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.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, January 1997
(Page 3 of 7)
Le started the engines and taxied. "It was a mess," he says. "No one was manning the tower. Aircraft jockeyed for position, trying to get to the runway and into the air before being damaged by rockets." An Aim-9 missile lay in the center of Le’s path. Empty fuel tanks littered the area.
Inside the A-37, Le listened on the tower frequency, awash with confused and panicky calls as pilots asked for directions that would never come. As he waited for his chance to take off, Le watched the chaos around him.
"In the distance, a twin-engine C-7 [Caribou] rolled down the runway. The pilot had forgotten to remove the control locks," Le recalls. "The plane never got airborne. Instead, it plowed into the overrun and burst into flames. People came crawling from the wreckage. Some ran, others limped back to the ramp looking for other aircraft to board."
Finally, Le took his turn on the runway. To the north, raging fires and towering columns of smoke marked ammunition dumps that were being blown up before the arrival of the Communist forces. Le added power, took off, and headed west.
Colonel Harold R. Austin, commander of the U.S. Air Force 635th Combat Support Group at U Taphao, was in some ways prepared for the problems he faced on the morning of April 29, 1975. During the U.S. involvement in the war, Strategic Air Command B-52s had been based at U Taphao for strikes against North Vietnam. Some 20 of the big bombers were still standing by, protected in three-sided revetments. To support the B-52 operations, SAC had installed a 12,000-foot runway and taxiways, a stroke of good fortune for the pilots who were now landing their airplanes on both ends of the runway without clearance.
But by 9 a.m. things at the flightline were already out of control. Helicopters settled onto the grass between the runway and taxiway. One landed amid the revetments. A C-47’s landing gear collapsed on touchdown. The airplane, a military version of the DC-3 built to accommodate 30 troops, had carried 100 passengers out of Vietnam. The accident blocked the runway, but pilots continued their attempts to land.
"We got all the SAC airplanes on the ground as soon as we realized what was going on," Austin says today. "I had the tower broadcast [to arriving aircraft] on all available channels to be on the lookout for airplanes without radios.
"You have to understand we weren’t fighting a big war," Austin says. "We were standing by to fight. So I had 6,000 people with not a whole lot to do. And everybody pitched in—SAC guys, MAC guys. I had excellent cooperation."