A tail number and a tale of two airmen

Mullins-Nickerson Post 108 - Pagosa Springs, CO

American Legion Mullins-Nickerson Post 108
Pagosa Springs, Colo.

A Tail Number and a Tale of Two Airmen

[Posted 10-25-2005 by Jerry D. USAF, Ret., on The Patriot Files Forums]
The C-130A Hercules, tail # 56-0518, was the 126th built by Lockheed Aircraft corp. of Marietta, Georgia. It was accepted into the Air Force inventory on 23 August 1957.
It was assigned to the 314th Troop Carrier Wing at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, from 1964 to 1972. On 2 November 1972, it was given to the South Vietnamese Air Force as part of the Military Assistance Program. A few years later, the aircraft would be involved in a tremendously historic flight.
On 29 April 1975, this Herk was the last out of Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. With over 100 aircraft destroyed on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, some of them still burning, it was the last flyable C-130 remaining. In a very panicked state, hundreds of people were rushing to get aboard, as the aircraft represented a final ticket to freedom.
People hurriedly crowded into the Herk, packing in tighter and tighter. Eventually, the loadmaster informed the pilot, Major Phuong, a South Vietnamese instructor pilot, that he could not get the rear ramp closed due to the number of people standing on it. In a moment of inspiration, Major Phuong slowly taxied forward, then hit the brakes. The loadmaster called forward again stating he had successfully got the doors closed.
In all, 452 people were on board, including a staggering 32 in the cockpit alone. Using a conservative estimate of 100 pounds per person, it translated into an overload of at least 10,000 pounds. Consequently, the Herk used every bit of the runway and overrun before it was able to get airborne.
The target was Thailand, which should have been 1:20 in flight time, but after an hour and a half, the aircraft was over the Gulf of Slam, and they were clearly lost. Finally, a map was located, they identified some terrain features, and they were able to navigate. They landed at Utapao, Thailand after a three and a half hour flight.
Ground personnel were shocked at what "fell out" as they opened the doors. It was clear that a longer flight would almost certainly have resulted in a loss of life. In the end, however, all 452 people made it to freedom aboard this historic C-130.
Upon landing, the aircraft was reclaimed by the United States Air Force and was assigned to two different Air National Guard units for the next 14 years. On 28 June 1989, it made its final flight to Little Rock Air Force Base, current home of the 314th Airlift Wing, and was placed on static display.


Now comes the even more incredible part to this story. The co-pilot on that fateful last flight out of Saigon was a young Republic of Vietnam Air Force first lieutenant named Thuan Nguyen. Thuan had previously evacuated his wife, Lan, and their two small children, a daughter two years old and a son seven months old, along with other evacuees and had volunteered to return to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base for more evacuees even as North Vietnamese forces were overrunning it. When Lt. Nguyen landed this C-130 at Utapao, the Republic of Vietnam Air Force insignia was removed from the aircraft, and he was a man without a country.
Thuan moved his family to San Antonio, where he had undergone flight training with the United States Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base (following English language school), getting his wings flying a T-41. He was then sent to Keesler AFB Biloxi, Miss., to check out on the T-28 aircraft, and finally to Lockbourne AFB, Columbus, Ohio, to get certified on the ship he would fly on combat missions in support of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam operations against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, the C-123. After a few years of harrowing flight missions which saw many of his comrades lost to enemy fire, Tom was promoted to co-pilot of the Hercules C-130.
Thuan settled down in Houston, had three more children, and went from being a laborer with a construction company to becoming a contractor and starting and running his own company. He and his wife became naturalized American citizens and officially took the names of Tom and Angie Nguyen. He retired from the construction business and purchased a second home in Pagosa Springs last September.
Tom and Angie met Roy Vega, adjutant of the local American Legion post, who invited Tom to be a guest speaker at the post’s regular meeting on Sept. 14. Air Force veteran and Past Post Commander Hal Lowe came to the meeting and, upon being introduced to Tom, struck up a lively conversation as both being former C-130 pilots. Then, incredibly, it came to light that not only had both veteran combat pilots flown the same type of aircraft, but Lowe had in fact flown Tail Number 518 before the ship had been turned over to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, the exact same ship that Tom Nguyen helped pilot on the last flight out of Saigon as it fell, and which is now on permanent display at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.
This chance encounter of former pilots from two air forces with experiences with the exact same aircraft which went on to acquire historical significance proves once again that all paths cross in Pagosa Springs, Colo.

Photo Caption: L to R American Legion Post Commander Ed Robinson, Republic of Vietnam Air Force veteran Tom Nguyen, and United States Air Force veteran Hal Lowe.

Photo Caption: C-130 Tail Number 518 “Last Herk Out of Vietnam,” on permanent display at Little Rock Air Force Base.

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