On the tenth of May, 1972, in the skies over North Vietnam, a Navy fighter pilot and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in a two seat F-4J Phantom became the first ace of the Vietnam War. They had two previous kills, and on this memorable day, they quickly downed two communist MiGs and then engaged in one of the most studied dogfights in aerial combat history with one of North Vietnam's most experienced fighter pilots. After a seesaw aerial ballet which pitted the brute force F-4 Phantom against the nimble MiG-17 Fresco in a series of head-on and climbing engagements, the Americans finally got the advantage and made their fifth kill with a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile at close range. The enemy pilot had the advantage at several points in the fight, but the American pilot refused to follow the safe route and disengage to fight another day. He pushed the envelope, hung it out, and finally prevailed. On their way out of enemy skies, their aircraft was hit by a surface to air missile and they were forced to eject from their fatally crippled ride over the coastal waters of North Vietnam. Plucked from the shark and enemy patrol boat-infested waters by a rescue helicopter, Randy "Duke" Cunningham and his shipmate Willie Driscol became two of the most celebrated and decorated flyers of the war, and went on to train hundreds of other fighter pilots at the Navy's Top Gun school.
Yesterday, former congressman Randy Cunningham was sentenced to 8 years and 4 months in a Federal penitentary as punishment for his conviction on bribery charges. The immediate reaction that most of us have when we see something like this take place in the life of a former hero is to wonder where and why they changed. But Cunningham didn't "change." He lived the rest of his life like he fought enemy fighter pilots--over the edge, pushing the envelope.
The character "strength" that made him an ace was the character "flaw" that made him a felon.