Airlift During the Vietnam War

Tactical Airlift

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.

Versatile Aircraft

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.

Auxiliary Roles

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.

Strategic Airlift

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.

Aging Aircraft

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.

Winding Down

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.


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My grandad served for 23.5 years, but he rarely talked about it. He’d have pictures and such, but what we know we know from what his kids knew and my nana. I know he was based at Clarks AFB in the Philippines, because my mother was born there in 66. That alone is quite a story. They used her to boost morale among the injured men. My nana said they loved seeing the babies. Some were able to hold her. My grandad has a plaque the says, “311th Tactical Airlift Squadron. He got it for outstanding Airmanship at Phan Rang AB from 70-71. He was very decorated, but I don’t know anything more and can’t get much information. His name was Elza Moore, but he went by Curley.

My father was a flight engineer on C124s and flew out of Japan and Hawaii in the early and mid 1960s throughout the south Pacific and SE Asia, including Vietnam. He was not in AF Reserves.

Have taken off in a C-130 about 100x times. Landed about 30x times. The rest were jumps – the C-130 was the best!

I hear them flying over these days & nights on their way to forest fires.

My Dad, Capt. Charles Burns, was based at Clark in 73-74, piloting C-130s. That is about all I know. Anyone have any helpful info? He passed away in 2005. Thanks!

My first Vietnam operations was as a C-130E loadmaster on TDY to Kadena from Pope AFB, NC in the spring of 1965. I was in the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron. Later that year, my crew was TDY to Mactan and made numerous flights into and within South Vietnam and Thailand. When I got back to the States, I got orders to Naha, Okinawa and was in the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron. We flew C-130As. I was TDY to Ubon for the C-130 flare mission and spent a lot of time at Cam Ranh on shuttle missions and as duty loadmaster. The 35th was responsible for leaflet missions over North Vietnam and North Korea. We also had a shuttle out of Bangkok. After reenlisting at Naha, I went to Robins to the 58th MAS on C-141s. I had been at Robins a year when, lo and behold, I got orders back to C-130s, this time at Clark on C-130Bs. I was with the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron. We were operating out of Tan Son Nhut when I first got there in early 1969 but moved to Cam Ranh because the 463rd TAW had been assigned the COMMANDO VAULT C-130 bombing mission. I was assigned to a bomb crew and dropped an estimated 100 M-121 10,000-pound and Blu 82 15,000-pound bombs. When we weren’t bombing, we were flying airlift missions, usually into forward fields. I got orders to Charleston to the 3rd MAS on C-5s. I made my first C-5 trip into Cam Ranh in October or November 1970. I was at Cam Ranh when the first C-5 mission came in. Flying tactical airlift missions in South Vietnam and dropping flares on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam was the most exciting time of my life.

You were in my time frame of Nov ’65 through Nov ’66 at Tan Son Nhut, Cam Rahn Bay, Da Nang and finally Pope ending with my discharge in Dec ’67. I was attached to the 21st CSU at Tan Son Nhut (overstaffed unit), then TDY’d to Cam Rahn Bay and the 22nd CSU (base was PSP runway, hospital was a few tents), again another TDY to Da Nang with the 23rd CSU before the trailer hospital sections arrived. Never did see the full operation of hospital facilities at CRB or Da Nang but heard after reassignment to Pope that all mortally wounded eventually were shipped out of CRB to Travis, Walter Reed, Brooke and Great Lakes Naval, with wounded to Japan, Clark and at times Hickam. For me, strange times in many strange places under stranger conditions that are still difficult to talk about unless with someone of similar experiences!

I was at Pope AFB 1964 – 1965. We left there on December 5th heading to Vietnam with ten brand new C-130s heading to California, Hawaii, Wake Island, Okinawa then to Tachicawa, Japan. Two months there doing TDY in and out of Vietnam. Then to Taiwan CCK AFB for 2 months running TDYs. Finally made it to Cam Ranh Bay. Spent lot of time at Clark, Da Nang, Saigon, and other wonderful tourist hot spots. I was a crew chief and part time flight mech, many a night sleeping on a C-130 on a runway or flight line somewhere in Vietnam. Overall, spent 16 months in that crazy war; strange days for a 19 year old kid, turning 20 flying out of Da Nang.

Enjoyed reading your post. I was at Okinawa, Naha AB with the 21st TCS. I remember the 35th and 41st was their also. I went to Cam Ranh Bay
several time TDY.

Medic (90250) Dover AFB 1967 – Aug 1969, Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN Aug 1969 – Aug 1970

Was the C-130 ever used to spray Agent orange, or any other rainbow herbicides in Vietnam.

