How Vietnam War Refugees Fled to Singapore Using a Stolen C-130 Plane

In April 1975, Lt. Pham Quang Khiem, a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, fled the war-torn country with his family in a stolen C-130 plane. Upon landing in Singapore, he had to convince the authorities that what he was doing was illegal before being taken seriously. 

This is the story of how he saved his family.

Losing hope

Pham was 27 years old when South Vietnam seemed almost certain that it would fall into the hands of the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Fearing that his family and relatives in the military would be captured by their enemy and be worked to death in harsh labour conditions, Pham decided to flee.

With the help of a close friend, Pham devised an elaborate plan that would enable his family to leave South Vietnam quickly. Then, the United States, an ally to South Vietnam, had pulled out two years before. However, they had provided pilot training and airplanes. The C-130 was one of the airplanes, and Pham had eyes to steal it.

Pham as a young air force pilot in South Vietnam. (source)

Setting his plan into motion, Pham started by talking another member of the Air Force into co-piloting the plane with him. Afterwards, he gave his family notice to meet at an abandoned airstrip where they would board the plane.

To get away with it, Pham lied to three other officers on the plane with him that they will be making a trip to deliver rice. He stocked up the plane with many bags of rice to make the tale more convincing. The officers followed, absolutely clueless about the escape plan that Pham had in mind.

Pham and the three other officers were armed with four revolvers as part of their usual uniform when 52 family members scrambled to board the plane. Pham’s wife only managed to grab a few photo albums before running to help her daughter, who was almost trampled as everyone boarded. Someone else had to run to get Pham’s son.

Out of the 52 civilians, the oldest was an 86 year old mother-in-law of Pham’s oldest sister, and the youngest was Pham’s son who was only five months old.

Jetting off

Pham had made up his mind to head for Singapore before taking off from from the Long-Thanh Airfield. “For me, there was no other alternative. I heard Singapore was in need of pilots and thought they may need to use us,” Pham recalls.

After the plane took flight, he flew at treetop level for two hours until he reached the Pacific Ocean.

“The altitude we maintained was extremely low – only about 5 to 10 feet above sea level . It was so low that the passenger compartment had fog so thick that my family members told me they couldn’t see each other.”

Pham made his first landing to unload the rice that they were supposed to be delivering. At that moment, he turned to the three officers and said, “Sorry to tell you, this aircraft is not going back to Saigon anymore. You can stay or leave.″ One of the officers got off, but the other two stayed.

Landing safely

Due to the static on the radio, Pham had to skip approach control and directly contacted the Singapore Tower. However, the call was intercepted by the Singapore Air Force, much to his surprise. Pham told the person at the other end of the line that his plane was off course and running out of fuel.

“We arrived in Singapore around 7 PM. It was dark and raining when I called Approach Control for instructions. I couldn’t understand their reply, so I just changed to Tower Frequency, and called, ‘Singapore Tower, Herky 460. Request landing instruction.’ They replied, ‘Herky 460, cleared to land Runway 02.’ They gave me the wind and altimeter setting, but didn’t ask, ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ So we just went in and landed on 02, ” Pham recollected.

The plane in its current state, at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington. (Source)

Pham was definitely confused about Singapore’s approval of his landing request. After all, it was a civilian international airport and he was flying a military aircraft. As he parked on the ramp, the ground personnel came and hooked up an auxiliary power cart when the engines were shut down, then left abruptly. Pham immediately told the passengers that they were now in a free country, but that no one was allowed to leave the aircraft until they had surrendered to the proper authorities.

“My friend, my brother and I all changed into our civilian clothes, got off the airplane, and headed for the terminal building. It took us a half hour to find the airport office. When I explained to the guard on duty that we were a group of Vietnamese who had just gotten out of the country, and that we wanted to talk to his boss, he said, ‘Well, the airport office closes at 5 PM. Why don’t you guys come back at eight tomorrow morning?’.

We finally convinced him that we had entered his country illegally, and that he had to do something about it.”

The guard on duty was unable to find his boss as the boss was “out partying somewhere”. Pham and his family then wandered around the airport until midnight before going back out to the airplane. Meanwhile, some of the ground crew from the airlines brought food and drinks from the airline service area for the refugees. Phạm was touched by their kindness.

“Finally, at about 1 AM, 20 trucks filled with police surrounded our airplane, and we surrendered to the Chief of Police. We explained that we would like political asylum in Singapore, but that if they could not take us, we would like the gas to get to Australia or New Zealand.” Pham reminisced.

Singapore called the Vietnamese counsel, who came down to the airport. Pham asserted that they did not want to go back to Vietnam, and that they wanted asylum. The Vietnamese counsel left without any comments, and Pham never heard from him again.

Meanwhile, the officials in Singapore did not know what to do. Unfortunately, the aircraft intrusion happened just two days after the RSAF was formed, possibly before much protocols relating to aerial intruders were set in place. Eventually, it was decided that the intrusion should be treated as a defection or refugee flight as the plane was clearly not hijacked given that all those abroad were willing.

Pham looking back on the old days. (source)

Pham had always felt guilty about not being able to rescue more people. The aircraft usually carried 90 passengers, but could be jammed with over 350 passengers. Unfortunately, there were not enough space due to the sacks of rice on board the plane as well as the lack of time for coordination.

Pham and his family seeked refuge in California before eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio. Pham went on to be a commercial pilot but has since retired. Pham’s son, who was five months old at the point of the escape, now has three kids. Pham’s daughter, who was two years old then, now has two children. The refugees were able to lead their lives today because of the second chance Pham gave them by stealing a plane, lying to fellow officers and the Singapore Air Force, and smuggling everyone away.

Every year, Pham would tell the same story to his family. He still keeps pictures of the C-130 in his wallet and phone.

This incident has also taught Singapore a valuable lesson on the importance of air surveillance and interceptions. It served as a wake up call, albeit a tad premature, for the RSAF then to review their security procedures. What the Singapore Air Force did then seemed incredulous and impossible today, but it may very well be due to Pham’s aircraft. It seeded an awareness of the need to detect aerial intruders as early as possible such that the RSAF can be given an early warning to scramble fighters.

The first Defence Minister, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, told MINDEF and HQ RSAF that this would not happen again. True enough, our air defence systems have improved dramatically since then.


Author

Vanessa Ng

Contributor

Featured image from Jerry French.

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