|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 mission.
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.
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.
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 investigation.
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.
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.
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