This is how the Navy's last ace went from heroic fighter pilot to criminal congressman

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Lt. “Duke” Cunningham describing the events of May 10, 1972 to VF-96 squadronmates aboard the USS Constellation (CV 64). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

“If you’re not cheating you’re not trying.” — every fighter pilot ever including “Duke” Cunningham, U.S. Navy fighter ace

Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham woke up aboard the USS Constellation on the morning of May 10, 1972 with two MiG kills under his belt. He’d used Sidewinder heat seeking missiles to shoot down North Vietnamese opponents on January 19 and May 8 of that year. A recent increase in enemy sorties made Cunningham and the other carrier air wing fighter pilots sure they’d have more chances to bag bandits. Cunningham just needed three more kills to attain “ace” status. The aircraft carrier had plenty of time left on station, so he allowed himself to believe it could happen. He had no idea he’d earn the balance in one flight.

Cunningham and his radar intercept officer Lt. Willie Driscoll launched in a VF-96 F-4J — tactical callsign “Showtime 100” — from the Constellation as part of a strike package against the Hai Dong rail yards in North Vietnam. After dropping its bombs, Showtime 100 took up a combat air patrol position to cover other airplanes on bomb runs.

The American strike package was jumped by a group of MiG-17s. Cunningham downed one of them with a Sidewinder after the MiG pilot overshot him. He climbed up to 15,000 feet and looked down and saw eight MiGs tangled with Navy Phantoms. He rolled in on one that was threatening to shoot his squadron XO, transmitting, “If you don’t break now you are going to die,” after the XO didn’t respond to two previous calls to turn hard. Once his squadronmate complied and was clear, Cunningham loosed another Sidewinder and killed his fourth MiG.

On the way back to the carrier, Cunningham spotted another MiG, which — in spite of his low fuel state — he decided to engage. He wound up flying in front of the enemy airplane, which allowed the MiG to shoot at him with the nose cannon. Cunningham made a hard pull into the vertical, and the bullets missed. To his surprise the MiG followed him up, something MiGs tended not to do because the airplane’s climb performance lagged that of the Phantom.

What followed was one of the legendary dogfights of the jet era. Cunningham and his opponent mixed it up for several minutes, going from a high-speed vertical fight to a low-speed horizontal “rolling scissors” fight. The MiG had more maneuverability in the low-speed regime, and as the enemy pilot pulled his nose up for a shot, Cunningham — in spite of his low fuel state — selected full afterburner and put enough distance between his F-4 and the MiG to avoid getting shot by an ATOLL missile.

Driscoll was in the backseat strongly suggesting they keep heading east to the carrier, which would have been the prudent thing to do, but Cunningham didn’t want to wait any longer to be an ace. He turned back toward the MiG and another rolling scissors ensued. The advantage went back and forth, and finally the MiG — probably low on gas as well — made a move to exit the fight, which allowed Cunningham to make one last-ditch move to fire his last Sidewinder.

randycunninghamf4ace2

(Painting by Philip West)

It worked. At first Cunningham thought the missile missed, but a few seconds later the MiG started to come apart. Cunningham was an ace, the first of the Vietnam War.

But his problems weren’t over. Before Showtime 100 got “feet wet” it was hit by a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile. He managed to coax the crippled fighter far enough over the Gulf of Tonkin to avoid falling into enemy hands and winding up a POW. After successfully ejecting, both Driscoll and he were picked up by an Air Force SAR helicopter.

For his efforts on that day, Cunningham received the Navy Cross.

Cunningham left the Navy at the 20-year mark, retiring at the rank of commander after serving as a Top Gun instructor and the commander officer of VF-126, the aggressor squadron based at Miramar. He became the dean of the National School of Aviation and started his own marketing company, Top Gun Enterprises.

Cunningham became one of CNN’s go-to military experts in the late ’80s and early ’90s — especially on the eve of Desert Storm, and that visibility brought him to the attention of Republican power brokers around San Diego, Cunningham’s hometown. The Democratic incumbent of the 44th District, Jim Bates, was vulnerable in the upcoming election because of an ongoing sexual harassment scandal.

He wound up breezing to victory and took office in January of 1991. In short order he established himself as an outspoken conservative champion and in many cases just plain outspoken. He brought the same intemperate disposition that served him as a fighter pilot to the Washington arena, flipping off reporters and calling gay service members “homos” on the floor of the House while arguing with backers of a conservation amendment. That act played well with a majority of his constituents — he was reelected with ease six times — but it also earned him some enemies and the attention of the press.

In 1996 Cunningham criticized the Clinton Administration for being “soft on crime.”

“We must get tough on drug dealers,” he said, adding that “those who peddle destruction on our children must pay dearly.” He voted for the death penalty for major drug dealers. Four months later his son Todd was arrested for helping to transport 400 pounds of marijuana from Texas to Indiana. Todd Cunningham pleaded guilty to possession and conspiracy to sell marijuana. Representative Cunningham broke down in court and pleaded with the judge for leniency in his son’s case, which his critics found very hypocritical.

Then in June of 2005 the San Diego Union Tribune reported that a defense contractor named Mitchell Wade had purchased Cunningham’s house in Del Mar in 2003 for $1,675,000 and put it back on the market a month later. (Cunningham was a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee at the time.) Wade’s company, MZM Inc., started receiving tens of millions of dollars of defense and intelligence contracts.

The Union Tribune later reported that Cunningham was living rent-free aboard one of Wade’s yachts docked in a harbor in Washington DC and that he was throwing parties for young women aboard the yacht on a regular basis.

The FBI raided his home, Wade’s home, and the MZM corporate offices on July 1, 2005. A few months later, Cunningham pleaded guilty to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud. Among the many bribes Cunningham admitted receiving were the house sale at an inflated price, the free use of the yacht, a used Rolls-Royce, antique furniture, Persian rugs, jewelry, and a $2,000 contribution for his daughter’s college graduation party.

Cunningham read the following statement at the press conference where he announced he was resigning from Congress:

When I announced several months ago that I would not seek re-election, I publicly declared my innocence because I was not strong enough to face the truth. So, I misled my family, staff, friends, colleagues, the public – even myself. For all of this, I am deeply sorry.

The truth is – I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my high office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, and most importantly, the trust of my friends and family. … In my life, I have known great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame. I learned in Vietnam that the true measure of a man is how he responds to adversity.

I cannot undo what I have done. But I can atone. I am now almost 65 years old and, as I enter the twilight of my life, I intend to use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends.

Cunningham wound up serving seven years in a minimum security satellite camp near Tucson, Arizona. He was released to a halfway house in New Orleans in February of 2013. He now lives in Arkansas and still receives his Navy retirement pay as well as a pension for 14-plus years as a Congressman. (Legislation introduced to prevent convicted lawmakers from receiving their pensions died in committee.)

The San Diego Union Tribune received the Pulitzer Prize for the reporting surrounding the takedown of Congressman Cunningham.

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