Military Aviation

The story of the A-7 Pilot that took part in the Rescue of Lts Cunningham and Driscoll downed after their Epic Dogfight

Suddenly there was a call of ‘you’re on fire! Punch out! Punch out!’ Somewhere a Phantom II crew was struggling to keep their burning aircraft in the air long enough to get out over the water

The A-7 Corsair II was built by Vought as a replacement for the legendary A-4 Skyhawk, but while the latter aeroplane represented the most simple, basic approach to lifting a wide variety of ordnance from an aircraft carrier, the SLUF (Short, Little. Ugly, Fucker as the A-7 was nicknamed by her aircrews) evolved into arguably the most successful tactical jet bomber of the Vietnam Conflict.

The definitive version of the Corsair II for the U.S. Navy was the A-7E, which thanks to her endurance, accuracy and a suite of weaponry became a favourite with Forward Air Controllers (FACs) during the Southeast Asia War.

Flying A-7E BuNo 156818/NG 404, VA-147’s Lt Norm Birzer and and his flight leader, Lt Cdr Tom Gravley performed an Iron Hand mission on May 10, 1972 out of USS Constellation (CVA-64) as part of CVW-9’s Alpha strike.

They were carrying six CBUs and two AGM-45 Shrike missiles.

After launch and rendezvous, Birzer took his position to the right of the strike group, while Lt Cdr Gravley flew on the left side. Each A-7 also had an accompanying F-4 to protect the Iron Hand Corsair IIs from MiGs. Approaching the marshalling yards, there was no sign of enemy opposition — only a few stray beeps on the RHAW (Radar Homing And Warning) gear indicating radiation emissions. At 20 miles out, the A-7s split from the strike group to better line up on their selected targets. Birzer’s was a SAM site near Haiphong, while Gravley headed for a similar target near Hanoi.

Each A-7 pilot fired one preemptive Shrike, but someone in the group, who had probably forgotten the pre-briefed plan, called ‘SAM!’ Someone else correctly answered, `No, that’s a Shrike!’

As the strikers, led by Cdr Eggert, rolled in on their runs, Birzer and Gravley descended, following the group in their turn. The airspace was getting crowded as another carrier strike group was scheduled to arrive over the same target area ten minutes later.

‘I strained to spot SAM launches’, Birzer recalled. ‘I saw no clouds of dust and no “telephone poles”. I glanced above me and could see strange large puffs of yellow-brown smoke. I was initially confused, but then realised that they were 15 to 20 SAMs that had auto-detonated at the end of their terminal guidance time — about 60 seconds from launch’. The SAMs must have all been launched ballistically to scare the strikers into diving toward the AAA zone, but the bombers did not even see them.

As told by Norman Birzer himself and Peter Mersky in their book U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II Units of the Vietnam War, as Birzer passed north of Hai Duong, halfway through his turn, his radio erupted with a series of warning calls. Total confusion reigned as he reacted to someone’s call to break right — he was not sure the call was even meant for him. He looked up for his F-4 escort, crewed by Lts Brian Grant and Jerry Sullivan of VF-96, which was flying straight and level. The air around him was clear, but there were many frantic calls of distress or compelling action.

‘I had the throttle two-blocked, and even with all the drag of two MERs, six CBUs and my remaining Shrike, I was still maintaining 550 knots, heading southeast toward the beach’. After five minutes, radio discipline had returned as the strike group called ‘feet wet’. Suddenly there was a call of ‘you’re on fire! Punch out! Punch out!’ Somewhere a Phantom II crew was struggling to keep their burning aircraft in the air long enough to get out over the water.

Birzer’s secondary mission was RESCAP. As the confusion began to clear, someone broadcast that an F-4 had been shot down in the target area. Birzer had just crossed the beach, but he knew he had to turn around and head back to Hai Duong. As he rolled out of the turn, another call gave the position of the downed Phantom II. It was precisely where he ppened to be!

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VF-96 Fighting Falcons, NG100 / 155800 / 1972 – “Showtime 100”

Birzer remembers;

‘I glanced to my right and saw two parachutes close to me, just a little low me, maybe 8000 ft. I broadcast that I had spotted the ‘chutes, and started turning to orbit them. I was so relieved that I didn’t have to go back to the target area. The crew was going to land in the water a couple miles offshore.’

As he set up his orbit as the on-scene commander, Birzer began hearing distinctive warble of SAM terminal-guidance signals. It was the first time he had heard one that day.

‘We should have been at least several miles outside the maximum SAM range from any known sites, but my Phantom II escort reported a SAM had just detonated about half-a-mile behind me, although I think that was an exaggeration.’

Birzer waited for the two F-4 crewmen to hit the water and start communicating with their survival radios. However, things were moving quickly, and his squadron XO, Cdr Bill Smith, who was leading his four-plane division back to the ship, ordered Birzer back, saying he would lime the role of the on-scene commander. Considering he had ordnance and gas, as well as the assigned mission, Birzer was annoyed at the turn of events, but he complied.

As it turned out, the two F-4 crewmen were Lt Randy Cunningham and Lt(jg) Bill Driscoll of VF-96, who had just shot down three MiG-17s before their Phantom II had been hit, ostensibly by a SAM.

Photo credit: Lt. Terry Anderson, U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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