Curt Dose, who along with his radar intercept officer Jim McDivitt shot down a MiG on May 10, 1972, the same day Cunningham and Driscoll got their last three MiGs and became aces, now runs a local retail computer store. "It's true," says Dose, in agreement with Nick Criss. "We were flying a hundred hours a month during the war, and when we came back [after the war], we were flying only eight or ten hours a month in F-14s, which is just about enough to scare you to death every time you go up."
Cunningham also had his share of postwar troubles with the resurfaced Navy bureaucracy, but back in the spring of 1972, as the air war intensified over North Vietnam, those future difficulties were inconceivable to the 30-year-old warrior.
Fighter pilots have a saying about aerial combat tactics in this supersonic age: The circles are bigger but the geometry is the same. Which means that once two planes are locked in close combat, the only dictum from World War I that doesn't still apply is the one about making sure that you take off your spurs before strapping into the cockpit. But on May 8, 1972, as the bombs rained down in sheets over North Vietnam, Cunningham and Driscoll learned that sometimes even the circles aren't all that much bigger than they used to be.
For several days now, MiGs had been coming up to hassle the bombers that were trying to blunt a massive North Vietnamese offensive. The MiG tactics were usually designed to effect a fast approach on a bomber group, preferably from below, then to shoot a missile or strafe the bombers with cannon fire before withdrawing. For nearly four months, since Cunningham and Driscoll had got their first MiG, no others had been shot down. Then, on May 6, four MiGs were shot down by four Navy Phantoms. The MiG pilots were starting to engage in aerial combat, and on May 8, just as Cunningham and his wingman Brian Grant had separated to form combat spread (about a mile abeam of each other), Cunningham saw a MiG-17 come screaming up through the cloud layer and begin firing its cannons at Grant's Phantom. Cunningham radioed for Grant to drop the extra fuel tank attached to the Phantom's belly in order to accelerate and outrun the MiG. The tank fell away and Grant gave full throttle.
"Brian, I'm high at your nine o'clock," called Cunningham. "Don't push negative Gs or you'll fly through his BBs." Until this point in the war, American pilots had been told that the MiG-17s only had two cannons under the belly and one under the nose. And the MiG-17, unlike the MiG-21, wasn't supposed to carry the Atoll heat-seeking missile. But as Cunningham tried to maneuver in behind the MiG that was now on the tail of his wingman, he saw the flash of an Atoll being fired.
"Brian, Atoll! Break port!"
The Phantom turned hard; the missile couldn't follow. But the MiG cut across the circle of Grant's turn and kept firing its cannon. Cunningham was still trying to get behind the MiG when he heard the voice of Driscoll, his radar intercept officer, come over his earphones. "Duke, look up!" Two more MiG-17s. Cunningham saw them pass just over his canopy going the opposite direction, but he figured that by the time they got turned around, the MiG on Grant's tail would be a goner. Though his aural tone didn't indicate a lock-on, Cunningham fired a Sidewinder anyway. It missed, but it was enough to make the MiG break off and run. But just as Cunningham started to follow it, Driscoll spotted the two MiGs already turned around and shooting their cannons. Suddenly, for Cunningham and Driscoll, the circle was deadly small. Driscoll had seen the two planes (which had been only about 4000 feet apart when they passed the Phantom) bank toward each other and complete their turns without their flight paths overlapping -- a maneuver the Phantoms could never have duplicated.
Cunningham locked in on the running MiG, and his Sidewinder shot was perfect. The MiG exploded. But in an instant his emotions changed from rage to stark fear. Two other MiGs were now on his tail and sending tracer bullets past his canopy. Cunningham pulled hard to port in an effort to draw the MiGs in front of his wingman Grant, and for a brief instant he got a good look at the North Vietnamese pilot. The American aviators called their adversaries "Gomers," after the hapless TV character Gomer Pyle. Cunningham says he saw the pilot "...with his beady little Gomer eyes, Gomer hat, Gomer goggles, and Gomer scarf." Every maneuver he tried was matched. The G-suit around his belly and thighs expanded and forced the blood to stay up in his chest and brain as he rolled over into a nose-low, 12-G turn, popping rivets and breaking flap hinges on the overstressed jet. But the MiGs stayed with him. Finally, as a last resort he dropped down into the clouds, lit the afterburner, and radioed Grant he'd come out heading into the sun. He angled back up into the clear and Grant was behind him and, as the MiGs popped up, the wingman fell in behind them. Immediately the MiGs dipped back down into the cloud cover. Grant lost them. They disappeared.
Duke Cunningham took his nickname from his idol, John Wayne. But he assumed "Duke" only after his second MiG kill; prior to that, Cunningham had been known as "Yank." Knowing that the North Vietnamese monitored American radio transmissions, Cunningham's superiors figured that "Yank" was recognized as having shot down two MiGs. It would be prudent for him to change his name. Duke was a natural alternative.
Cunningham was born in Los Angeles, but had been raised since the age of 12 in the tiny farming community of Shelbina, Missouri. He describes the area as "about as redneck as you could get." After graduating with a physical education degree from the University of Missouri in 1964, Cunningham got his master's in education and went on to become a successful high school and college swimming coach. Yet he'd always wanted to fly, and come 1967, the redneck in him knew just what to do. At the relatively ripe age of 25, he applied for the necessary waiver and was accepted into the Navy.