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The A-37 Dragonfly was a small but capable attack bomber. (USAF)

Escape to U Taphao

In the final days of the Vietnam war, chaos and heroism converged in the effort to evacuate U.S.-supplied aircraft.

No aircraft were sent back to Vietnam by the Thais. The Midway delivered its load of 101 VNAF aircraft to Guam, making it possible for 21 F-5Es to come back to the States through McClellan Air Force Base in California. Each had logged only 64 to 115 hours flying time. Most of them found their way to Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, where they were used to train foreign pilots. Of those, five were moved from Williams to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in 1977. For the next 12 years, the F-5Es were used in the 57th Wing Aggressor Squadrons to demonstrate Soviet Bloc tactics to U.S. pilots (see Grounded: The Aggressor Squadrons," Feb./Mar. 1994).

In 1988 and 1989, the F-5s were sold to Brazil and Honduras; some spent a brief period with the U.S. Navy. But the U.S. pilots they had helped train went on to establish a 41:0 kill ratio against Soviet-trained Iraqis in the skies over Baghdad in 1991. No small part of that triumph can be attributed to the efforts of the VNAF pilots. Many of the airplanes they flew out of Vietnam are still flying missions around the world. Their own air force ceased to exist on April 30, 1975. Its official history covered 20 years, during which its pilots knew not a single moment of peace.

Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, December/January 1997. Copyright 1997, Smithsonian Institution. All Rights Reserved.

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