The successful use of aircraft to transport people and cargo was an important achievement in World War II and again in the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force’s role in hauling millions of tons of personnel, equipment, and supplies reinforced the necessity of air transport in wartime.
Airlift missions needed maneuverable aircraft that could drop cargo and fly at low altitudes.
The first airlift aircraft sent to Vietnam were C-47 Skytrains. In a range of diverse missions, they dropped Vietnamese paratroopers, conducted night flareship operations, and resupplied U.S. Army Special Forces.
Eventually, larger C-123 Providers replaced them. Originally scheduled for retirement, C-123s proved valuable because of their ability to land on short, rough fields. They were used in Vietnam from 1962-1970.
Beginning in 1965, the C-130 Hercules with its four turbo-prop engines, superior 15-ton payload, and its ability to rapidly offload palletized cargo dominated airlift operations in Vietnam. As ground combat increased, so did airlift requirements. C-130 aircraft and crews rotated into South Vietnam every few weeks from bases in the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa, and Japan.
In 1967, the U.S. Army-operated twin-engine C-7 Caribou fleet was transferred to the U.S. Air Force and assigned to the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing at Cam Ranh Bay. Nicknamed the ‘bou, the C-7 could land on extremely short runways (1,000 feet) and maneuver at low altitudes and slow airspeeds. Its small payload capacity was offset by its value as an aircraft capable of airdrop operations in confined areas.
Many tactical airlift missions were anything but routine. Bad weather, mountainous or jungle terrain, enemy action, the condition of forward airstrips, crowded air space, and ground space congested with helicopters, trucks, and people all contributed to eventful missions.
Airlift crew training in the U.S. that was dependent on instrument flying proved inadequate for flight operations in Southeast Asia. Crews adapted quickly and learned to fly visually and under low ceilings when possible and to use their own wits and judgment.
Despite these challenges and more, the cargo was almost always delivered.
The versatility of airlift aircraft made them useful in other roles. In addition to aeromedical evacuations, these aircraft also flew rescue and reconnaissance missions; sprayed chemicals; and dropped psychological leaflets, flares, and explosives. Some of these missions required major aircraft modifications and were performed by specially trained personnel. Heavily armed AC-47 Spookies, AC-119 Shadows and Stingers, and AC-130 Spectres flew gunship missions.
Ingenuity and Innovation
Between 1962 and 1973 the USAF delivered more than seven million tons of passengers and cargo within South Vietnam. Airlift air and ground crews’ ingenuity and innovation in tactics, techniques, organization, and equipment ensured the successful accomplishment of the airlift mission. It is a testament to the skill and determination of those crews proving that the USAF’s greatest asset was and still is its people.
As the large-scale deployment of military forces to South Vietnam began in 1965, the demand for strategic airlift increased. Slow ship movements and the lack of suitable roads, ports, and railways made using aircraft essential. Military Airlift Command (MAC) was given the job of transporting people and supplies from the United States to Southeast Asia.
The existing airlift aircraft (C-124s and C-133s) weren’t suitable for the movement of cargo and personnel over those long distances because they lacked adequate speed, range, or cargo capacity. As an interim, but not ideal, solution, C-130s and C-135s were used. At that time, the jet-powered C-141 Starlifter was still on the assembly line and the C-5 Galaxy was still under development.
Unable to meet the ever-increasing demands for airlift, MAC relied on help from the USAF Reserve and Air National Guard and their fleets of C-97, C-119, C-121, and C-124 aircraft. As the demands for strategic airlift continued to increase, MAC turned to contract leasing of commercial aircraft.
In April 1965 the C-141 Starlifter became operational and in August flew its first missions into Southeast Asia. By 1967 the C-141 fleet grew to more than 100 aircraft. It could carry 67,620 pounds of cargo 4,000 miles or 20,000 pounds nonstop from California to Japan.
The C-5A Galaxy played a major role in strategic airlift when it entered service in December 1969 and made its first deliveries to South Vietnam in August 1971. The C-5A could carry 164,383 pounds over a distance of 3,000 miles at an airspeed of 450 knots. Its huge cargo compartment (120 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 13.5 feet high) could accommodate 98% of the US Army’s equipment including M48 Patton tanks.
Problems and Solutions
The heavy airlift traffic caused by the increased tactical and strategic missions caused massive congestion over air routes into the theatre, particularly at Tan Son Nhut AB where all commercial inbound cargo and passenger flights were processed.
Construction of new air facilities and passenger terminals and improved runways in South Vietnam began to relieve congestion and speed cargo handling. In addition, MAC increased its number of cargo and passenger routes between the US and South Vietnam and established many interconnecting routes between the US, numerous Pacific stations, and bases in Vietnam. These new routes helped relieve the congestion at Tan Son Nhut. Air routes were also adjusted to take advantage of the increased speed and range of C-141s and C-5s.
Difficulties were encountered at en route stations throughout the Pacific area as steadily increasing numbers of passengers and tons of cargo being airlifted caused a corresponding increase in flying hours and numbers of aircrews needed. To help solve this problem, large numbers of MAC personnel were sent to help out at overworked or expanding en route stations.
Backlogs at aerial ports (where cargo is processed for shipment) occurred but were eased by the development of mechanized cargo handling systems and special vehicles to facilitate aircraft loading and unloading.
Eastern US bases were also used as aerial ports to move cargo to Southeast Asia. In April 1966, cargo routes between Dover AFB , Clark AB in the Philippines, and Tan Son Nhut were established.
Following the peace agreements in 1973 when American participation in the war decreased, MAC turned its attention to the withdrawal from Vietnam and the return to the US of more than 20,000 troops and several thousand tons of equipment.