MIAMI – The mission 1965/31 took place at Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN) in Saigon —now Ho Chi Minh City— six days before the fall of the city on April 30, 1975.
The situation in South Vietnam was deteriorating at the time, with the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong massing on the outskirts of Saigon, preparing for a final takeover.
Meanwhile, a group of Pan Am Flight Crews volunteered for 1965/31, which would ultimately be the last passenger flight out of South Vietnam.
Evacuations of Saigon
By 1975, Pan Am had been making regular regularly scheduled flights from Saigon for more than 20 years. However, as the communist forces advanced to the city after the fall of Da Nang in March, US Ambassador Graham Martin rebuffed repeated calls to evacuate the city. Also, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned all US passenger flights to and from Vietnam.
On the other hand, the FAA granted Pan Am special permission by the FAA to operate its then scheduled flight 842 to Saigon as a special charter. Named 1965/31, the flight was part of the subterfuge to avoid drawing attention.
As many heads of American corporations operating in Vietnam had already left, Pan Am’s chief of operations in Vietnam and Cambodia, stationed in Saigon at the time, promised to evacuate the personnel of the airline if the city fell.
Only a handful of people at Pan Am headquarters knew of the last flight out of SGN. The chief of operations feared that if word leaked out, hordes of people might overrun the airport and the aircraft itself. Days before, dozens of Vietnamese trying to leave had been killed as they clasped on the wings of a Boeing 727 flying out of DaNang.
He would plan the flight in utmost secrecy; he would leave no one behind as other airlines did.
The Last Flight out of Vietnam
As events unfolded, the situation in Saigon was dire. The purpose of the Pan Am flight on April 24, 1975, was no longer to evacuate the Vietnamese employees of the airline and their families, but also anybody else who could fit on board.
The airline deployed a 747-100 (Clipper Unity · N653PA · MSN 20348 · LN 106) to serve the flight. The jetliner landed in Tan Son Nhat Airport uncontrolled, parking way out on the tarmac. The flight and ground crews worked tirelessly to prepare the aircraft as soon as possible before it was too late.
The aircraft, fitted with 375 seats began to cram people in the passenger cabin, and eventually on the floor, bathrooms, and anyplace else, so to embark as many souls as possible. The atmosphere around the flight was tense, to say the least. The crews had to pat down the kid’s diapers for possible hidden explosives planted by North Vietnam forces.
The Cabin Crew also solicited funds by passing out pillowcases throughout the cabin. The money was used to purchase visas for those refugees on board, including children and infants.
The Final Takeoff
“Saigon had not fallen yet, but they were moving. The front was moving south, and it was just going to be a matter of hours,” recalls Pamela Borfeldt Taylor, one of the Flight Attendants that volunteered in mission 1965/31.
Once the Flight Attendants were able to close the boarding door, the mechanic who flagged Clipper Unity to the runway jumped into the nose wheel well and climbed aboard through the cockpit floor.
The takeoff was not without difficulties. First, a fighter jet crashed on the runway and the Jumbo jet had to wait five hours until the runway was cleared. As the Boeing 747 lifted off, North Vietnamese forces opened fire on the Clipper.
“You could see there was gunfire, at the end of the runway, they were firing at us,” recalls Laura Lee Gillespie, another 1965/31 Flight Attendant.
Despite the risks and the extraordinary circumstances around the flight, Mission 1965/31 flew away from Saigon with 463 passengers onboard. The jetliner proceeded to fly to Manila and then to Guam.
1965/31 Mission Crew
- Susan Matson-Krings
- Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor
- Laura Lee Gillespie
- Thieu “Tra” Duong Iwafuchi
- First Capt. Bob Berg
- Capt. Dan Hood
Director of Operations
Article sources: US DOD, history.com, politico.com, airsoc.com, sanfranciscocbslocal.com, clippercrew.com, ocala.com, Pan Am Clipper, Volume 8, Number 5, pg. 7, 1982. Featured image: Pan Am Boeing 747-100 Clipper Unity. Photo: Pan_Am_Boeing_747-121_Clipper_Unity_Marmet.jpg: Eduard Marmetderivative work: Altair78, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons