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Cherry and Hong My
Air Force Brig. Gen Dan Cherry, left, has befriended Hong My,the North Vietnamese MiG pilot he downed in 1972. Both men talked about the incident at AirVenture 2012.
Cherry and Hong My
Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, left, and North Vietnamese Mig-21 pilot Nguyen Hong My flanked a Vietnamese interpreter during a Warbirds in Review program. Behind them, a camouflaged F-4 Phantom and a silver Mig-21 represented the two fighters the men flew in combat when Cherry downed Hong My.

By Frederick A. Johnsen

Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry says it's hard to describe the details of a dogfight, since it all happens so fast and in three dimensions. But he gave a good accounting of the April 16, 1972, engagement near Hanoi, in which he maneuvered his big, fast F-4 Phantom II jet into position behind a smaller MiG-21 and loosed an AIM-7 missile that tore the right wing off the enemy fighter.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the Warbirds in Review showcase on Tuesday, Cherry was accompanied by a newfound and fast friend—the North Vietnamese MiG pilot he downed that day, Nguyen Hong My.

Hong My alternated with Cherry as they described the respective flying careers leading up to that fateful day. Hong My's rolling, melodious Vietnamese was translated into English by a translator from the U.S. Defense Language Institute.

Gen. Cherry described his training first as an Air Force navigator, then as a fighter pilot in F-105s and F-4s after graduating at the top of his flight school class. "The Air Force was very good to me."

Hong My said he was one of only two university freshmen from a group of 1,700 in North Vietnam selected for flight training in the Soviet Union in the cycle when he was picked. Chores included shoveling snow to enable the aircraft to fly in Russia, Hong My recalled.

He was chosen to fly the fast and nimble MiG-21 over his native North Vietnam. Gen. Cherry said the F-4 and MiG-21 were "quite different airplanes." The F-4 was larger and easier to see, with a wider turning radius—which is not good if you're an F-4 crew member—while the smaller, maneuverable MiG-21 was "very difficult to see," Cherry said. A drawback to the MiG-21 was its shorter flight endurance, "especially if he's in afterburner," said Cherry. "We treated the MiG-21 with great respect."

Gen. Cherry said even before his combat with Hong My, he had determined that if an engagement with a MiG-21 started to give the MiG the edge, Cherry would quickly disengage to fight another day.

On the fateful day, April 16, 1972, Cherry was part of a flight of four F-4s sent to provide fighter cover for other Phantoms on a bombing mission. When the bombers were delayed, Cherry and his flightmates in Basco Flight went trolling for MiGs around Hanoi.

Two MiG-21s presented a head-on target first. Two trailers—additional MiGs not yet visible—followed them. As the first pair of North Vietnamese jets passed overhead, the F-4s rolled around to pursue. Hong My came up from a lower altitude and then disappeared into cloud cover.

Dan Cherry pursued into the overcast, ignoring warning tones that said North Vietnamese surface-to-air (SAM) missile radars were seeking him. "Being in a cloud is a death trap," Cherry explained, since it robbed the F-4 crew of the opportunity to observe and avoid a SAM launch. The MiG was not found, so Cherry punched through the cloud into the clear again.

Cherry saw Hong My in his MiG-21 and selected afterburner to more quickly carry the fight to him. Two AIM-9 missiles from Cherry's Phantom failed to find the MiG, as did two AIM-7s fired by an adjacent F-4. But the aggregate firings took a toll on Hong My's MiG just the same. As the North Vietnamese pilot maneuvered to avoid the missile shots, he was forced to allow his MiG-21 to dissipate some of its energy.

At this point, Cherry and his back-seater, Jeff Feinstein, got a solid radar lock on the enemy fighter. Cherry said he watched as an AIM-7 missile from beneath his F-4 sped forward and rolled, curving ahead of the MiG. "It was pulling lead on the MiG," Cherry explained. The missile intercepted the fighter and blew off its right wing.

Hong My quickly ejected. Arm restraints in his MiG-21 failed, and both the Vietnamese pilot's arms flailed in the slipstream and broke. Injured, Hong My was unable to use his arms to steer the parachute as he drifted down to the jungle. His interpreter at AirVenture said Hong My marveled at his own mental processes because the one thing that entered his mind after his harrowing escape was worry: "In case a tiger would jump out to kill me, what would I do?"

The first thing Cherry saw was the ejecting pilot looming large. "What I remember most is that chute right in my face," he said. The image would remain indelible in Cherry's mind, resurfacing decades later.

"I wondered for awhile what happened to the MiG pilot because I saw him so close in his parachute," Cherry said. But, as successful fighter pilots must, Cherry soon focused on the next mission, not the last one.

The two newfound friends exchanged humor as Hong My told the AirVenture crowd that while Dan Cherry was drinking celebratory champagne the night of their combat, Hong My was being placed on the operating table.

The story might have ended there but for a turn of events where Cherry learned of the availability of his MiG-killer F-4 for a display in Kentucky. His interest in the fate of the Vietnamese pilot rekindled, Dan Cherry contacted a Vietnamese television producer to see if the flier could be located.

To Cherry's surprise, a positive connection was made, and in 2008 Dan Cherry was winging his way back to Vietnam to meet the man he shot down over Hanoi so many decades earlier.

"I wanted there to be a basis for friendship," Cherry said. A bit apprehensive about his first encounter with Hong My, Cherry said "he came walking toward me with a pleasant look." Hong said through an interpreter, "I hope that we can be friends." From that initial meeting, Cherry was invited to dinner at Hong My's home in Hanoi—a domestic plane flight away. Cherry said it was surreal to fly over the same landmarks he previously saw when he was attacking them as targets, only this time he was seated with the man he shot down in the same location.

"We have far more in common than we ever did differences," Cherry told the crowd. He said their story is about "forgiveness, reconciliation, moving on from the past."

As a special epilogue to the story of Dan Cherry and Nguyen Hong My, the crowd at AirVenture included two other related participants who came forward. One was John Stiles, the back-seater in a reconnaissance RF-4 Phantom earlier downed by Hong My, accompanied by Bob Noble, part of the helicopter crew who rescued Stiles.

It was a friendly crowd all around as the four combatants from Southeast Asia were applauded and welcomed.

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