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Taking Flight With Ace Advice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the young pilots on their way to war, William Driscoll offered a formula for success and survival at supersonic speed: Stay focused and stay basic, even when the forces of gravity and stress seem intolerable.

“Your world as you know it is going to be turned upside down,” Driscoll quietly told the air squadrons aboard the carrier John C. Stennis as it left San Diego for the Arabian Sea two weeks ago. “You have to stay disciplined to get the job done.”

Truth be told, his advice is not all that different from what the young men and women who will fly F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Hornets and other warplanes into combat have heard from their training instructors and senior officers.

But the words have added impact coming from Driscoll, 54, a commercial real estate agent from San Diego, a Little League coach, and a commander in the Navy Reserve.

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Driscoll is one of only two Vietnam War-era Navy “aces,” a designation reserved for aviators who shot down five or more enemy aircraft.

In the world of military aviation, no other term is more respected.

“There’s nothing quite like being in a room with fighter pilots talking about aviation and having an ace walk in,” said Jim Huston, a former F-14 aviator and now a lawyer and novelist in San Diego. “It’s like being on a high school basketball team and having Michael Jordan walk in.”

Some of the Stennis aviators were so impressed by Driscoll’s presentation that they are now growing the kind of jaunty sideburns that were common among Navy aviators of that era, calling them “Willy D’s.”

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In three furious dogfights in 1972, Driscoll and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, flying an F-4 Phantom, shot down five Soviet MIGs flown by North Vietnamese pilots.

Cunningham, now a Republican congressman from San Diego, was the pilot; Driscoll was the radar-intercept officer. Both later became instructors at the Navy’s famed Top Gun school in San Diego, where the “best of the best” are taught how to be even better.

Called back to reserve duty in 1990, Driscoll lectures each graduating class at Top Gun, now located at Fallon, Nev. He has made a study of aces, interviewing two dozen from various conflicts, including four from World War I, to find characteristics they have in common.

“Intensity, never letting up, always looking for ways to do things better” he said.

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The focus of his work “is not on what we did in the past,” said Driscoll, his voice still redolent of his Boston Irish upbringing, “but what they’re going to do in the future.”

He stresses training and simplicity: “You don’t want to get too fancy. It’s usually the pilot who makes the fewest bad mistakes who prevails.”

He knows the perils of losing focus and dropping what the Navy calls situational awareness. “Cunningham and I were shot down when we lost concentration,” he said.

Just moments after getting their fifth MIG, their Phantom was hit by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. The plane caught fire and became uncontrollable, and Driscoll and Cunningham were forced to eject.

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They were rescued from the Gulf of Tonkin by a U.S. Navy helicopter as North Vietnamese patrol boats raced to the scene in hopes of taking them prisoner.

The F-4 from that incident was never recovered. But the plane that Cunningham and Driscoll flew for their first two shoot-downs has a place of honor at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park.

“It looks just the same as it did in 1972,” Driscoll said on a recent visit, momentarily unable to take his eyes off the craft. “It even smells the same.”

While the Navy has numerous pilots and navigators with experience from the Persian Gulf War and from enforcing the “no-fly” zone over Iraq during the past decade, an ace is still a valued commodity. Cunningham’s duties in Washington keep him pinned down, but Driscoll’s time is more flexible.

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Lt. Shannon Smith, a Top Gun instructor, said that the Top Gun students’ attention never wavers when Driscoll speaks. “He talks about how to not let the ‘fog of war’ keep you from the basics,” Smith said.

Added Cunningham, remembering a meeting as a young pilot with World War II ace Chuck Yeager: “Theory is good, but it’s important to have icons.”

On the Stennis, Driscoll used the shipboard television system to talk to aviators in ready rooms spread throughout the mammoth ship. His audience was thinking not only about missions over Afghanistan but, if the war were to spread, missions over Iraq, where the anti-aircraft fire could be intense.

For three hours he talked about “being good at being basic” and maintaining “a sense not of emergency but of the importance of the moment.”

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Capt. Don Quinn, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, said the presentation was particularly well-received by the younger crew members, many only months out of flight school.

“Willy did a great job of preparing them mentally for what is to come,” Quinn said. “I found that my own memories of January 1991 came flooding back.”

One of Driscoll’s messages is that war is not romantic. “There’s nothing nice about war,” he said. “To have peace, you have to fight sometimes. This is one of those times.”

He ended with a quotation from Melville’s poem “The Martyr,” written after the assassination of President Lincoln. The parallel with the America of post-Sept. 11 was clear:

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There is sobbing of the strong.

And a pall upon the land;

But the People in their weeping

Bare the iron hand;

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Beware the People weeping

When they bare the iron hand.

“You are the iron hand of the people of the United States,” Driscoll said as a hush descended on the ready rooms. “Good luck and good hunting.”


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