For Greene County News
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — “I will never forget that day. It’s as fresh to me right now as it was the day it happened.”
Those words jump started a 60-minute tale of what it was like to be the Air Force medical crew director — and survivor — on the first Operation Babylift flight out of Vietnam that crashed about 14 minutes after taking off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base en route to Clark AB, Philippines.
The orator was retired Col. Regina Aune, who shared the impact of the incident with about 55 instructors and students from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine’s flight nurse and aeromedical evacuation technician course during Aune’s June 4 visit to the school. The U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) is the premier institute for research, education, and worldwide operational consultation in aerospace medicine.
Aune’s date with destiny began in 1972 when she joined the Air Force. She decided to combine her fascination of flying and love for nursing and completed flight nurse training at USAFSAM in 1974. At that time the school was located at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.
While stationed at Travis AFB in California, Aune was sent to the Philippines on April 1, 1975. She was told that once she arrived at Clark AB, Aune would receive additional orders.
Back in the United States, President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Babylift on April 3, 1975. Operation Babylift was the term given to the mass evacuation of more than 2,000 children — many of them orphans fathered by American military personnel — from South Vietnam to the United States and other countries.
Aune’s orders called for her to travel to South Vietnam where she would serve as medical crew director on the first flight leaving the country as part of the Operation Babylift mission.
On April 4, 1975, Aune helped bucket-brigade-load 270 children inside a C-5 Galaxy — about 145 “up” in the troop compartment area and 125 children “down” in the cargo area. The C-5’s size enabled it to accommodate more people, however it was not equipped for medical evacuation.
Shortly after takeoff, the plane’s cargo doors malfunctioned and blew outward, taking with them a chunk of the tail and cutting all control cables to the tail. There was a rapid decompression inside the aircraft.
Moments earlier Aune had gone”up” to the troop compartment to get some medicine for a sick passenger.
“When the cargo doors blew, I could see the South China Sea through the hole in the back of the aircraft,” Aune told attendees.
Where older children once sat secured by straps in the cargo area, now only straps remained.
The aircrew turned around and attempted to make it back to the airport for an emergency landing, but the damage resulted in a crash landing into a rice paddy. By the time the C-5 came to a halt, it was in four pieces. The cargo compartment carrying children, civilians and crew members was crushed, but the troop compartment was largely intact.
Aune and other crew members hurriedly carried the surviving children off what was left of the plane. She helped carry 80 babies through the mud to arriving helicopter crews, before passing out due to her own injuries. The crash had thrown her the length of the troop compartment area resulting in broken bones in one foot, a broken vertebra and multiple contusions.
The crash claimed the lives of 138 men, women and children while 176 passengers survived.
Training and emotions
Midway thru her presentation Aune asked those in attendance, “How many of you embrace the safety measures portion of your training and learning about emergency procedures on different aircraft? Have you practiced triage? Do you ever think of the emotional component?”
Aune acknowledged that for a period of time she never wanted to recount the crash.
“I wondered, ‘Why did I survive?’ ” Aune said. “And as the medical crew director, I kept asking myself if I had missed something. If I had done something differently, would it somehow have made things better? I had a profound, overwhelming sense of grief and loss and, yes, survivor’s guilt is real.”
But gradually that changed, particularly when she taught at USAFSAM while the school still was located in Texas.
Today Aune is good friends with retired Chief Master Sgt. Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar. He was a loadmaster on the ill-fated C-5 flight and currently lives in Centerville. As a senior master sergeant, Snedegar was involved in determining where on the aircraft children would go.
He sat off to the side during Aune’s presentation, occasionally filling in some details and providing levity after the room had been eerily quiet for a while as attendees listened to Aune describe the flight and its immediate aftermath.
Together they also have befriended Aryn Lockhart, a 41-year-old Vietnamese woman who initially reached out to Aune in 1997 after Lockhart’s research led her to believe that Lockhart was one of the children on that first Operation Babylift flight. The trio even traveled to Vietnam together in November 2014.
Lockhart and Aune wrote a book about their experience. It’s entitled, “Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished.” Aune had a few copies with her during her visit to USAFSAM, and after the presentation she autographed copies. One senior airman dashed out of the autograph signing line, telling a colleague he needed to “hit the ATM down the hall to withdraw money so I can buy a book and read more about this.”
It coincided with Maj. Sarah Morton’s comment that the students were captivated by the presentation.
“These details from a former Air Force flight nurse are what our students are getting ready to embark on,” Morton, the director of the flight nurses course, said. “They heard about the real-life challenges they could face one day.”
Perhaps some of the attending students — born after the Vietnam War ended — will find inspiration in Aune’s story and one day share their own aerospace medicine slice of history.