Randall “Duke” Cunningham, (1941–)


F-4J-35-MC Unit: VF-96 “Fighting Falcons”, CVW-9, US Navy Serial: 100/NG (BuNo.155800) CVA-64 USS Constellation. On 10th May 1972 flown this plane Lt.Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William P.’Willie’ Driscoll claimed three victories, but was shot down by Vietnamese fighters. Both crew ejected safely. Camouflage scheme of 1955: upper – Dull-Grey. lower – White.

U.S. Navy lieutenant, F-4 pilot, and first ace in Vietnam War (five MiG kills). Born in Los Angeles on 8 December 1941, Randall Cunningham graduated from the University of Missouri in 1964 and the following year earned a master’s degree in education.

Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 1967 and received his wings the next year. He took his operational training at the Naval Air Station at Miramar, California, then joined Fighter Squadron 96. His first combat deployment was aboard the carrier America (1969–1970).

On 19 January 1972, during his second Vietnam deployment with the Constellation, Lieutenant Cunningham shot down a MiG-21 and, on 8 May 1972 a MiG-19. On 10 May 1972, he downed three MiG-17s. On the way back to the carrier, his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile and downed. Cunningham and his radar intercept officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) Bill Driscoll, were picked up at the mouth of the Red River by a search-and-rescue helicopter. In all, Cunningham flew 300 Vietnam combat missions. His decorations include the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, and the Purple Heart. Cunningham retired from the Navy in 1988, and in 1990 he was elected on the Republican ticket to the U.S. House of Representatives from California.


As the war heated up again in January 1972, leading to the North’s spring invasion of South Vietnam, US Navy clashes with MiGs also resumed in quantity. The first success in 22 months went to VF-96’s Lt Randall “Duke” Cunningham and Lt(jg) Willie Driscoll when they downed a MiG-21MF on January 19. Cunningham’s previous RIO, Lt Lynn Batterman, noted that his pilot was utterly focused on MiG killing. “He worked harder than the average pilot and was better than average because of it. He and I were the only crew to consistently check out and re-read the secret manuals we had on MiGs (we even had some MiG repair/NATOPs manuals) that were controlled by the skipper, Cdr Al Newman”.

Cunningham and Driscoll’s first MiG-17 victory followed 48 hours later. As his wingman Lt Brian Grant described it, the engagement was a “classic over-water CAP vectored onto an overland MiG target”, except that the latter had set a trap which Grant detected in time to make “a course reversal that placed Randy Cunningham behind me in a position to down his second MiG, conveniently trapped at my ‘six o’clock’”.


MiG-17F Unit: 921st IAP “Sao Do” Serial: 2072 Circa 1972.

As the MiG pilot opened fire on Grant’s “Showtime 101”, Cunningham fired an AIM-9G to distract it while RIO Driscoll monitored two MiG-17s that had reversed their course and started to fire shells at “Showtime 112”. Having this time acquired a missile lock tone, Cunningham quickly loosed off a second AIM-9 that disintegrated the MiG. “It was as classic a ‘mutual support’ textbook fight as we had practised in training”, recalled Brian Grant.

During the same Alpha strike, Cunningham and Driscoll, armed for flak suppression, ran into MiGs from three VPAF bases over the Hai Duong target. They were in search of revenge for an audacious MiG-21 kill achieved by VF-92’s Lt Curt Dosé and Lt Cdr Jim McDevitt over Kep’s main runway that morning.

Within a minute Cunningham’s “Showtime 100” had downed an attacking MiG-17, having forced it to overshoot into his AIM-9 range. Minutes later he spotted four F-4s trapped in a “wagon wheel” with eight MiG-17s. As VF-96 XO Cdr Dwight Timm emerged from the “wheel” with three MiGs on his tail, Cunningham attempted to come to his rescue, but was in turn set upon by two MiG-19s from above and four more MiG-17s from behind. Manoeuvring violently to shake off his pursuers, Cunningham got Timm to sharply break away from the “Frescos” that were trailing him. This cleared the way for “Showtime 100” to down a second MiG-17 with another AIM-9 shot.

Cunningham’s tail was protected by Lt Steve Shoemaker and Lt(jg) Keith Crenshaw, who saw another “Fresco” moving into a firing position behind “Showtime 100”. They destroyed the VPAF jet with a single AIM-9. Yet another MiG-17 then began to fire cannon rounds at Cunningham in a head-on pass. The latter used his Topgun training to deal with the new threat, pulling the F-4 in a vertical climb in order to throw off the “Fresco” pilot’s aim. Surprisingly, the MiG pilot followed suit, and two further vertical climb and rolling scissors manoeuvres left both fighters short of speed, but with the MiG behind the F-4J.

Resorting to desperate measures during the third climbing pursuit, Cunningham cut the throttles and briefly extended his airbrakes, throwing the MiG out in front of him. The VPAF pilot, probably at “bingo” fuel, sought to dive away towards Kep, but Cunningham managed to push the nose of his almost stalling F-4J over and fire an AIM-9 that caused enough damage for the MiG to crash into the ground and confer ace status on Cunningham and Driscoll. They were the first Americans to achieve this accolade in the Vietnam War, and the only Naval Aviators to do so, period.

Heading back out to the shore, Cunningham was pursued by yet another MiG-17, sitting close behind him and possibly firing his cannons. Matt Connelly swung over towards it, fired an unguided AIM-7 from his “radarless” F-4J and scared the MiG away. Two more MiG-17s and a MiG-21 sought to engage the harassed fighter as it neared the coast, but “Showtime 100’s” fate was probably determined by a SAM explosion near-miss that damaged its hydraulics. Fighting to maintain control of the failing systems by using afterburner and extreme rudder-induced rolls, the crew was finally forced to eject, and rely on HH-3A helicopters from HC-7 to return them to Constellation.

References Cunningham, Randy. Fox Two. Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984. Eastman, James N. Jr.,Walter Hanak, and Lawrence J. Paszek. Aces and Aerial Victories—The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965–1973.Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.


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