Back on deck, first to shake the hands of Lt. Randy Cunningham and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lt. (jg) Willie 'Irish' Driscoll, was ordnanceman Willie White: "Mr. Cunningham, we got our MiG today, didn't we!"
It was 19 January 1972, aboard the USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin. As Cunningham shut down the engines of his 'Fighting Falcons' F-4J Phantom, Task Force 77 Commander Admiral Cooper, ship's CO Captain Ward, squadron commanders, and the rest of VF-96's crews were there to congratulate Cunningham and Driscoll on achieving their first kill. It was the first of five air victories, Cunningham and Driscoll becoming the US Navy's only Aces of the Vietnam War.
After the unusual vision-blurring catapult off the deck, Cunningham's F-4J headed for the North Vietnamese airfield at Quang Lang, suspected of basing MiG-21s. His three-ship section was tasked to intercept any MiGs that threatened the reconnaissance RA-5c Vigilante mission as the force approached the enemy airfield.
As the RA-5C came under severe fire from AAA and SAMS, Cunningham dodged two missiles, plunging downward from 15,000 feet in the process. Spotting two Bai Thiong-based MiG-21s below, he tracked them just above the jungle tops, closing to within range of his heat-seeking Sidewinders. The MiG pilot broke hard, throwing off the missile, and Cunningham immediately gave his attention to the second enemy fighter. Firing a second Sidewinder, the missile scored a direct hit, blasting off the entire tail section of the MiG, sending it crashing straight into the ground in a ball of fire.
Cunningham was now fired up and ready for more, but the dependable Driscoll called attention to the low fuel state from the back seat, and they turned back toward Laos for the long flight back to the Constellation.
Robert Taylor's spectacular painting shows Cunningham's F-4J Phantom, feet above the murky waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, passing the USS Constellation at 500 knots. The mighty carrier was running out of water in the small Gulf as Cunningham called up the Air Boss requesting the traditional victory roll. "Negative, land immediately." was the terse reply. The mood aboard however was one of celebration for the crew of VF-96's Phantom, call sign 'Showtime 112'.
I most remember the incredible intensity of real world air combat. These were dog-fights to the death and the level of stress was just out-of-this-world. I also vividly remember what it was like to be shot down by a SAM. The intense smoke and fire in the cockpit, our ejection into the enemy's harbor and subsequent rescue were events I will never forget."
...Commander Willie Driscoll
"Irish and I came into the break smoking at 500 knots, below the level of the flight deck. I could see thousands of men watching from the catwalks. I made a six-G break turn with 90 degree angle of break. We landed after one of my best passes of the cruise"
...Commander Randy 'Duke' Cunningham
Commander Randall H. Cunningham USN
After joining the US Navy in 1966, Randy 'Duke' Cunningham went to Vietnam with VF96, flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. He became that conflict's first fighter Ace, and was to become one of the most highly decorated Aces of the war. With his RIO, Willie Driscoll, 'Duke' achieved five victories in Vietnam, including 'three-in-one-day' on 10 May 1972. He later assumed command of the elite Navy Adversary Squadron of the Miramar Top Gun program. Retiring from the Navy, 'Duke' was elected to Congress, where he now serves in the House of representatives.
Commander Willie Driscoll USN
Willie Driscoll joined the Navy in 1969, and flew with VF96 in Vietnam. Flying his first combat mission in November 1971, Willie went on to become an Ace flying with 'Duke' Cunningham, and completed 170 combat missions in the F4 Phantom. He also completed a total of 652 deck landings at that time. Flying with Cunningham on 10 May 1972, they shot down three MiGs, but themselves were shot down by a SAM the same day. Willie Driscoll went on to serve at the Top Gun program.