Navy Lieutenant Randy Cunningham was Americas first pilot ace of the Vietnam War. Born on 8 December 1941, he was commissioned in the US Navy in 1967. Receiving his gold wings the following year, he soon joined VF-96 flying F-4J Phantoms. Assigned to the USS Constellation in 1971, he was crewed with Lieutenant "Willy" Driscoll as his Radar Intercept Officer and began flying combat missions against the North Vietnamese. On 19 January 1972, he engaged two MiG-21s at treetop level and claimed his first victory by downing one of the enemy fighters with a Sidewinder missile--the first MiG kill following a 2 year lull in the air war over the North.
While over North Vietnam on 8 May 1972, he engaged three MiG-17s, and while he was being fired on by two of the MiGs, he destroyed the remaining foe which was "on the tail" of his wingman. Two days later, Cunningham's section was on a flak suppression mission south of Hanoi when 22 enemy fighters attacked them. During the intense aerial combat that followed, he quickly destroyed a MiG-17 with a Sidewinder, then turned to assist the other Navy Phantoms, which were now boxed in by enemy aircraft. Cunningham reentered the battle and saved his group's Executive Officer while downing his second MiG-17.
With the arrival of more MiGs, the American fighters were making a dash for the coast when he encountered another MiG head-on. Cunningham soon realized his adversary was no ordinary pilot. After a 4-minute "see-saw" duel, he claimed his third aircraft of the day; his victim was Colonel Toon--North Vietnam's leading ace. Following their third victory of the day, Cunningham and Driscoll were forced to eject into the Gulf of Tonkin when a SAM hit their aircraft as they headed home. Rescued by a Navy helicopter, Cunningham would receive the Navy Cross for his heroism and superior airmanship on this day.
In 1986, Commander Cunningham assumed command of VF-126, the Navy's West Coast adversary squadron, located at NAS Miramar, California. His squadron provided realistic air-to-air combat training to the Pacific Fleet's fighter and attack crews. With aircraft such as the F-5, VF-126 was able to simulate the air-to-air tactics and performance characteristics of Soviet fighters like the Vietnam era MiG-17 and MiG-21 and the more modern MiG-23. Commander Cunningham's combat experience as the first Navy ace of the Vietnam War made him uniquely qualified to command VF-126.