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The Saigon Airlift

Dan Flak

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 Berlin Airlift.

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 seemed so.

Deployments started 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 Bases1.

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 would envy.

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 among crews.

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 heads.

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 me.

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 11".

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 information stateside.

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.

A 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.

Email Dan at: this address.

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