William “Willy” Driscoll, and his pilot Randy “Duke” Cunningham, were America’s first aces of the Vietnam War. Driscoll, born in 1947, earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Economics from Stonehill College in 1968. In 1970, he received his Naval Flight Officer wings and was assigned to fly the F-4J Phantom. Just two years later he found himself deployed to Vietnam with VF-96, The Fighting Falcons. On 19 January 1972, Driscoll and Cunningham achieved their first air-to-air victory when they shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 during an intense treetop-level dogfight. Their second kill was scored on 8 May when they downed a MiG-17 on their wingman’s tail. Just two days later, they would score what would be the war’s most celebrated aerial victory. On 10 May 1972, during a flak suppression mission over the Hai Duong rail yards, Driscoll’s strike package of 35 Naval aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, was attacked by 22 North Vietnamese MiGs. Driscoll and Cunningham immediately maneuvered their Phantom behind a MiG-17 and fired a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile. The missile impacted the MiG, blew off its tail section, and sent it careening to the ground in flames. Driscoll and Cunningham then executed a steep vertical climb to spoil the attacks of multiple engaging MiGs. From a position above the fight, Driscoll realized that the other five Phantom crews were badly outnumbered, and in serious trouble. He and Cunningham re-engaged, maneuvered behind a MiG-17 which was about to shoot down one of the Phantoms, and fired another Sidewinder missile. The missile flew up the MiG’s tailpipe, causing the aircraft to explode into a bright red and orange fireball. With all planned ordnance expended, Driscoll’s strike package began their egress back to the ship. It was then that they were engaged by a third MiG-17 which, with its gun ports blazing, zipped past their Phantom in a head-on pass. Cunningham and Driscoll began another steep vertical climb expecting to see the MiG driver run. Instead, the MiG stayed to fight. Approximately two minutes into a grueling dogfight, Driscoll and Cunningham, about to get gunned by the MiG, pulled their power to idle and extended their speed-brake. The unexpected move forced the MiG to overshoot vertically in front of their aircraft. Now in an offensive position, they fired a third Sidewinder, which destroyed the MiG. The MiG pilot was later identified as Colonel Toon, North Vietnam’s leading ace who was credited with 13 American kills. As the Phantom crew pointed their aircraft toward the Constellation, they were hit by a surface-to-air missile. After eventually losing control of their burning aircraft, Driscoll ejected himself and Cunningham over the Gulf of Tonkin. Despite being pursued by enemy PT boats, they were rescued approximately 20 minutes later by Navy helicopters. These events marked Driscoll and Cunningham as the first aces of the Vietnam War, and the first aviators to destroy three MiGs in one battle. For his heroism and superior airmanship, Driscoll was awarded the Navy Cross. Following his tour in Vietnam, Driscoll served as a Top Gun instructor and retired from active duty in 1981. He continued to serve in the Naval Air Reserves and retired in 2003 with the rank of Commander. Since 1990, Driscoll has spoken to every graduating Top Gun class on the topic of real world “air combat.” He also travels extensively to business conventions where he speaks about how to maximize peak pressure performance. He currently resides in Solana Beach, California, with his lovely wife of 32 years, Barbara.
Years Honored: 2011
Aircraft/Specialty: F-4J Phantom II
On 10 May 1972, William "Willy" Driscoll, and his pilot, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, would become the first aces of the Vietnam War. Flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom off the USS Constellation, they validated the realistic fighter training concept employed by the Navy Fighter Weapons School, "Top Gun." His unparalleled knowledge of air combat maneuvers led to five aerial victories, including one against North Vietnam's top ace, Colonel Toon. For his extraordinary achievements, Driscoll was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, ten Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and was nominated for the Medal of Honor.