In April 1975, escaping Saigon meant crowding into a darkened C-130 in the middle of the night.
- By Fred Reed
- Air & Space magazine, July 1992
(Page 3 of 3)
We staggered through the darkness, fighting a wind that reeked of burned kerosene. The crew had elected to keep the engines running, Loose articles sailed into the night. Sandy and I were surrounded by slender girls in ao dais that whipped in the blast, dazed-looking children, grandmothers in black carrying wicker baskets that held all they had left in the world.
There were no seats in the roaring cavern of the fuselage, and no lights, which could attract ground fire. Thick nylon cargo straps ran across the floor. Men, women, and kids squatted on metal flooring with gaping expansion joints. A crewman in earphones trailing a wire that kept him in touch with the rest of the crew yelled over the din, “Keep the kids’ fingers outta the cracks or they’ll lose ‘em!” A young airman stood guard on the ramp holding an M-16; I wondered if he knew how to fire it.
Very quickly the fuselage was full; the ramp was closed and the pilot taxied to the runway. Airplanes were arriving more frequently now, and a lot of rules and regulations were being flat-out ignored. We reached the runway, turned sharply, and got a rolling start on a takeoff.
The Hercules set off like a scalded cat, turbines howling, skin rattling, the whole airplane squealing and hissing. This was not your gentle peacetime takeoff roll. The pilot wanted to be somewhere else pronto and had communicated his desire to the four large turboprops.
We climbed al an astonishing angle, clawing for altitude in a tight corkscrew, trying to stay over friendly territory—now shrinking rapidly—until we were above the range of the surface-to-air missiles. I wondered how many people could fit in a C-130. Enough, I figured, to get the pilot court-martialed at any other time.
The last I saw of Saigon was the lights of the city slowly revolving in the side door, through which poured a terrific wind. The engines roared, and terrified kids clung to their mothers. Below us, people waiting for the next 130 were piled on the tennis courts in the red blackout lights like bodies in a mass grave.
I hoped that if we took a missile hit it would just take out one of the engines and not the wing spar. But no missile came, and soon we were cruising calmly over the South China Sea on the way to the Philippines. As we had pulled away from Saigon, I thought fleetingly that I was witnessing the end of an era. Then I could only think about how tired I was, and how badly I wanted to sleep.