Operation Babylift Tragedy

Conflict: Vietnam

A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy

A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy

In early April 1975, as Americans were evacuating from Vietnam to escape the advancing North Vietnamese army, the U.S. government approved Operation Babylift, which would get thousands of Vietnamese orphans out of the collapsing country. Unfortunately, on April 4, the inaugural flight of the program ended in tragedy when a plane carrying 328 adults, infants, and children crashed outside Saigon, making it the U.S. military’s deadliest flight.

The plane, a gigantic Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, departed from Tan Son Nhut air base, packed full of orphans, government employees, crew members, and various others. It was headed to the Philippines, but not long into the journey, when the plane was over the South China Sea, the rear cargo door exploded off the plane because the locks on the loading ramp failed. But the gaping hole in the belly of the plane proved to be one of the lesser worries, because when the door blew off, it tore through various cables and wires needed to control the plane.

Vietnamese infants being evaluated during Operation Babylift

Vietnamese infants being evacuated during Operation Babylift

The pilot, Captain Bud Traynor, was able to turn the plane around, but without control to the rudder and elevator, the plane began to alternately climb and fall in phugoid oscillations. Traynor was able to figure out how to control the plane by adjusting the amount of power he gave it. He tried to bring the plane back to the air force base, but was unable to, despite his best efforts.

The plane crashed in a rice paddy, touching down once and bouncing into the air again before hitting a dike and breaking apart. Of the 328 people on board, 138 died, 78 of whom were children. Despite the tragic death toll, it was due to the skill of Captain Traynor and his crew that there were any survivors at all. The crew members were given medals for their valor, and Traynor and his copilot, Captain Tilford Harp, were awarded the Air Force Cross.

Vietnamese children on a plane during Operation Babylift

Vietnamese children on a plane during Operation Babylift

Even though Operation Babylift got off to a sobering start, the program continued, and by the Fall of Saigon, at the end of April, over 3,300 orphans had been evacuated. These children were then adopted out to families in America and worldwide.

Read more about the tragedy here or here, or read about Operation Babylift. Or find other stories and photos from the Vietnam War in Fold3’s Vietnam War collection.