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4th of July at Cam Ranh Bay

by Maj. Bob Hayden, USAF (Ret.)

The story begins on 4 July 1971. We were on an input mission on that day. I had departed the Philippines on the afternoon before due to an impending typhoon in the P.I.   Our crew included two “student” co-pilots who were going in-country to get their final check rides to upgrade to aircraft commanders.

We stayed overnight at CCK Airbase (Ching Chuan Kang) which is in Taichung, Taiwan.  The next morning we were to fly into Vietnam. We departed the BOQ building and went to base operations to file flight plans and meet our enlisted crew members, who had already started their pre-flight duties. 

When we arrived I was asked to call the command post for the base.  Upon doing so they explained that there was a need for an emergency air evacuation flight, that it being a holiday they had a standby crew on call, but that it would require two hours for them to reach the base and then do a pre-flight to be ready to depart.  They asked, therefore, could we take the emergency flight and after that continue on our regular schedule going into Vietnam?

I told them of course we would do this provided it was okayed by my command post back at Clark AB in the Philippines.  They called, we were cleared to do so and so we proceeded out to the airplane where a crew of nurses and medical technicians was arriving to set up the airplane. 

We were instructed that the flight was to go down to Tainan which was a city about 50 miles south of our location, pick up a pregnant woman who was in labor, fly to Taipei which was about 50 miles north of the airbase, and then proceed back to the base at CCK.  I knew there was a detachment of US Air Force personnel at Tainan but it seemed odd that we would be doing an air evacuation flight when good medical doctors were readily available on the economy.  In other words, somebody with some “pull “ was involved.

We took off as quickly as we could, slowing only as we went past the usual guards that had to wave a green flag before you passed their station. The medical crew in the back continued to set up for their incoming patient.  We arrived in Tainan and were instructed by the tower to go over to a ramp where there was an ambulance waiting.  As is normal for such things we would have filed flight plans as required but in this case, due to the haste in which everyone was trying to proceed, the command post had said they would file flight plans for us.  Our flying “in-country” was under Tactical VFR but until you arrived in Vietnam everything en route was done under IFR clearances. Therefore, we called for our next clearance while they were loading the pregnant lady into the back of the airplane along with her husband (a buck sergeant), and two doctors. We were also staffed with three nurses and three medical technicians who had boarded the aircraft at CCK.

When we called for our clearance for taxi and take off and a route of flight to go to Taipei for the first and only time in my life I received instructions:  “You cleared.  Cleared for takeoff.”

Generally with a clearance that has been filed you proceed along Victor or Jet Airways and the air traffic people will specify what altitudes they will allow you to use.  In this case, I thought it best to find out what they thought we were going to do so I asked. 

The Chinese controller’s answer:  “where you want to go?”.

I figured no harm in asking so I said , “Direct Taipei'”.

He said “OK, you go that way”. 

So cleared as requested I said, “What altitude would you like us to be at?”

He said, “What altitude you want?”

I said, “5,000?” 

He said, “Okay'” and cleared us for takeoff while we were still cranking engines, let alone before we had even started to taxi.

We made the flight direct to Taipei in about 20 minutes’ time. It was also obvious that they were expecting us when we called about 30 miles out of Taipei International Airport. They acknowledged and immediately cleared us to land. 

As we were starting our descent going into Taipei one of the nurses came running up the stairs from the back end of the airplane and said “She’s having the baby now. Go into an orbit, fly smooth and we’ll let you know when we can go on”.

We told the tower what we would be doing.  I started the first circle and then the nurse came running up once again this time saying “No. Get on the ground as fast as you can”.

I broke from the holding pattern, told the tower that we wished to land immediately, and started towards the field once again.

Please note the Taipei International is a rather busy airport and was particularly so in those days. As such, there was considerable midday commercial traffic that was landing at the airport at the same time. The airlines had just started to use the then-brand-new 747 made by the Boeing Company. One of the first ones to receive the aircraft and put them to use was Pan American Airways.

It has since become an old joke, but at the time as we were coming into land and had already been cleared to do so, a 747 was on final approach and told to circle by the Taipei control tower. He really did make the comment “it costs $300 in fuel to make one of these airplanes circle”.

The control tower operator with his Asian accented English immediately answered “Make a $600 turn to the left, I call you back”.   

We then went in and made an uneventful landing, taxied over to the ramp where there was another ambulance waiting.  We lowered the ramp, they ran the patient into the ambulance and they took off lights flashing and sirens all the way.

We were told later that it was a military emergency evacuation flight because the girl who was pregnant was married to an Air Force sergeant, which we knew, and an “oh, by the way” she was the daughter of the Taiwanese Counsel General to the United States – the same as the ambassador in countries with which we have formal rather than informal relations. (Which might have had a little something to do with why we were given carte blanche in our flying.)

We proceeded back to CCK, were loaded up with the normal cargo load, and proceeded on our way to our normal 15-day shuttle in Vietnam. But it was a fun 4th of July.