Randy Cunningham taxied the F-4 Phantom onto the catapult aboard the USS Constellation, and both he and Bill Driscoll, the radar intercept officer in the back seat, turned to look at the spinning fingers of the catapult officer. It was January 19, 1972, and the carrier was cruising into the wind off North Vietnam. Above them circled the RA-5 photo reconnaissance plane and the A-7 and A-6 attack bombers that were accompanying it on the recon mission over the North Vietnamese airfield at Quan Lang near the Laotian border. Cunningham and Driscoll were in one of the fighters that were to escort the group to and from the airfield.
Though President Nixon hadn't yet ordered the resumption of heavy bombing in the north, the B-52s that were hitting Laos had had increasing numbers of MiG interceptors to contend with, and the Navy was being sent in to assess the MiG strength at Quan Lang. But as everyone knew, they were really being sent in to destroy the airfield under the pretense of taking pictures of it. The rules of engagement at that time wouldn't allow bombs to be dropped or MiGs to be fired upon over North Vietnam unless the American planes were attacked first.
The catapult officer signaled for full afterburner, and Cunningham shoved his throttle forward, dumping fuel into his tailpipes and igniting it for extra thrust. In response to the catapult officer's salute, Cunningham flipped him the finger, in the irreverent tradition of fighter pilots. He and Driscoll and everybody else in the group knew that they'd be taking surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire and, in the cockeyed jargon of the war, they'd be retaliating with a "protective reaction strike." With orange flames roaring out of the Phantom's tailpipes, the hold-back cable was released, and in two seconds Cunningham and Driscoll were accelerating past 168 knots and climbing.
After about 30 minutes the formation of 35 aircraft was vectoring in on the airfield. SAMs and the AAA started coming up when the formation was 15 miles from target. The planes regrouped into sections to attack from three separate directions, and Cunningham and his wingman in the other Phantom, Brian Grant, had what they considered a fighter's dream job; they screamed in low over the field to search for MiGs taking off. There were none. Then, as the thousand-pound bombs started falling from the A-7 Corsairs, the two F-4s took up a position north of the action, to try to intercept any MiGs coming down from other airfields.
But Cunningham and Grant got separated when they realized they'd been pincered between two SAM sites that eventually fired off 18 of the "flying telephone poles" at them. As Cunningham's electronic warning gear indicated a locked-on SAM, he called to his wingman, "Brian, you're on your own!" and then broke hard down to the right. The missile followed. He then pulled up into an eight-G climb, but the missile couldn't make the same turn, and it exploded far below him.
The climb had bled off precious speed, so as more SAMs started up, Cunningham nosed over at 15,000 feet, jammed the throttle full forward to go into afterburner, and headed straight down. To the north he and Driscoll spotted the glint of two MiG-21s in afterburner, about four miles away. It had been 22 months since a MiG had been shot down, and few had even been encountered during that time, so with relish Cunningham accelerated to 650 knots and pulled in behind them. The leader was about 500 feet above a canyon, and his wingman was back and to the right a little higher. Cunningham broadcast his squadron's call sign and the code for MiG-21s: "Showtime! Bandits, blue bandits, north of the field!"
Barely 200 feet off the ground and going 650 knots, Cunningham and Driscoll lined up on the leader and got a radar fix for their Sparrow missiles. Driscoll called, "He's locked up on radar, in range, shoot, shoot, shoot!" But at the last second Cunningham reached up to the instrument panel and pushed a toggle switch down from "radar" to "heat," opting for the heat-seeking Sidewinder rather than the radar-guided Sparrow. In training, Cunningham had had bad luck with the Sparrow; at low altitudes, radar noise often interfered with the missile's guidance system, and throughout the entire war the missile would attain a kill factor of only about 7 percent. So with the Sidewinder selected, and the MiG in afterburner, Cunningham got the strong aural tone in his earphones that indicated the heat-seeker was locked on to target. He squeezed the red trigger on the handle of his joystick and called, "Fox two," the code for firing a Sidewinder. But just then the MiG dodged hard to the right, curling into a high-G turn, one too tight for the missile to follow. Still at tree-top level, Cunningham did a barrel roll and followed the more maneuverable MiG, which was losing speed. He glanced away long enough to see the MiG's wingman abandoning his leader. The F-4 was upside-down at 600 knots, and as Cunningham executed a quick aileron roll and came right-side up, he was just 40 degrees off dead center of the MiG's tail and closing. He got a good aural tone just as the delta-wing MiG began to level off, and he squeezed the trigger while calling, "Fox two." The missile flew up the MiG's tailpipe just as the wings leveled. It exploded into pieces and, as the Phantom zoomed over the flaming debris, Cunningham caught a quick glimpse of the cockpit section. Through the MiG's canopy the pilot was clearly convulsed with horror before tumbling into the ground.
Driscoll let out the war whoop that inaugurated a year of feast for naval aviators. By December of 1972, the last month of any significant action over North Vietnam by American pilots, the Navy had shot down 24 MiGs in air-to-air combat, while losing only 2 fighters to MiGs. But the tumultuous reception given Cunningham and Driscoll when they landed on the Constellation that January afternoon was just a little sweeter than those that followed for each succeeding "MiG killer" on all five aircraft carriers in Task Force 77. Cunningham and Driscoll — and by extension, the 5000-man crew — had gotten the first MiG in the second part of what came to be known as two separate air wars over North Vietnam. The first of those two wars had run from the summer of 1965 to the fall of 1968, and both the Navy and the Air Force matched up poorly against the MiGs. (The Navy lost 7 fighters in aerial combat during that period and shot down just over 30 MiGs; many more Navy planes were lost to SAMs.) This second part of the air war, everyone now supposed, was going to be different.