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Air America: Played a Crucial Part of the Emergency Helicopter Evacuation of Saigon

MHQ |  Published: June 12, 2006 at 8:11 pm

On April 29, 1975, the beleaguered South Vietnamese capital of Saigon witnessed the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Two United States Marine Corps helicopter squadrons, ten U.S. Air Force helicopters, and Air America carried out 1,373 Americans and 5,595 people of other nationalities. Although a good deal has been written over the past thirty years about the military's efforts during the dramatic events of late April, the story of Air America — the airline secretly owned by the Central Intelligence Agency — remains largely untold.

By mid-April, it was clear that the progressive seizure of South Vietnam by multiple tank-led North Vietnamese Army (NVA) columns would not likely be stopped. Hanoi's campaign had begun with the January 6, 1975, fall of Phuoc Binh, the first provincial capital to be taken by the Northerners in the two years since the signing of the Paris peace arrangement. The loss, seventy-five miles north of Saigon, cost the South Vietnamese three thousand soldiers and was accomplished by two North Vietnamese divisions reinforced by armored forces, a pattern that would be repeated time and again.

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The next significant blow came on March 10 in the high plateau region of the country, two hundred miles to the north of Saigon at Ban Me Thuot, the capital of Darlac province. There, two NVA divisions, again with substantial tank reinforcements, pummeled a South Vietnamese division and began heading eastward toward the coast. By April 2, the NVA had effectively cut South Vietnam in half, leaving Saigon's forces in the northern half of the country trapped between North Vietnam and the growing number of Communist units pouring in from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Cambodia. By April 25, fifteen NVA divisions had surrounded the Saigon area, which was defended by only four infantry divisions, an armored brigade, an airborne brigade, and two ranger regiments.

When military authorities were discussing plans for Frequent Wind (Option 4) — the emergency helicopter evacuation of Saigon — in early April, it was obvious that Air America would have a crucial part to play. Rooftops in downtown Saigon could not support the heavy Marine Corps helicopters. Only Air America's lighter Bell UH-1 Hueys could do the job, and the airline pledged to military evacuation authorities to have twenty-five of its twenty-eight helicopters available at any given time. Because of a shortage of pilots, many of these helicopters would have to be flown by a single pilot. According to the U.S. Air Force account of the final evacuation, 'This was risky, but Air America was accustomed to such risks and expressed no reservations about that aspect of the Saigon air evacuation.'

On April 7, veteran helicopter pilot Nikki A. Fillipi reported as Air America's representative to the Special Planning Group of the Evacuation Control Center at the Defense Attach Office (DAO) compound, located at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. His first responsibility was to survey thirty-seven buildings in downtown Saigon to assess their viability as helicopter landing zones (HLZs). Working with Lieutenant Robert Twigger, assigned to the DAO from Okinawa as the Marine Corps liaison officer, Fillipi completed in ten hours a task that was scheduled to take a minimum of two days. The survey led to the selection of thirteen HLZs. Fillipi then put in three eighteen-hour days supervising crews in removing obstructions that might interfere with safe ingress-egress to the HLZs. An 'H' was painted on each rooftop to mark the skids for Air America's helicopters, indicating that aircraft could land or take off in either direction with guaranteed rotor clearance.

During his meetings with the Special Planning Group, Fillipi emphasized that three requirements had to be met if Air America was to complete its assigned tasks in the evacuation plan. Earlier evacuations of Pleiku, Da Nang, and Nha Trang had demonstrated the need for the Air America ramp, or landing site, to be secured. Helicopters also needed a safe supply of fuel. Finally, to avoid confusion, Air America had to maintain its own communication network, linking with Marine Corps helicopters only through the UHF guard frequency. He was assured that all three requirements would be met.

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3 Responses to “Air America: Played a Crucial Part of the Emergency Helicopter Evacuation of Saigon”

  1. 1
    chauncey j. collard says:

    Many lost a great deel of savings by remaining to the last. CIA never would even consider to even refund the pilots losses. This was home to alot of us and cars, house items and many other personal savings were lost to those staying. A THANKS in 2001 was ……………

  2. 2
    Jeremy Grant says:

    It has been such an honor to meet Lt. Gen. Richard Carey and much more of an honor to become a member of his family. Grandpa, you are a great man and have done so much for our country! Thank you for opening your arms to me and welcome me into your family.

  3. 3
    Paul Velte IV says:

    Paul Velte Jr. was my grandfather. I didn't get the chance to know him well, but I have come to be the kind of commie hater that he must have been–all on my own. I detest any form of tyranny over the mind of man, and communists bring nothing but slavery and tyranny, death and destruction, to every people it has ever touched. The only good commie is a dead commie.

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