Randall "Duke" Cunningham, (born December 8, 1941), was a Republican congressman from California's 50th district (northern San Diego) who resigned from the House in 2005, due to charges of corruption. Before his resignation, he was best known for being the first American flying ace in the Vietnam War.
Cunningham earned a commission in the US Navy in 1967, and served a tour in Vietnam as an F-4 Phantom pilot aboard the aircraft carrier USS America. After his tour, he was one of the first graduates of the then-new “Post-Graduate Course on Fighter Weapons, Tactics, and Doctrine”, more commonly known as Top Gun. This experience served him well when he went to back to Vietnam aboard the carrier USS Constellation. Driscoll’s squadron flew the F-4J, the newest Navy version of the Phantom.
On January 19, 1972, Cunningham and his back-seater, William “Irish” Driscoll, scored their first kill, a MiG-21, while on AAA suppression duty in support of a photo-reconnaissance mission. It was the first American air-to-air victory over Vietnam in over two years. On May 8, 1972, Navy A-6 Intruders were sent to mine Haiphong harbor. Cunningham and Driscoll flew with the escort, and scored their second victory, a MiG-17, with a Sidewinder missile.
May 10 was the first day of Operation Linebacker, a bombing campaign designed to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and put pressure on the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam. Cunningham was assigned to a bombing mission on the Hai Dong railyards, and had just completed a bombing run on a warehouse when he spotted four MiG-17s heading toward him. Using the Phantom’s greater power, he was able to out-maneuver them and shot one down with a Sidewinder. Surveying the developing furball, Cunningham saw a Phantom below him with three MiGs on its tail. Cunningham followed and downed one of the MiGs with another Sidewinder. He then evaded a MiG that had latched onto his plane, and headed for the coast and the Constellation. He was intercepted, however, by another MiG-17 that made a head-on pass. The enemy plane failed to score any hits, but came around again, and soon Cunningham and Driscoll were involved in a turning dogfight with the more maneuverable MiG. Both planes turned, rolled, and did everything possible to try to get into a good firing position. Then, with the enemy plane behind him, Cunningham used the old trick of throttling back and deploying the speed brake, forcing the MiG to pop out in front. The North Vietnamese pilot dove for the deck to escape, but his luck had run out. Cunningham fired a Sidewinder at long range (for a Sidewinder). It tracked, and destroyed the MiG. There was no parachute.
Cunningham and Driscoll had become the first American aces of the Vietnam War, but their adventure wasn’t over. A SAM caught them by surprise and exploded near enough to damage the plane's hydraulic systems, making it increasingly hard to control. Cunningham was able to make it out to sea before the systems gave out entirely, putting the plane into a spin. Cunningham and Driscoll ejected safely, and were quickly picked up by a Navy helicopter. For the day’s actions, both pilots were awarded the Navy Cross. The North Vietnamese claimed later that Cunningham's plane was downed by a missile from a MiG-21.
After the war, Cunningham served as a Top Gun instructor, then went on to various staff and command assignments. He retired from the Navy in 1987, as a commander.
Cunningham was elected as a Republican in 1990 to represent the 51st Congressional District of California, and was re-elected seven times. His voting record tended towards the very conservative. His achievements included lead sponsorship of the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, and in 1999, he joined with John Murtha to introduce a Constitutional amendment to allow Congress to enact flag-protection laws.
He resigned on November 28, 2005, when it was found that he had been receiving illicit bribes totalling $2.4 million. This included receiving luxury gifts like a yacht (reportedly called the "Duke Stir") and expensive jewelry. Since he didn't report accepting bribes to the IRS, he underreported his income for 2004.
Cunningham denied the charges at first, but later repented and came clean with a tearful and moving apology to his family, friends, and constituents. The bribes were received by Randall Cunningham in exchange for lucrative defense contracts for the Pentagon to local California contractors and businessmen. On March 3, 2006, he received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
Cunningham was succeeded by former congressman Brian Bilbray, also a Republican, following a special election.
- Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997
- US Congressional Biography
- Statement before the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans
- Flag Amendment
- Randy Cunningham: F-4 Phantom Pilot and Navy Ace at AcePilots.com
- Computer re-enactment of Duke's last air battle at YouTube.
Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam, by Randy Cunningham, Mesa, Ariz.: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1989.