This is a "real" war
The Saigon Airlift
In terms of cargo airlifted,
it was the greatest airlift effort in the history of mankind.
In terms of number
of sorties flown, it was the greatest airlift effort since the
In terms of number
of people evacuated, it was the greatest evacuation effort since
the miracle of Dunkirk.
No, I do not substantiate
these claims. However, from my vantage point in history, and from
my vantage point within the airlift effort itself, it certainly
as early as March, and it wasn't over until May.
Nearly every C-5,
C-141, and C-130 in the Air Force inventory was involved in the
effort at one point or another.
My personal involvement
began with a telephone call in the middle of a March night. Throwing
together enough laundry for a trip to who knows where and for
who knows how long had already gotten routine by this time. Still,
I sensed that there would be something different about this trip.
Our initial deployment
was to Kadena AB, Okinawa. That wasn't the normal staging area
for the C-141's flying the airlift, but it was as close as we
could get to overcrowded Clark (Philippines) and Anderson (Guam)
Air Bases. The standard joke was that these islands were in danger
of sinking under the sheer weight of the aircraft sitting on the
ramps at the airfields. Surprisingly, room was found later.
Our crew spent 2 days
in Kadena before departing for Saigon. That was the last time
for the next two months we were to see that much free time all
in one piece.
Since we didn't depart
from one of the "normal" staging areas, we were ill provisioned.
We had no IRCM (Infra Red Counter Measures) equipment (special
flares and mounting racks), and no intelligence briefing. We didn't
even have the informal feedback from other crews that had been
there. We were going in cold.
Passing overhead Clark
inbound, I filed our flight plan back out with a friend of mine
at the command post. Although he recognized my voice and tried
to sound cheerful, I could hear the strain in his voice. He had
gone through this same routine with countless aircraft before
during an endless succession of 16 hour shifts. He probably still
has the routing memorized.
We picked up 180 passengers
on our first trip. Looking back into the cargo compartment, all
I could see was a sea of heads. Our loadmasters were hard pressed
to jerry rig safety measures. Every so often, across the width
of the aircraft were stretched tiedown straps to act as handholds
to keep our human cargo from shifting too much in the event of
a mishap. One hundred eighty people sat squatting on a cold metal
floor. Subsequent missions were furnished with blankets, carpeting,
cardboard, drop cloths, and anything else that could be used for
insulation. All these materials were scrounged by the aircrews
themselves, or donated by the residents of Clark and Guam Air
On subsequent missions
(staged out of Clark or Anderson) we also were furnished with
small arms, IRCM kits and better information. At least we were
shown a map indicating where the bad guys were. Going in at night,
we could see how accurate the intelligence was. There was a ring
of fire in the form of artillery exchanges around Saigon. Each
night, it drew a little closer.
Aside from Tan Son
Nhut AB (Saigon - ICAO identifier VVVS), the only other airfield
in friendly hands was Bien Hoa (North and East of Saigon about
30 miles). It was attacked several times by air and ground forces
during the airlift, captured and regained once.
Aside from that, we
had other concerns. The North Vietnamese had supplemented their
Air Force with VNAF assets captured at Cam Rahn Bay, Da Nang,
and a few other places. They now had A-37's, F-4's and F-5's to
add to their MIG-17 and MIG-21 collection. They also managed to
position a 37 mm AAA gun within an effective range of one mile
of VVVS. That makes flying a tight pattern a good idea! Add to
this any freelance Victor Charlie with an SA-7, and you begin
to wonder what the hell you're doing there.
We kept telling ourselves
that the North Vietnamese would not want to do anything to give
the Americans an excuse to intervene. We kept telling ourselves,
that we weren't going to do anything to provoke them to do anything
to give us an excuse to intervene. Or so we hoped.
To counter the first
threat, we had MIG CAP. One of our loadmasters nearly shot off
a flare at an F-5 which was doing a vertical climb from directly
beneath us. During the day, the sky was nearly overcast with contrails.
I don't know what they had up there.
To counter the latter
two threats, we had to rely on our own resources. Approach was
to be made up the delta above 16,000 ft. Then, from a point directly
overhead, one 360 degree turn staying within 1 mile of the airport
was to be executed. This maneuver is no sweat in a C-130. It takes
a lot of skill in a C-141. However, doing the "Saigon Split-S"
in a C-5 requires flying finesse that even a Thunderbird Pilot
After several trips,
we could rollout over the overrun, intercept the glide slope,
flare, and touchdown all at the same time. It became second nature.
You could spot the "rookies"- they were the ones who landed halfway
down the runway. After that it was taxi to parking, offload our
cargo and pick up passengers.
I can vividly remember
being slumped over the yoke, absent-mindedly listening the occasional
"whump" of artillery in the distance, and staring across the cockpit
at my aircraft commander. He was staring back at me. We both had
the same look on our faces; "What the hell are we doing here,
we could get killed". However, both of us were too tired to worry
about it. As one night went on into another, the "whumps" gradually
became a thunder, and more often, and the thunder was accompanied
by visible lightening flashes. Even the sky was aflame with flares.
If things got hot,
we were told to climb as rapidly as possible to 16000 ft or more,
and di-di-mao out the delta. Working on my Tactical Air Command
(TAC) experience, I had my aircraft commander convinced of another
course of action. He was willing to trust the radar altimeter.
Our plan was to take the Starlifter out on the deck changing heading
and altitude every couple of seconds at 350 knots (max speed for
the C-141). If we had to do it, we hoped we had to do it at night
in the weather.
