Today in 1975, A C-5A Galaxy cargo aircraft belonging to the US Air Force crashed while trying to make an emergency landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, South Vietnam. This tragedy marked the beginning of Operation Baby Lift, a plan by the United States government to fly orphans from South Vietnam to a new life in America.
By the early spring of 1975, the Vietnam War was all but over. The United States, having signed a cease-fire accord with North Vietnam in early 1973, no longer had combat troops in-country. The North Vietnamese Army took town after town in the South until only a few places, including Saigon, remained out of communist hands. It was only a matter of time until the North could claim total victory.
In the midst of the war were thousands of orphans. Among these were children whose fathers were Americans of European or African descent; their physical features made them stand out in a society that was otherwise nearly homogenous. It was feared that the communists would take a dim view of these orphans, leaving them with no other option than to live on the street.
Private groups in the United States, Canada and Australia began to discuss how to get thousands of orphans out of the country before South Vietnam's government collapsed completely. As plans were being made, US President Gerald Ford made a surprise announcement: the American military would fly the orphans to the United States. 30 flights were deemed to be sufficient for Operation Baby Lift. The Air Force would use cargo planes off all types for the operation, most of which were configured to carry equipment and the crews needed to operate it, not hundreds of babies and their escorts. The adults on the flights would later recall using cardboard boxes as makeshift cribs.
On April 4, 1975, a US Air Force C-5A Galaxy, the largest aircraft in the nation's military inventory, took off from Tan Son Nhut airbase near Saigon carrying 328 adults and children. The flight's destination was Travis Air Force Base in California. As the aircraft passed 23,000 feet, the rear cargo doors were blown off the airframe due to a lock failure. Decompression of the aircraft was immediate, causing pilot Captain Dennis Traynor to lose control of the flaps, elevators and rudder. Demonstrating incredible coolness and ingenuity, Traynor and his crew used the plane's throttles and ailerons to turn back towards the airbase.
As the plane descended below 5,000 feet, Traynor realized that he would not be able to make the runway. Instead, he set the C-5A down two miles north of the airport to avoid crashing the aircraft in more populated area. Upon coming into contact with the ground, the plane broke into four pieces and exploded.
The crash investigators initially suspected sabotage as the cause of the disaster, but recovery of the flight recorder ruled out that possibility. The 81 C-5As in service at that time had flown more than 190,000 combined hours with this being the first loss-of-life accident associated with the model. While it was agreed that the rear clamshell doors suffered a lock failure, the exact cause of the failure was never determined.
The cargo compartment of the aircraft was completely destroyed, killing 141 of the 149 children and escorts seated there. In the troop compartment, only 3 of 152 children and escorts perished. Five servicemen from the flight crew and three from the medical team also lost their lives. All told, 153 children and adults died that day.
Despite the tragic loss of so many lives, Operation Baby Lift continued, with civilian airliners soon joining the effort. In the end, more than 2,700 children were flown to the United States and 1,300 more went to Canada, Australia and countries in Europe.