US Navy F-4 Phantom II Pilot Randy Cunningham recalls the epic 1 V 1 dogfight that made him America’s First Ace Pilot since Korean War

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Pilot Randy Cunningham recalls the epic 1 V 1 dogfight that made him America’s First Ace Pilot since Korean War

By Dario Leone
May 10 2024
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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The F-4 Phantom II

Built as a high-altitude interceptor, the F-4 (F4H) Phantom II quickly demonstrated that it was a special aircraft, establishing over a dozen world speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records. Unique in that it carried no internal cannon, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for offense and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and weapons systems. For over two decades the F-4 served as both the Navy and Air Forces’ premier air superiority aircraft, and flew with both the Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds.

Showtime 100, the F-4J flown by Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll

On May 10, 1972 Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, flying an F-4J Phantom from VF-96 Fighting Falcons (callsign “Showtime 100”) off the carrier USS Constellation (CV-64), was returning from a flak suppression mission over Haiphong, North Vietnam. In Cunningham’s back seat was Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Willie Driscoll.

After the strike developed an air battle over the target which forced Cunningham and Driscoll to separate from their wingman.

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

Randy Cunningham recalls his fifth victory

VF-96 F-4J Print
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”

Randy Cunningham’s own account of his fifth victory is presented in the book Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. by Raymond F. Toliver & Trevor J Constable from Lou Drendel’s book “…And Kill MiGs.” Here is Cunningham’s account of the historic air battle that made him an ace (Cunningham and Driscoll had already two confirmed MiG Kills scored in the previous 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! Then 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.

One of the very few MiGs that ever fought in the vertical

“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!’

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. Randy Cunningham and Willie Driscoll

With a MiG-17…at 150 knots…

“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.

“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.”

F-4 Showtime 100

Randy Cunningham, TOPGUN instructor

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

Even if today it seems that Tomb was a propaganda amalgam of several fine North Vietnamese pilots, there is no doubt that the pilot faced by Showtime 100 crew that day was a great dogfighter.

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 yet 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.

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

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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