Yes, my father SMSGT RET Walter McIntosh did attest to spraying Agent Orange. 1967-68 Tuy Hoa Viet Ham.

When I landed in Vietnam in 1968, as a loadmaster on c-130s we were part of the 8th airal port in tan sonut air Base there were to other loadmaster s stationed there. After tet we became a larger part of the war. We were in charge of all forward airlift operations. We spent 20days a month in special forces camps and hot combat area’s. We were under mortar, rocket, and recoilless rifle fire. I had 2 members of may teams Kia and six wounded. By the time I left Vietnam they had built the unit into 20 people. two officers four technical Sargent’s or better and the rest younger enlisted Sargent’s. During my tour I dropped the first ten thousand pound bomb ever dropped in combat. We were making landing zones for the army. I was involved in jp 4 drops on tunnel systems and what we were told was year has. The airforce personnel in Vietnam did a lot more than was ever reported but we enlisted men.

Where do you get that you were part of 8th Aerial Port? Prior to the activation of 834th Air Division, all C-130s in Vietnam were operating as part of detachments from 315th Air Division. After 834th activated, we were assigned to 834th detachments. Det 1 was at Tan Son Nhut and Det 2 was at Cam Ranh. Unless you were second loadmaster with Mike Huzinko, you didn’t drop the first 10,000-pound bomb. The first bomb crew was commanded by Maj. Bob Archer from the 29th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Clark. His loadmaster was Mike Huzinko. I have pictures of the crew. From your post, I gather that you weren’t assigned to a C-130 unit but were actually in aerial delivery at Tan Son Nhut.

The only thing my father SSgt Albert T Plunk talked about from Vietnam was dropping the 10,000 lb bomb from a C-130. his records show he had a lot of hours in a C-123 Operation Ranchhand. He was a Loadmaster.

Looking for evidence of a flight landing may 30th at Danang at 0330 AM early morning,Delivering trucks to VNMC .We landed under rocket fire one close call i will never forget but can’t find no records on this flight it has to be some where i’m laid up sick from exposure to deadly dioxin agent orange and can’t work a job if any one knows about this flight please let me know.

Was searching for some info on Sewart and came upon this. Will pass it on for your review.

A listing of the plane serial numbers of Sewart are listed inside the link of the above wikipedia.. Maybe this will help? These specific units maybe the plane?

Good luck.

You don’t need documentation of any particular flight. You just need documentation that you set foot in South Vietnam at some time.

Our family lived in Tachikawa, then Naha during Vietnam. My dad was flight engineer who flew many missions into Vietnam and Indonesia presumed it was Laos and Cambodia for mercenary supplies. Would be gone for months then gone again. 817th . Tsgt John D Grotha. After the squad was transferred to Dyess AFB.

My husband was stationed at Clark AFB from 1968 to 1971. He was part of TAC and flew in and out of Clark TDY to Thailand, Laos & Cambodia. He was dropped @ LZ’s with a ‘counterpart’ (native interperter) and a ROC to listen to radio traffic and local chatter to report back about traffic on the HoChiMin trail. He also was loaned to Air America from time to time. His DD214, of course, has no information regarding this. He had prostate cancer, bladder cancer (2000 & 2006) and CHF was his cause of death on his death certificate. We began searching for his military service records and militatry medical records since 1997. A FOIA to the CIA resulted in a reply that they could neither confirm or deny any record of him flying with them. His TDY’s were to Ubon, Udorn, Bangkok and Korea.
He passed away under the care of VA Hospital Doctors. His PCP @ the VA listed CHF as cause of death. If we could have gotten his medical records, he would have received a Service Connected disability rating. As his widow I am trying to apply fir DIC survivor benefits. Unfortunately, without any documentation in his DD214 and our inability to locate any records, I am struggling to find any record or person with knowledge of these TDY’s happening during that time. Glenn was at all the airstrips and flightlines that are listed as areas where agent orange has been found to be a contaminant. If you or anyone reading this has any information or could provide a statement of knowledge of these missions for my Husband, Glenn Baber, I would be very grateful.

I have been having issues recovering records as well we have reached out to others who were on bases which had Agent Orange and it is difficult. All of his paper records were stored at this mother’s home and now they are all gone. Family members stated they were burned up. We were instructed to contact National Archives to see if any records are there. Waiting on those at this time.

Sorry for your loss. We were also told when something happens to him to have his civilian doctors made very aware he was exposed to Agent Orange and other contaminants. Also, to give them the list of presumptive issues and we have done this. They are all aware of his service areas.