One of the most interesting stories I've come across in this journey learning about the crash of the first orphan airlift flight is the role played by members of what's now known as Air America. This civilian crew of pilots made a huge difference in whether many of the people on board the flight survived.
Several people have told me what they remember of that day. Luck and coincidence played such a huge role in numerous aspects of this crash. Normally, Air America pilots were spread throughout the country, working, carrying out missions, etc. But this day, April 4, 1975, in the afternoon more than a dozen helicopter pilots and crew were at the airport in Saigon meeting with a flight official testing ratings, getting inspected to improve ratings and the like. They were all there when the plane crashed.
They could see the smoke from the airport. One pilot told me they all rushed to the nearest helicopter and took off with little thought - they just did it. En masse they flew toward the fire and smoke, seeing parts of the airplane strewn throughout the rice paddy. One pilot told me he couldn't land on the field because he wasn't sure of its solidity and depth. He hovered over the ground, barely touching it, and the mechanic jumped out into chest-deep sludge and had to slog through to get to the people. Others found the going a bit easier as the field had areas of more solid ground. But they didn't know what was going to be under their feet from one step to the next.
They started loading babies into the helicopters, bodies of children. Many were so covered with mud and muck they didn't know if they were alive or dead. Others were so torn and battered it was hard to determine if they were actually a child.
One pilot told of loading a blind child onto his helicopter, a girl about 10 or 12. She started to panic so he gave her a baby to hold. She could feel the features of the baby with her fingers and calmed down. Another spoke of holding an adult woman with a severe head injury. Her feet hung out of the side of the helicopter so the mechanic had to hold on to her as they flew back to the airport.
They don't know how many flights they made carrying people back and forth to the waiting ambulances at the airport. It took about 30 minutes or an hour to get everyone away. If not for the helicopters, rescue would have taken far, far longer. The field was inaccessible to vehicles with only footpaths for access. Who knows how many might have suffered and died if the Air America pilots didn't just happen to be there that afternoon.
The pilots and crews of Air America finished the rescue and went about their work. They helped evacuate Danang and eventually Saigon as the North Vietnamese flooded into that city. No one ever really spoke of the orphan airlift crash to them again or thanked them for their role in the rescue. It was another mission in a chaotic time and yet one which most of the pilots and crew remember in vivid detail.
No one ever thanked them for their efforts, one pilot said. I hope they all know how grateful the people who survived this crash are to them and their willingness to respond without thought, without direction, to help.