30 April 1975.
South Vietnam was in the process of being overrun by the North Vietnamese in April 1975. The end of the decades-old Vietnam conflict approached, and many South Vietnamese desperately tried to escape the country before the takeover by North Vietnam.
The U.S. Navy was busy cooperating with South Vietnamese forces in Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. According to NHF volunteer and Vietnam War veteran Capt. Ted Bronson, USN (Ret.) Frequent Wind was the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese from Saigon, South Vietnam. When that final phase ended, more than 7,000 people had been evacuated to safety aboard many U.S. Navy ships operating in the South China Sea.
Although the U.S. ran the operations during Frequent Wind, several South Vietnamese aviators took it upon themselves to escape in countless helicopters and planes. The most memorable story of the evacuation occurred nearly fifty years ago this month.
Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang was desperate. Buang-Ly and his family flew a VNAF O-1 “Bird Dog” from Con Son Island in South Vietnam to safety during the evacuation operation. Under heavy fire and dangerously low on fuel, Major Ly eventually found the American aircraft carrier USS Midway.
Ly began to circle around the Navy ship, desperate but unable to make contact. He resorted to writing a note stuck into his pistol, which he then dropped on the flight deck during a low pass:“Can you move the Helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough to mouve. Please rescue me.
Major Bung, wife and 5 child.”
Midway Commanding Officer Capt. Larry Chambers knew the lack of flight deck space aboard his ship would make Ly’s landing difficult. He ordered his crew to push several VNAF UH-1 Huey helicopters overboard to allow enough room for Major Ly to land. Rear Admiral Chambers recollects the events of the 30th:
“The sky was overcast. Light rain was falling. Not much of a sea state. When we turned into the wind we had 40 kts over the deck (15 knots natural plus 25 knots that the old girl was making). My only concern, besides the Admiral telling me not to do it, was whether or not Major Ly would carry enough power to get through the burble and down draft aft of the ship. The high wind over the deck increases the downdraft and the turbulence. Because we were operating helos, I had given the engineers permission to shut down half the plant for maintenance. When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that we didn’t have enough steam. I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels. You get the idea. In addition, we stripped the arresting gear cross deck pendants. At Ly’s approach speed, my only worry was getting him across the ramp. His relative speed couldn’t have been more than 20 to 25 knots.”
Ly received the “green light” from the tower and had permission to land. Landing the Cessna on the deck of carrier without a tailhook was no easy task. One website described the “Bird Dog” as “the plane those gutsy pilots used from Korea to Vietnam.” According to Chambers, Ly nonetheless “made a perfect landing.” Everybody on deck applauded, and Ly made it into the history books. Many sailors aboard collected money to help Buang and his family emigrate to the United States.
5 April 2014.
Almost fifty years later, these events were commemorated in a small ceremony held at the 2014 Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland, Florida. The Orlando resident came with his extended family to the event held outside the Florida Air Museum at Sun ‘n Fun.Major Ly was presented a special aircraft model in honor of the historic event. The ‘weathered’ model set on flight deck markings, was built by the US Navy’s ‘Cold War Gallery’ award-winning model builder Michael McLeod, and set in a museum quality acrylic case. The model was commissioned and presented by Captain Bronson on behalf of the Naval Historical Foundation.