On Apr. 29, 1975, C-130A Hercules tail number 56-0518 flew the last mission out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon.
56-0518 was accepted into the US Air Force (USAF) inventory on Aug. 23, 1957. As told by Master Sgt. Jeff Walston, 913th Airlift Group, in the article Last “Herk” out of Vietnam, it was first assigned to the 314th Troop Carrier Wing, Sewart AFB, Tennessee. Between 1964 and 1972, it served with several Air Force units. On Nov. 2, 1972 the aircraft was delivered to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1972 under the Military Assistance Program as part of the Nixon administration’s effort to bolster that country’s defense against the invading communist forces from the North.
On Apr. 29, 1975, the day before Saigon fell, North Vietnamese forces destroyed virtually all aircraft – more than 100 planes – on the flightline at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. 0-5-1-8 was the only C-130 to avoid ruin.
In a panicked state, hundreds of refugees rushed to get aboard this last flyable C-130, the aircraft representing their final ticket to freedom. The multitude forced themselves on top of each other and into every crevice, to the point that the rear ramp would not close for the bodies standing on it.
After being notified by the loadmaster, and with few options available, Phoung slowly taxied the aircraft forward and then hit the brakes forcing the people forward. The ramp closed.
Getting the overloaded aircraft off the ground would take all of Phuong’s skill as a pilot and more runway than was available, but the C-130 made it into the sky.
Phoung had planned for an 80-minute flight to the safety of Thailand, but got lost over the Gulf of Siam. Three and a half hours later, after finding a map and making corrections, the C-130 landed at Utapao Royal Thai air base in Thailand.
In all, 452 people were on board, including 32 in the cockpit alone. The aircraft was overloaded by at least 10,000 pounds and required every foot of runway to become airborne.
There had been no loss of life on this historic flight.
Upon landing, the US Air Force reclaimed the aircraft and in 1976 assigned it to the Oklahoma Air National Guard. The aircraft joined the 118th Tactical Airlift Group (ANG), Nashville, Tenn., in 1979.
Due to its original assignment with the 62d Troop Carrier Squadron and the 314th Troop Carrier Wing, the aircraft was retired to Little Rock AFB and has been on display at the main gate since 1989.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force