Home » US Navy F-4 Phantom II pilot, recalls the one-on-one duel that made him America’s First Ace Pilot since Korea

US Navy F-4 Phantom II pilot, recalls the one-on-one duel that made him America’s First Ace Pilot since Korea

by Till Daisd
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After having downed two MiGs with one Sidewinder apiece, Showtime 100 disengaged and approached the coast at 10,000 feet, when Randy Cunningham saw an enemy MiG-17 (NATO reporting name Fresco) closing nose-on

Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham was returning from a mission to suppress flak over Haiphong, North Vietnam, on May 10, 1972, while piloting an F-4J Phantom from VF-96 Fighting Falcons (callsign “Showtime 100”) from the carrier USS Constellation (CV-64). Willie Driscoll, a radar intercept officer (RIO), was seated in Cunningham’s back seat.

After the strike, an air fight broke out above the objective, separating Cunningham and Driscoll from their wingman. Duke noticed an adversary MiG-17 (NATO reporting name Fresco) closing in on them as Showtime 100 disengaged and approached the coast at 10,000 feet after downing two MiGs with one Sidewinder each.

In the book Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. by Raymond F. Toliver & Trevor J. Constable, Randy Cunningham’s own account of his fifth victory is presented from Lou Drendel’s book “…And Kill MiGs.” Cunningham wrote the following about the famous air battle that made him an ace (he and Driscoll had previously scored two confirmed MiG Kills in the preceding months):

“I bored in on the 17… head on. Suddenly his whole nose lit up like a Christmas tree! I had forgotten that the A-4s didn’t shoot at you, but this guy was really spitting out the 23mm and 37mm! I pulled hard up in the vertical, figuring that the MiG would keep right on going for home. I looked back and…there was the MiG… canopy to canopy with me! He couldn’t have been more than thirty feet away…I could see the pilot clearly…leather helmet, goggles, scarf… we were both going straight up, but I was outzooming him. He fell behind, and as I came over the top, he started shooting. I had given him a predictable flight path and lie had taken advantage of it. The tracers were missing me, but not by much! I rolled out, and he pulled in right behind me.

Leading jet ace Giora Even-Epstein on his friendship with US Navy’s ace Randy Cunningham and on a tempting offer he received from Blue Angels CO
Lts. Cunningham and Driscoll

“Now I don’t know if it’s ego…you know, you don’t like to admit that the other guy beat you…or what, but I said: ‘That SOB is really lucky!’ Anyway, I told Willie, ‘Alright, we’ll get this guy now!’ I pulled down and I was holding top rudder, trying to knuckle at the nose. As soon as I committed my nose, he pulled right into me! I thought ‘Oh-Oh, maybe this guy isn’t just lucky after all!’ I waited for his nose to commit, then I pulled up into him…that’s a rolling scissors. Well, here’s where my training came into play again. In training, I had fought against Dave Frost in the same situation, and I had learned that if he had his nose too high, I could snap down, using one G of gravity to advantage, and run out to his six o’clock. I would be a mile, a mile and a half out of range before he could get turned around. This is just what happened. We separated, turned around, and engaged again. Same thing. Up into a rolling scissors…advantage, disadvantage…advantage disadvantage… disadvantage… disadvantage… disengaged, came hack, engaged again, and went up in the vertical again. This is one of the very few MiGs that ever fought in the vertical. They like to fight in the horizontal. We kept engaging. and I never could get enough advantage on him to get a shot. Everything my airplane did, he reacted to instinctively.

“He was flying damn good airplane! Well, he kept at it with me outzooming him in the vertical, and him shooting every time I got out in front. I thought, ‘He’s going to get lucky one of these times!’

“The next time we started up in the vertical, an idea came to me…I don’t know why… your mind just works overtime in a situation like that.

F-4 Showtime 100

“Anyway, as we’re going up, I went to idle and speed brakes… and he shot out in front of me! I think it really surprised him… being out in front for the first time. Anyway, we’re both going straight up and losing speed fast. I was down to 150 knots and I knew I was going to have to go to full burner to hold it. I did, and we both pitched over the top. As he came over, I used rudder to get the airplane to turn to his belly side. He lost lift coming over the top, and, I think, departed the airplane a bit. I thought, ‘This is no place to be with a MiG-17…at 150 knots…that slow, he can take it right away from you.’ But he had stayed too long. He was low on fuel, and I think he decided to run. He pitched over the top and started straight down. I went after him and, though I didn’t think the Sidewinder would guide straight down with all the heat of the ground to look at, I squeezed one off anyway.

“The missile came oil the rail and went to his airplane. There was just a little flash, and I thought, ‘God, it missed him!’ I started to fire my last Sidewinder and suddenly…a big flash of flame and black smoke erupted from his airplane. He didn’t seem to go out of control, but he flew straight down into the ground. He didn’t get out.”

This marked the demise of Colonel Tomb, the top-scoring ace of the entire Vietnam War. Tomb had shot down thirteen American aircraft, and in an aerial battle, nobody was fooled, as Randy Cunningham’s account so graphically reveals.

Even though Tomb now appears to have been a propaganda mashup of multiple excellent North Vietnamese pilots, the Showtime 100 crew faced a great dogfighter that day.

On the way back to the carrier, America’s first ace pilot since Korea ran afoul of a SAM. He and Driscoll had to ditch in the Gulf of Tonkin. Marine helicopters plucked the triumphant pair from the sea. Their return to the “Constellation” – drenched but delighted – was an occasion of great rejoicing.

A firm believer in the team concept while still being an outstanding individual, Cunningham later became a TOPGUN instructor, as did his RIO, Willie Driscoll.

Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo by U.S. Navy

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