I also instigated
another new procedure. (It wasn't new to me - I was "born and
raised" in TAC). As soon as we broke ground, we went from "Christmas
Tree" to blackout. Every light (including cabin illumination)
went to the off position. We were the first ones to do this. On
the next night, about half the aircraft did it. By the third night,
all aircraft would rotate and disappear. Of course there were
incoming aircraft, and they too, were blacked out. So much for
"see and avoid". At least departing aircrews knew where arrivals
should be "spiraling down". None of this was done by any conscious
effort on the part of command post, ATC, or even verbal agreements
There were brighter
and more interesting moments. The constant chatter of aircrews
on the unauthorized frequency 123.45 gave us more information
than command post ever could. We ran into one crew toting around
their winter flying gear. It seems they were pulled off an exercise
in Germany. There was also the time I was given a clearance by
the NVA! It read almost like the real thing, but had some "unexpected"
differences. The tip off was that this guy's English was too good.
It wasn't one of the same voices I had gotten used to on previous
visits. I ignored it, and called for and got a "real" clearance
later. To think that they were within UHF range of the ramp!
For the duration of
the airlift, it was fly 16+ hours per day with 12 hours off (that's
12 hours between touchdown and wheels up. Considering post and
pre mission requirements, that usually worked out to less than
8 hours sleep per night).
The crash of the C-5
took the "Fat Alberts" out of the action early, however, it didn't
slacken the effort appreciably. There was a continuous flow of
C-141 and C-130 aircraft in and out of the airport.
These planes were
tended to in a highly efficient matter by the ground crews who
unloaded cargo, performed miracles in maintenance, and shuttled
passengers to keep as few aircraft on the ground, for as little
time as possible. Many of these men made it out on the last flights
out. Several were pulled from the US Embassy roof as NVA tanks
were entering the city.
Back home, there were
two C-141s on the ramp at Norton AFB (San Bernardino, CA.). Both
were so stripped of parts, it looked like some huge mechanical
vulture had picked them clean. On the line, we were flying anything
that could fly. Aircrew and Safety Officer alike turned their
Back home, the "Honorable"
Senator Edward Kennedy (Mass - D) was thoroughly misrepresenting
the airlift effort to all of America. The news media gave him
ample newspaper space (and air time as well, I imagine) to explain
how the Air Force wasn't doing enough, and what it was doing was
slipshod. I hold few grudges, and I may burn in hell because of
it. My only consolation is that the "Honorable" Senator will precede
Back at home, freedom
of the press was milking the airlift for all the sensationalism
it could muster. Picture a house with 12 Air Force wives playing
bridge while their husbands are "over there". The TV, (ABC "news"),
announces; "We interrupt this program for a special news bulletin.
An American cargo plane has been blown up in Saigon. Details at
One by one, the wives
call the squadron to find out if there's any information. One
by one, the wives find out that their husbands are in Clark or
Guam. All except one. She's 5 months pregnant, 24 years old, with
a two-year-old child. She's a continent away from the nearest
family. The squadron can't find her husband. She knows that what
the Captain really means is her husband is "in country".
Her husband wasn't
really "in country". I was airborne, and on my way to Guam when
the event happened. As good as the command and control of the
operation was, there was still several hours lag in getting the
The "details", known
to the press all along, was that a C-130 was indeed hit by a motor
round on the ramp. It was empty. There were no human casualties.
Scratch one C-130 from the Air Force inventory. It was merely
an accounting problem, not a cause to notify next of kin. However,
ABC had products to sell, and if a little additional human anguish
could accomplish that, so be it!
The days became no
more than numbers marching across a calendar. The nights showed
the battle being slowly lost as the ring of fire and steel tightened
like a noose around the neck of the Vietnamese capitol. As the
battle drew closer, our passenger count escalated.
Initially, the "standard
load" was a 180 people. That soon gave way to 200, 210, or whatever
could be squeezed in. It was quite literally "standing room only"
as people sat in one another's laps to make room for the twoand
a half to four and a half hour flight to freedom.
Then one morning we
got up. We reported to the command post. They told us we were
going to Midway. We asked them what happened to Saigon; they told
us it wasn't there anymore. Ten years (more or less) after the
war started, the flying, at least, was over.
Our crew spent several
weeks resettling the population to staging areas on Guam, Clark,
Midway and Wake. Our final leg involved heading into Midway to
pick up a group of infant orphans. We were coming in from the
West. A C-5 was arriving from the East. Our cargo was people.
His cargo was a Garbage Truck, and six pallets of toilet paper
(talk about big time trash hauling). We picked up our new passengers
and shuttled them to McChord AFB, WA (Which, ironically, is a
mile or two from where I lived for 13 years after separating from
the Air Force. I wonder how many of the Vietnamese students in
my sons' High School were former passengers.)
Finally, nearly 8
weeks after kissing the wife goodbye, we were wheels down on final
approach for Norton.
lot has to be said for the spouses and dependents at Clark
Air Base, Philippines and Anderson Air Base, Guam. They provided
much of the "humaneness" of this humanitarian effort. In addition
to coming up with the blankets and "whatnot", they also did
a lot of volunteer work providing a variety of services from
serving food in field kitchens to providing medical care.
I'm also proud of
my adoptive hometown, Tacoma, WA. for welcoming many of these
people with open arms. You don't have to wear a uniform to
be a hero.