“You could see it. You could see the hole in the back of the plane. You could see sunlight streaming in. Things started flying around. Eyeglasses. Pens . . . .” medical technicians aboard C-5 Number 68-0218.
Tragically, the most widely publicized C-5 flight occurred on Apr. 4, 1975, when C-5A 68-0218 (S/N 0021) crashed during “Operation Babylift.” With North Vietnamese forces closing on Saigon, the U.S. was airlifting orphaned children and infants out of the combat zone. As told by Richard Lippincott in his book C-5 Galaxy In Action, the aircraft had taken off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base (AB) with 328 people on board, reached an altitude of 23,000 feet, and was already over water when the rear cargo ramp broke loose.
Captain Keith D. Malone, who was in the cockpit on his initial “check ride” in the C-5, described it as a “classic rapid decompression.” He recalled, “Ironically, we had just concluded a conversation about what we would do in case there was a rapid decompression. We decided that we would go into a left descending turn and get down as quickly as possible.” One of the medical technicians on board described the experience in 1989 Military Airlift Command Office of History; Coy F. Cross II, MAC and Operation Bablylift: Air Transport in Support of Noncombatant Evacuation Operations: “You could see it. You could see the hole in the back of the plane. You could see sunlight streaming in. Things started flying around. Eyeglasses. Pens. . . . That went on for a little while until the air stopped.” Then-Lieutenant Regina Aune later stated, “It was while I was getting the medication out of the medication box we had the rapid decompression. I never got back down stairs.” The air rushing from the aircraft “blew off’ the aft pressure door, part of the aft loading ramp and the aft center cargo door. As these parts flew off, one of them severed the pitch trim, elevator, and rudder cables.
This left the flight crew with no control over the rudder or horizontal stabilizer surfaces. Aircraft commander Capt. Dennis “Bud” Traynor and copilot Capt. Tilford Harp used the only control method still available: asymmetric thrust of the engines. By boosting power on one wing, and cutting back on the other, they turned around and got back over land.
Following the decompression, the crew donned their oxygen masks, began a left-descending tum. then notified flight controllers in Saigon of their condition and their return to Tan Son Nhut AB for an emergency landing. They noticed that the pressure and the quantity in the number one and two hydraulic systems read zero. Also, the pilot noted a lack of pitch control. He asked the copilot to help with the pitch, but the copilot had no pitch control either. “We had one system powering the right aileron, that was an.” Malone later recalled. He then explained: “The only reason that without elevators we didn’t go into an immediate dive that we could never get out of was that when we had the RD [rapid decompression] and the cables were severed and the hydraulic power lost, the elevators were trimmed for 260 knots which was our climb speed.” He continued, “Therefore, as long as we stayed at 260 knots the aircraft would fly. If we got higher than that the aircraft would climb, if we got lower it would descend.”
During the left descending turn the airspeed increased to 370 knots and nose of the C-5 began to rise. The aircraft then started a steep climb, and the airspeed dropped. To avoid a stall, Captain Traynor banked to the right and reduced power. When the aircraft began a steep dive, the pilot leveled the wings and increased airspeed. He soon realized that he had limited control of his pitch with a combination of power and bank.
Master Sergeant Raymond F. Snedegar, the senior loadmaster, went below and assessed the damage. He described the damage to the pilot and informed him which systems were operational and which were not.
The medical crew, meanwhile, moved about the aircraft reassuring the children and other passengers and treating those injured by flying debris during the decompression. Captain Klinker tended Staff Sergeant Michael G. Paget, who was seriously injured. The two combat photographers, on board to record the first military Babylift flight, used their high intensity lights to illuminate the area where Captain Klinker worked. Other nurses and technicians prepared the children for a possible crash landing. “We checked all the children and resecured them, repadded them, and retied all their seat belts,” Lieutenant Aune explained later. She continued, “In flight school you learn all your emergency procedures. We immediately went to our emergency mode about what we were going to do and how we were going to get out of the aircraft when we landed, who was going to go down the escape slides, etc.. We went through our usual emergency procedures.”
While ground crews at Tan Son Nhut prepared for an emergency landing, the crew aboard the C-5A readied themselves for a possible crash landing. The flight crew lowered the landing gear and aligned the aircraft with the runway. About six miles from the airport, Captain Traynor began a shallow left turn in preparation for landing. Captain Malone remembered, “We really thought we were in good shape. We had altitude on the turn to final, we had the runway, and the gear was down.” Suddenly, the C-5 commenced a rapid descent. The extra drag of the landing gears had reduced the airspeed to 230 knots, too low to maintain level flight. Realizing they could not reach the runway, the pilots working together leveled the wings, used full power to bring the nose up, and then cut power just before impact.
The C-5 touched down at about 269 knots in a marsh two miles short of the end of the runway. The aircraft rolled and skidded along the ground for about 1,000 feet, then became airborne again. It remained airborne for about 2,700 feet, flying across the Saigon River. When it hit the ground the second time, the C-5 began to break-up as it skidded for another 1,200 feet. The airplane broke into four parts: tail section, flight deck, troop compartment, and wing section. During the impacts and skidding, the cargo compartment totally disintegrated, killing most of the medical crew including Capt. Mary Klinker.
Aune led the surviving members of the medical crew, and despite her own serious injuries repeatedly carried survivors nearby medevac helicopters, continuing until she collapsed. Due to the heroism of the medical team, there were 176 survivors of the crash. For their efforts, the flight crew was awarded the Air Force Cross. Capt. Klinker was the last female service member killed in Vietnam, and was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal. For her actions that day, Lt. Aune became the first woman to receive the Cheney award. She retired as a Colonel in 2007.
The following video is C-5 Number 68-0218 crash animation.
Photo credit: Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia and U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com