The Most Dangerous Pilot America Ever Faced

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During the 1970s, during the Vietnam War, US intelligence picked up an incredibly skillful pilot named Colonel Tomb, one of the best pilots of the Vietnamese Air Force. Some said he was responsible for downing 14 American aircraft and earning him ace status. 

Stories about this most dangerous pilot America has ever faced spread far and wide. But did he really ever exist? 

The Tale

The story starts with the elusive Col. Tomb- an aggressive, independent Vietnamese pilot. He was a force to be reckoned with in the skies and had 14 kills recorded under his name. 

But according to legend, that was until a duo of Top Gun graduates, Lt. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Lt. William P. Driscoll took him down during one of the most cinematic battles of the Vietnam War. 

Throughout the end of the dogfight, Cunningham managed to fire a sidewinder, hitting Tomb’s MiG as it plummeted to the ground. There was no parachute in sight—and Colonel Tomb was no more.

The Reality

However, Col. Tomb may be merely a myth. Firstly, it was said that both Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates. But Operation Linebacker started when Top Gun struggled with funding, many thinking it wouldn’t be long until the program was shut down. 

Neither of the pilots was selected. In fact, Cunningham was even rejected twice. Many believed that both men’s involvement in Top Gun was exaggerated to boost the program’s profile and thus, obtain funding. Still, both men have proven themselves as ace pilots even though they did not graduate from Top Gun. They served as instructors in the newly revitalized program. 

Moreover, Col. Tomb likely didn’t exist. Years after the war, when Hanoi’s pilots were interviewed to know more about the ever elusive Col. Tomb, their answer was, “Colonel, who?”

Interestingly, Tomb’s name wasn’t even on the official Vietnamese records. If he were real, he’d likely be highly decorated, immortalized, rather than erased from official documents. 

Two Main Theories

There are two theories behind this. First, Col. Tomb wasn’t Vietnamese but a Russian pilot. However, the Soviets vehemently denied their participation in air-to-air combat during the Vietnamese war. 

The second theory is that Tomb wasn’t one but two pilots. The first one has an impressive record of aerial victories, while the second pilot is an expert on lone wolf attacks. 

However, this theory was later dismissed, as the named Vietnamese pilots flew MiG-21s, not MiG-17s. Both of them were also somewhere else when the famous aerial battle took place. 

Coping With Reality

According to historian Roger Bonifas, it’s highly likely that US fighter pilots merely invented the legend of Col. Tomb to protect their egos. 

That’s because the existence of Tomb in the mind of American pilots gave them a psychological comfort zone in case a North Vietnamese pilot outflies or shoots him down. 

You’d be surprised that nearly every war had come up with such inventions or exaggerations of reality as a coping mechanism for loss. 

However, the patriotic wind it shows somehow represents a way of dealing with the war’s trauma on its soldiers.