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Aces of Aviation

McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II of Randall H. Cunningham

McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II of Randall H. Cunningham

McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II of the US Navy, onboard the USS Constellation, piloted by Lieutenant Randall H. Cunningham in Vietnam, the 10th May 1972.

Wingspan: 11.70 meters.

Length: 17.76 meters.

Height: 4.96 meters.

Engine[s]: Two General Electric J79-10 of 7786.5 kilograms of thrust.

Maximum speed: 2415 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 19685 meters.

Range: 2815 kilometers.

Armament: Up to six AIM-7E Sparrow air-to-air missiles, or four Sparrow and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles; up to 7260 kilograms of diverse ordnance loads.

Lieutenant Randy Cunningham was the first ace of American fighter pilots in the Vietnam War, and the only one who managed to destroy three MiG fighters in a single day; he was as well the recordman of the US Navy in that war, flying with its record fighter squadron. Born the 8th December 1941 - the day that United States entered the Second World War - in Los Angeles, California, Cunningham graduated in the University of Missouri and taught physical education in the Hinsdale High School. He entered active service in the US Navy in March 1967 and was trained as fighter pilot in Chase Field airbase, in Beeville, Texas. He was then incorporated into the VF-96 Fighter Squadron of the US Navy, in July 1969, completing two tours with that unit.

Cunningham also graduated in the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, in Miramar, that extraordinary tactical organization - nicknamed "Top Gun" - which provided the pilots of the US Navy with the highest level of precision required to face the threat of the MiG over Vietnam. Paired with Lieutenant William P. Driscoll, who was the interception radar operator, in the late 1971 Cunningham overflew the Vietnamese waters with the McDonnell Douglas F4J of the VF-96 Fighter Squadron, carried onboard the USS Constellation.

When Cunningham engaged the Communist MiG for the first time, he had already fulfilled 150 training combat flights and had all the preparation which was possible without having a real combat experience. The 19th January 1972 he downed his first enemy fighter, a MiG-21, during an escort mission over Quang Lang, being this the first victory of the US Navy in the last eighteen months. In this occasion he piloted the aircraft serialized as 157267 and downed the enemy aircraft with a Sidewinder missile. Then, the 8th May, he downed a MiG-17 with the same aircraft and again with a Sidewinder.

Two days later Cunningham piloted another F-4J, serialized as 155800 and armed with two Sparrow missiles, four Sidewinder missiles and two Rockeye cluster bombs, as part of an attack force against the railway garages at Hai Phong. Due to a mistake in the lead of the formation, Cunningham's group arrived delayed to the target and, after launching the bombs, it was attacked by strong anti-aircraft fire from SAM sites and fighters MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21. During the combat Cunningham destroyed a MiG-17 with a Sidewinder missile, before jumping to the rescue of a F-4 section which was encircled by enemy fighters. Distracting the enemy pilots by drawing their attention towards him, he saved Commander Dwight Timm and managed to shoot down another MiG-17 with a second Sidewinder. For this action Cunningham and Driscoll were nominated for the awarding of the Medal of Honor.

Albeit he still had enough fuel, Cunningham decided to return to the coast due to the continuous arrival of MiG fighters. Almost immediately he spotted a lonesome MiG-17 which approached to engage in combat. Cunningham soon realized that his rival was a very expert and determined pilot who was highly trained in combat tactics on the vertical plane (unlike the largest part of Communist pilots, who preferred the simpler horizontal maneuvers). Every time that Cunningham launched his aircraft in vertical to get above his rival, which would allow him to turn and get behind the MiG, he saw that the enemy pilot was flying his aircraft cockpit by cockpit with his own.

Every time that the large American fighter withdrew to reattempt the maneuver, the MiG had an excellent occasion to use its heavy cannon. These maneuvers repeated several times before Cunningham decided to close the valves and raise the air brakes, reducing the speed of his aircraft to only 150 knots and, thus, forcing the MiG to reduce its own speed. When the enemy began to enter the field of fire, Cunningham went after him and launched a Sidewinder while performing a vertical dive. Cunningham thought that his hope was just an illusion, for the infrared sensor of the missile would be confused by the ground crossfire, but he saw how the Sidewinder exploded near the MiG, which fell into a spin towards the ground before the pilot could eject.