonkin, but was hit by a surface-to-air missile forty miles over enemy territory. Using the skills acquired by training and his valuable "know your equipment" acumen, he nursed his badly damaged F-4 Phantom to the Gulf where he and Bill Driscoll ejected and were rescued out of the water.

"Duke" Cunningham was decorated with the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, the Purple Heart, 15 Air Medals, the Navy Commendation, a South Vietnamese cross of Gallantry (Star Cluster), Cross of Gallantry Oak Leaf, and the Selective Service Medal.

On 10 May 1972, two Naval Aviators made history in an F4J. After several months of dropping bombs in support of operations against the invading North Vietnamese, Navy fighter squadrons spent the day engaging MiGs in the heaviest aerial action of the war. Eight MiGs were destroyed, six by VF96 in USS Constellation (CVA64). Three of the MiG17s were downed by one VF96 crew, and combined with two earlier kills on 19 January and 8 May, the victories made Lt. Randy Cunningham and his RlO, Ltjg. Willie Driscoll, the first American aces of the Vietnam War, the first all missile aces, and the first U.S. aces since Korea.

After their third kill, the two men ejected from their Phantom after their aircraft was hit by a SAM south of Hanoi. The SAR effort required to rescue the Navy's two newest aces was as hectic and dangerous as their earlier MiG fights. The North Vietnamese sent two PT boats toward them, and there was heavy fire from communist positions on shore.

In an interview with Randy Cunningham, one of only two Vietnam War fighter aces--the other being Steve Ritchie of the USAF--which originally appeared in the naval aviation publication APPROACH, a safety forum for Naval Aviators, Cunningham was asked about the SAS rescue.

APPROACH: Getting back to your flight on 10 May 1972, after you and Driscoll ejected, you were the objects of a very involved SAR effort, and you hurt your back during the ejection, is that right?

Cdr. Cunningham: Yes. Most injuries during ejections come from the compression during the shot. We were in a violent spin when we ejected. The whole world was going around. I had bombed a target, shot down three MiGs, been hit by a SAM, and rolled my plane out over the water. When it finally exploded, we went into a real spin. I remember trying to pop the drag chute  of course, I didn't know my plane's tail was gone.

I said, "Willie, don't get out" because I could see land and water when we rotated and I didn't want us to become a POWs. We never used "eject" because we'd heard of some instances where people had ejected after hearing the word in a normal a conversation.

He said, "I'll stay with you, Duke. The handle is set" That meant he had set the command ejection handle to eject us both when he pulled the curtain.

I stirred the controls around, and the rudder was completely gone. I finally got out only, "Willie, e..." and he was gone. He punched us both out. He was primed.

That type of coordination not only gives you confidence, but those are the kinds of things that you are talking about safety-wise that you build into your training. Two guys working as a team is a lot better than one guy trying to do everything.

Now, as far as hurting my back, I can remember tumbling, and the seatman separation. When the chute opened, the riser came by my neck. I had a burn and a bruise on the side of my neck where the cable or the metal piece on the drogue gun hit me. The snap and the jolt really gave me a lightening bolt of pain, right up my back.

We'd never been in a parachute. Before I hit the water, I dropped my raft because I wanted to get out of the parachute as quickly as possible. I wanted to get away from the enemy gunners who were shooting at us and not to get tangled in the chute. The wind picked up the raft and began swinging it. And every time I'd be on the upstroke of that pendulum, the parachute would tuck under the downwind side. I thought, "Criminy! that thing is gonna fold up and stream!" I tugged on the other side. Later, I talked to the PRs and they said it would not have done that, but I didn't know it at the time.

The raft hit, and I remember looking down, like a fat man trying to see his toes. And my MK3C life preserver which went all around my waist obscured my view, and I leaned way forward against the risers. I released my koch fittings in that position, and from 20 feet, I did the biggest belly flop into the water.

I was under water, fighting my way to the surface. My hand hit something really fleshy, and I thought, "Oh, man, shark!" It turned out to be a rotting corpse of a North Vietnamese that had floated downstream. He was decaying, and his teeth were showing. I didn't need that at the time. You can imagine the panic.

I told Willie later, "Willie, I thought it was you, at first, but the guy was too good looking."

APPROACH: Did you keep yourflight gear in the water?

Cdr. Cunningham: As soon as I hit the raft, I settled down and looked for my pistol. I was shooting on the way down because I wanted them to know I was armed. I had reloaded three times. I got in the raft and I was still concerned because I was still close to the beach. I could see WBLCs (waterborne logistics craft). I got out of the raft to maintain a lower profile and hung onto it. Then, I started to throw away my helmet, but I remembered my training which told me to keep it for the helo pickup. I started swimming out to sea, and I deflated my MK3C, because I was floating so high and I couldn't swim. When the helo arrived, I let the raft go. That could have been a mistake. If the helicopter had not been able to get me, I wouldn't have had my MK3C or my raft. If the helo had been hit, or had to leave, I'd have had a problem. But there were actually three helos there from the Okinawa. I thought the odds of losing all three helos were less than my chance of getting shot. I had no flotation devices by that time. I had also thrown away something that would have made me more visible if the helos had lost sight of me.

BACK to the first page of this story