FYI, This is a story we're running in the paper this weekend on the anniversary of the crash.
Travis crew’s skills, duty avert complete disaster
By Kathleen L’Ecluse
FAIRFIELD — The Travis crew thought they were just picking up a load of Howitzers and dropping them off in Saigon.
Little did they know, 34 years ago, they would pick up the politically charged cargo of Vietnamese orphans for the trip out -- and never make it past the China Sea.
At about 4 p.m. April 4, 1975, the C-5A flown by Col. Bud Traynor and his Travis-based crew took off from Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon carrying a cargo of people -- babies strapped two to a seat in the troop compartment and older children and adults strapped down to pallets or the bare floor in the cargo compartment below.
The plane was headed to Travis Air Force Base, the first official flight of Operation Babylift, a U.S. government-sponsored transport of Vietnamese and biracial orphans out of the country before the North Vietnamese took over Saigon.
They took off fast, gaining altitude quickly to avoid the rumored gunfire around Saigon, and headed west toward the Philippines.
But 20 minutes into the flight the locks on the huge cargo door in the back burst apart and it broke away, ripping through most of the hydraulic controls of the plane. The resulting decompression sucked out a crew member and all of the identification and medical records of the children on board.
A fog formed in the cockpit, the classic sign of a rapid decompression. Traynor immediately banked the plane to head back to Tan Son Nhut as he started hearing reports from crewmembers throughout the plane on the status of his aircraft. He quickly learned for himself that most of his controls were gone -- as the plane headed down.
Most flap controls gone, the pilots applied thrust to regain some altitude. They began a roller-coaster ride back, banking down, adding thrust to go up, all the while trying to make it to the airport.
The escorts upstairs tried to bring the oxygen masks down to the babies strapped in their seats but there weren’t enough to go around. The adults themselves couldn’t sit down -- they didn’t have any seats at all.
One boy, the 10-year-old son of a Defense Attaché Office employee, found himself trapped upstairs after an exploratory trip to the bathroom. The cargo door had ripped away the stairs to the cargo area -- leaving a crew member hanging by his fingertips before others dragged him upstairs -- and the boy couldn’t go back down to his mother.
That fact would save his life.
Flirting saved another life. The 18-year-old daughter of a DAO employee caught the eye of a Travis crewmember. A few jokes and asides later, the crewmember asked the girl and her mother to move upstairs where he was stationed. They did, joining those caring for the babies upstairs. The teen girl survived because of it. Her mother wasn’t as lucky.
After its peripatetic journey back, the pilots caught sight of the airport. They dropped the landing gear -- some of it manually, locking in place at the last moment -- and banked for a final approach.
But they couldn’t get the plane up high enough again. The gear had caused too much drag.
With the airport just a few miles away, Traynor straightened out the aircraft and prepared to set down in a rice field. The first contact with the ground tore away some of the landing gear. Traynor thought the plane would slow to a stop, he said.
But it didn’t. It went airborne again, jumping over the Saigon River, clipping some treetops as it passed and apparently plowing through a trio of Viet Cong on the river bank.
The second touchdown wasn’t as soft. Friction tore away at the bottom of the plane, disintegrating the cargo compartment and most of the people inside. The plane broke into pieces -- two fuel-laden wings plowing off to the right, the troop compartment to the left and the flight deck, upside down and turned around, up ahead.
Traynor and the crew in the flight deck suffered few injuries as did most in the troop compartment. One adult died in the troop compartment, Barbara Adams, the mother of the flirtatious teen who had stood up after the first touchdown to exchange places with her daughter. She flew forward during the second landing, crashing against a wall.
Traynor found medical crew member Phil Wise tangled in the wiring of the ceiling of the cargo compartment, which was the bottom of the flight deck and had broken away. After they got him down and sat him in the mud, he kept trying to crawl away. He couldn’t see. He’d lost an eye and was covered in blood.
Helicopter pilots with Air America happened to be gathered at Tan Son Nhut to meet with a federal flight inspector. They monitored the flight and upon hearing the crash rushed to their aircraft. The choppers arrived at the scene in minutes.
Some were able to land, the crew member on board usually leaping out to start gathering survivors. Other chopper pilots had to hover, just above the water-laden ground, as passengers passed children hand to hand, up into the craft.
Lt. Regina Aune was one of those rescuing children. She helped evacuate about 100 children before she collapsed in the mud from her injuries. She was the first woman to receive the Cheney Award for humanitarian actions relating to an aircraft.
The helicopters managed to evacuate the survivors in about 30 minutes. Even as they worked Vietnamese started to gather at the scene, going through debris. Crash investigators had to buy back many parts from villagers. When Traynor arrived at the scene the next day, he found a Vietnamese man wearing his flight jacket, name tag and all.
Of the more than 320 people on board, more than 175 survived.
The crash didn’t stop Operation Babylift. Many of the children on board that day left Saigon the next, leaving on a Pan Am flight. The Defense Attaché Office continued to evacuate U.S. civilian workers, only pausing for memorial services for the three dozen DAO people on board who died.
Crewmembers went to the Philippines and most spent time in the hospital, either for care or for observation. They, too, went to ceremonies: some memorializing those who died, others awarding them medals for their heroism. Most eventually returned to Travis.
While the crash was years ago, those involved haven’t forgotten. The Northern California chapter of the Professional Loadmasters Association is named the Parker Aguillon Payne Chapter in honor of the three loadmasters who died in the crash. Some members of the crew or their survivors still live in the area, although most are scattered through the U.S.
Nearly 3,500 children left Vietnam through Operation Babylift, many to the U.S. but also to other countries including Australia, France and England.
The crash marks the most serious loss of life in a C-5 crash ever. But it also marks a most miraculous feat of flying and attention to duty, officials said when awarding Traynor and co-pilot Tilford Harp medals for their work. More than half the people on board survived a crash that should have killed everyone, they said. That was due to the work of the crew.