The C-5 broke up on impact in a rice paddy, killing 78 children and most of the medical crew
For decades, the C-5 has been a pivotal air mobility asset, responsible for the rapid deployment of combat forces to any point in the world at short notice. Since its introduction the aircraft seen extensive use in every major global contingency since the Southeast Asia War.
Although U.S. combat troops departed South Vietnam in 1973, the war between North and South Vietnam did not end that year, and the U.S. government continued to provide military aid to South Vietnam. According Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D., article 1975 – Operation Babylift and Frequent Wind, several thousand U.S. citizens remained in the country at the Defense Attaché Office at Tan Son Nhut Airport, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and consulates at Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, and Can Tho. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive that captured a number of strategic locations in South Vietnam by March of that year, including Da Nang.
As the North Vietnamese continued to advance south, President Gerald R. Ford announced on April 3, 1975, that U.S. aircraft delivering supplies to Saigon would carry Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. on their return flights. This became known as Operation Babylift. Sadly, tragedy would strike the programme at its very outset. As explained in the article Operation Baylift from Key Publishing special publication USAF at 70, on Apr. 4, U.S. Air Force (USAF) C-5A Galaxy 68-0218 (S/N 0021) landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport and was quickly loaded with 328 people (including more than 200 orphans and 37 Defense Attaché Office employees). With euphoria running high the aircraft took off again shortly after 4pm local time and climbed away.
Just 12 minutes later what seemed like a large explosion rocked the aircraft. In reality the rear loading ramp locks had failed, causing the door to open and separate from the aircraft. The Galaxy suffered a rapid decompression and almost simultaneously the control and trim cables to the rudder and elevators were severed. Two of the four hydraulic systems also failed and the crew were left with just working one aileron and wing spoiler.
As reported by Richard Lippincott in his book C-5 Galaxy In Action, this left the flight crew with no control over the rudder of horizontal stabilizer surfaces. Aircraft commander Capt. Dennis “Bud” Traynor and copilot Capt. Tilford Harp used the only method still available: asymmetric thrust or the engines. By boosting power on one wing, and cutting back on the other, they turned around and attempted to return to Tan Son Nhut.
About halfway through a turn to final approach, the rate of descent increased rapidly, Seeing they couldn’t make the runway, full power was applied to bring the nose up. The C-5 broke up on impact in a rice paddy, killing 78 children and most of the medical crew including Capt. Mary Klinker.
Then-Lt. Regina Aune led the surviving members of the medical crew, and despite her own serious injuries repeatedly carried survivors through the rice paddy to 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.
While the crash slowed the evacuation, Operation Babylift ultimately brought more than 2,600 orphans out of Vietnam.
The following footage features an animation of the crash. All video clips are from Air Crash Investigation: Operation Babylift.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com