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An unlikely reunion: Local fighter pilot headed to Vietnam

An unlikely reunion: Local fighter pilot Cherry headed to Vietnam to meet man he shot down
Daily News, 3/23/2008

On April 16, 1972, Dan Cherry shot down a Soviet-built MiG-21 fighter near Hanoi. He knew the opposing pilot survived the missile strike, but knew no more about his target’s life or subsequent fate than the North Vietnamese pilot did of his.

Now, just short of that event’s 36th anniversary, the two men are set to meet each other face-to-face.

The plane Cherry flew that day — a U.S Air Force F4D Phantom II, tail number 550 — is now restored to its wartime appearance as the first exhibit of the Aviation Heritage Park on Three Springs Road. When that park was in its planning stages 21/2 years ago, its local backers were discussing fundraising and publicity ideas, he said.

“Someone said, almost in jest, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could find that MiG pilot?’ ” Cherry said.

They laughed at the time, but the idea remained; Cherry had always been curious about the pilot he shot down, and wondered not only what he was like but whether he was hurt and what became of him in later life.

“All those thoughts have crossed my mind many times since then,” he said.

As plans for the park moved forward and Cherry’s old plane was secured for the first exhibit, its supporters made inquiries through current business connections in Vietnam, Cherry said.

One day at the Bluegrass Jet Jam, he ran into attorney Ed Faye, who told Cherry about his recent tourist trip to Vietnam; Cherry told Faye of the search for his old opponent, and Faye promised to ask through friends there, Cherry said. Those friends contacted a popular monthly show on state-run Vietnamese TV, which specialized in reuniting old friends and family on camera. That show’s producer got the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense involved, he said.

On Dec. 5, 2007, back came an e-mail from Thu Uyen, producer of the show “Seems As Never Have Been Separated.”

“We are happy to announce to you that we have found the ‘brave pilot’ who you were desiring to one day (to) find through our program,” the message says. “After April 16, 1972, the life of the ‘brave pilot’ has changed tremendously and (he) has a lot of interesting things to share. The ‘brave pilot’ is looking forward to meeting you and rebuild(ing) the friendship as you have mentioned.”

It asks if Cherry would come to Vietnam to meet the pilot and appear on the show, offering assistance with a travel visa and hotel. Cherry said he asked the U.S. embassy in Vietnam for its opinion, and diplomatic officials encouraged the trip.

“I leave March 31, and the TV show is April 5,” he said.

For now, about all he knows is the pilot’s name: Hong My. As a fellow pilot, Cherry suspects, they’ll have lots in common. He hopes they’ll get along well — and if they do, Cherry hopes to invite him to visit Bowling Green.

The show’s producers are keeping information about each man away from the other until they meet in the TV studio, where they’ll both see narratives of the other’s life, Cherry said.

If things go well, he’d like to spend more time with Hong My after the show, and plans to stay a few more days to visit Hanoi — and the notorious prison where many American pilots were held, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” It’s now a museum.

Cherry volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia in 1966, then for a second tour in 1971. He flew 295 missions, most of them over North Vietnam. A major at the time, he retired as a brigadier general.

He wrote up his own account of the four-minute fight in which he and his flight leader each shot down the MiG-21. After taking off from a base in Thailand on April 16, 1972, Cherry was flying with three other Phantoms from the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, patrolling about 50 miles southwest of Hanoi. They were chasing two MiGs when they spotted a third lower down. Cherry and his wingman chased the third MiG into a cloud, and spotted the North Vietnamese pilot when they emerged.

Sidewinder missiles malfunctioned repeatedly on both of the American planes, but Cherry finally fired a Sparrow missile, which hit the MiG about 4,000 feet away.

“The explosion blew the right wing of the MiG and it immediately went into a hard spiral, trailing fire and smoke,” Cherry wrote. “The MiG pilot ejected and his chute opened right in front of me.

“The whole thing had a dreamlike quality to it … there we were … smoking by this guy just as his parachute opened. We must have been close to supersonic, with the afterburners cooking … and I know we weren’t more than 30 feet away from him when we passed. Even at that, I got a good look at him. He had on a black flying suit, and his parachute was mostly white, with one red panel in it. I thought, ‘This is just like in the movies!’ ”

Now, Cherry said, he’s just as excited about flying to meet the man he shot at in 1972.

“Things like this, I think revalidate the concept that established the Aviation Heritage Park,” he said.

The park is meant to tell the stories of local aviators through its exhibits, and thus inspire future generations. When planners were looking for their first exhibit, they found Cherry’s plane outside a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Ohio. With Air Force permission, it was restored and moved to park Sept. 24, 2007.

The park’s second exhibit, a 60-year-old F9F-5 Panther jet similar to the one flown by Lt. Cmdr. John J. Magda Jr. in the Korean War, arrived Jan. 10 at the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport, where it’s being restored.

Magda, a 1940 graduate of Western Kentucky University from Oldham County, became a Navy fighter ace during World War II. After the war, he set many speed records in new jet planes, became commander of the Navy’s Blue Angels exhibition squadron in 1950, and was one of the first pilots to fly a jet from an aircraft carrier. Flying a Panther, the 33-year-old Magda was hit by ground fire, shot down and killed while leading an air strike in March 1951.

He was inducted into Western’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2006, and the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007.