C5 Crashes In Vietnam During Operation Babylift
By Patrick Mondout
On April 4, 1975, an Air Force C-5A Galaxy carrying orphans from
Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift crashed killing 98 of the 150
children and 155 of 328 on board.
In April of 1975, the Ford Administration - hoping for a bit of good
news out of Vietnam - announced it would send aircraft to Vietnam to help
rescue children that had been orphaned during the war. Administration
officials dubbed it Operation Babylift. President Ford, who unveiled the
operation on April 2nd at a press conference in San Diego, was to meet the
plane when it arrived in San Francisco.
The operation would carry children who had lost both parents to war,
"illegitimate" children of U.S. servicemen, and children
abandoned by their starving mothers. It seemed also to fulfill a need to
alleviate America's guilt over what was a lost war.
Ford not only announced the operation (to the dismay of military
leaders who believed such a public evacuation might create panic), he
specifically referred to the C-5A by name, "I have directed that C-5A
aircraft and other aircraft especially equipped to care for these orphans
during the flight be sent to Saigon. It's the least we can do."
At the time, the Lockheed C-5A and it its builder were under intense
scrutiny due to huge cost overruns and safety issues. (U.S. taxpayers were
eventually ordered to pay not only $1.5B to fix the problems, but $150M in
profit for the repairs to Lockheed as well!) Congress was debating whether
to spend millions to fix the planes and Ford's advisors hoped to prop up
the aircraft and his presidency with a well-covered an well-intentioned
It was not to be.
The C-5A Galaxy, which had just delivered a load of Howitzers, arrived
from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines on April 4. The C-5A is a
cargo aircraft and not a passenger jet; there are no seats and very few
oxygen masks in the back and no restrooms for the passengers. In addition
to the 150 children, U.S. Embassy personnel were to be evacuated covertly
on this flight. Even if all went as planned, this 20-hour journey to San
Francisco was going to be unpleasant.
The crew worried about what would happen if they had a problem at
altitude. The cockpit voice recorder picked up these comments shortly
before takeoff: "If we are up at 37 (thousand feet) and we have a
rapid decompression, we're gonna lose someone."
Twelve minutes after takeoff and at an altitude of nearly 29,000 feet
(too high for humans to breathe), the unthinkable happened. The C-5A's
often criticized door locking mechanism failed at the back of the plane. A
section of the tail blew off causing rapid decompression and numerous
injuries. Crew members near the doors were sucked out immediately. Those
that remained quickly lost consciousness due to a lack of oxygen (which
had left the plane in less than a second).
The flight crew, which donned oxygen masks immediately, noticed they
were having trouble controlling the aircraft; some of the flying debris
had severed a control cable. In a remarkable feet of flying, the crew
managed to wrestle the stricken aircraft back toward the airport.
Vietnam - 4/29/75
The air evacuation of
siege-stricken Vietnamese from Saigon to the U.S.
was conducted after the Babylift operation.
Vietnamese militants and civilians await their
C-141 journey during stopover in Thailand.
They touched down in an open field two miles short of the runway, but
did so at about twice the normal speed for landing. The huge aircraft
bounced into the air and over the Saigon River before hitting an
irrigation ditch and breaking up into four large sections over what is now
the Mekong River Delta.
What had started out as a cheerful photo-op a little over 20 minutes
earlier at the Air Force Base was now tearful scene of tragedy of small
bodies scattered in the mud being filmed by the same television crews.
President Ford did not miss out on his photo-op. Another plane carried
a group of refugees to San Francisco and an official White House
photographer was there.
President Gerald R. Ford
talks to a woman refugee while holding a
Vietnamese baby on a United States Air Force bus.
The President greeted the refugees of the Republic
of Vietnam at a California airbase.
NARA photo by David Hume
Air Force officials immediately blamed saboteurs. Lockheed blamed the
Air Force for incorrect maintenance procedures and lawyers implicated
Lockheed's design deficiencies.
On April 5th, shortly after a call was placed by Lockheed General
Manager Larry Kitchen (who later became president of the defense giant) to
General Carlson of Military Airlift Command, General Warner Newby - a
close associate of Lockheed officials who had been the C-5A project
manager for the Air Force - was put in charge of the still-secret
An apparent Air Force coverup ensued which involved the destruction of
photographs of the crash site. An Air Force officer who admitted to
burning the photos - all but the ones showing the part of the wreckage
where most of the survivors came from - said he was only following Air
Force regulations to destroy "non-pertinent" documents.
They were clearly pertinent and anyone who wonders about how often that
order is followed with regard to photographs need only do a search here
for tens of thousands of irrelevant photos which have been kept for
decades by the Air Force. When litigation resulting from this crash
reached the courts, a judge called this destruction
"intentional" and "questionable."
It later was revealed that not all the children were orphans. Some had
been essentially kidnapped from those sympathetic to Communist North.
Litigation from this crash lasted well into the 1990s.
An Air Force
C-5A similar to the one involved in this
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
Operation Babylift continued throughout April and May despite the
disastrous crash of the first flight and ultimately 2,678 Vietnamese and
Cambodian orphans were evacuated to the United States.
We would love to hear from any survivors.
Source: Schechter, Danny. News
Dissector. Akashic Books, 2001.