From navigator to three stars, Vance alumnus served with distinction

  • Published
  • By Phill Stuart
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- In challenging times such as these, taking a look back at the outstanding Air Force leaders who began their flying careers at Vance Air Force Base can help provide not only a sense of stability, but also hope. One such leader is Lt. Gen. Charles J. Cunningham Jr.

Born in 1932, Cunningham began his Air Force career in the aviation cadet program in June 1954, at Harlingen Air Force Base, Texas, for navigation training. After graduation in August 1955, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, Cunningham began pilot training here at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in March 1959. He received his wings in April the following year and remained at Vance as a First Assignment Instructor Pilot and standardization pilot until 1964.

Cunningham went on to complete Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in June 1965. At the same time he was also earning a master’s degree from George Washington University.

He was then assigned to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where he completed F-100 training before moving on to Hahn Air Base, Germany, where he served as a squadron pilot and flight commander.

In June 1967, Cunningham joined the war effort in Vietnam when he was assigned to the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.

He completed 100 missions in F-4s over North Vietnam. He was later assigned to 7th Air Force at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, also in Vietnam, as the F-4 combat tactics officer. He continued to fly combat missions until June 1968.

After an assignment at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado, Cunningham returned to fighter operations in June 1970, at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. He served as a flight commander with the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron and later as the operations officer for the 417th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

He returned to Southeast Asia in May 1971, where he commanded the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Phu Cat Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, until the base was inactivated in November 1971.

Cunningham was reassigned to Korat Royal Air Force Base, Thailand, where he served as operations officer for the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron until May 1972.

He flew 366 combat missions during his two tours in Southeast Asia. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven oak leaf clusters.

After graduating from the Army War College in June 1973, Cunningham was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force where he worked his way up to the position of executive assistant to the undersecretary of the Air Force.

He then became the vice commander of the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, in September 1976. He assumed command of the wing in November the following year.

In July 1979, Cunningham moved to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where he commanded the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing while simultaneously serving as commandant of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School.

In November 1982, he returned to Headquarters Air Force to serve as deputy director and later director for programs and evaluations before becoming deputy chief of staff for programs and resources.

On June 1, 1987, Cunningham retired from the Air Force as the commander of 12th Air Force, Tactical Air Command, Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas.

He retired with more than 6,000 flying hours and his decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with seven oak leaf clusters, and the Bronze Star.