Khiem's family of 10 included 5 boys, all of them in the military during the war. Three of his brothers were in the VNAF, and his oldest brother was the chief training officer for the 62nd Wing of VNAF at Nha Trang, an A-37 unit. It was a family that believed in their country and was willing to fight to save it—almost to the bitter end.
Lt. Pham Quang Khiem was a C-130 co-pilot in the VNAF at the time of the collapse of South Vietnam. Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, and with a daring born of a realization of the probable outcome of the war, he was able to get his entire family out of South Vietnam just before the surrender. This is his story, in his own words:
We flew one of the last re-supply missions into Da Nang at 11 PM on the night before it's loss. As soon as we landed and taxied to the ramp, an ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) major jumped into the aircraft, through the crew door, to assure himself of a seat. I knew that the thousands of people in the terminal would rush the airplane after seeing this, so I kicked him off. I was only a First Lieutenant, but the aircraft commander, Captain Ch… was searching the terminal building for his family ( Captain Ch… flew this bird out here now it's my turn to bring it back to Saigon, that's why all the burden was on my shoulder!). As it was, the ramp was filled with refugees almost immediately anyway. I had about 20,000 pounds of cargo on board, and I shouted at them to let me off load first, then I could take about 200 of them on board. Since we had no way to control this crowd, I told the loadmaster not to open the crew door (in the nose), but to do all unloading and loading through the ramp at the rear of the airplane. As soon as the cargo was off the panic was on! People rushed onto the airplane, and we couldn't do anything to stop them. As I looked out of the cockpit, I couldn't see anything but people. When we cranked the engines, they scattered, and we were able to taxi out.
The loadmaster called on the intercom as we taxied, "Lieutenant, I cannot close the ramp because of the people on it!" I said, "Hang on!" then hit the brakes. That jammed them in tight enough to allow him to close the ramp. (I remember that I have to jump on the brake 3 times) Just as we solved that problem, I looked up and saw the Wing Commander of the helicopter wing hovering in front of the airplane in his Huey. He wanted us to stop and load his family into the airplane, but since there was no possible place to put them, we just kept taxiing, and he broke away.
When we got to the end of the runway, I thought it was all over. There was an MP (Military Police) in a 2-1/2 ton truck loaded with his family, blocking the taxiway and pointing his M-16 into the cockpit. He motioned that he wanted us to load his family aboard. I nodded, but motioned for him to move the truck so we could line up on the runway before loading them. As soon as he backed up, we lined up and took off without hesitation! Soon after we got to our cruising altitude I got out of my seat to take a look back in the cabin. It was an unbelievable sight! There were people hanging on the paratroop static line cables that run the length of the cabin, and no one was sitting down. When we offloaded at Tan Son Nhut, we did an actual head count of 350 people (super sardine pack).
That flight and the panic I saw in Da Nang got me to thinking. I thought, "If it ever looks like the same thing is going to happen in Saigon, I will take a C-130 and get my family out!"
By comparison, the evacuation of Pleiku had been orderly. It had taken place one week previous to the fall of Da Nang, and I had flown three missions into and out of Pleiku, evacuating the families of VNAF personnel. Unfortunately, the civil population of Pleiku learned of the evacuation and stormed the airport, forcing 5 C-130s enroute from Saigon to turn back before the airlift was complete. But that was our first taste of the panic which soon rolled over the entire country as the North Vietnamese advanced. Some of our C-130s flew bombing missions to destroy the aircraft left behind. They were loaded with 55-gallon drums of gasoline or napalm, then dropped on VNAF aircraft abandoned on the ramps.
I flew missions to Nha Trang in that evacuation on the 31st of March. Then, on the 2nd of April I hitched a ride into Phan Rang on a C-130 "bladder bird," hoping to locate my younger brother, who was an airman in the headquarters there. I had hoped to take him back to Saigon to be with the rest of the family. I could not locate him though, and had to return to Saigon without him. (We were very lucky though...he showed up at my parents' home in Saigon five minutes before our escape!). On the flight back to Saigon, I thought to myself, "If Phan Rang is lost, it won't be long before communists are in Saigon." It was time to plan my escape. As the situation deteriorated further, there was a lot of talk among the pilots of stealing a C-130 and getting their families out. I suspected that this was just talk, and though I was willing to do just that, I never said a word about it to anyone in my squadron. Headquarters must have considered the possibility of that happening though, because they ordered the airplanes to be fueled with only enough gas to accomplish their missions. If you were going to Phan Rang, they just gave you enough gas, plus a small reserve, to get there. You would have to refuel there in order to get back to Saigon. That was a problem in taking an airplane to get out of the country. Another problem was finding someone to help you. You might fool the Engineer and Load-masters about what you were doing, but you wouldn't be able to fool another pilot.
One of my best friends in the VNAF was Major Nguyen H C, who was in our sister squadron (I was in the 435th, and he was in the 437th). We had been friends for a long time, and we discussed the possibility of getting out. I knew that once a pilot managed to steal an airplane and escape that the VNAF would tighten security and make further escapes impossible. I told him, "If we are not number one to escape, we will never be number two!" His family was in DaLat, and he wanted to get them to Saigon before leaving. On 2 April DaLat was overrun by the communists and he lost contact with them. After that he was then willing to go along with anything I planned. On 3 April all the C-130s were used on bombing missions. I was number one standby on the mission planning board, but I needed time to tell my family what I had planned. I went to the Squadron Ops. Officer and told him I didn't feel good, and he agreed to drop me to the bottom of the list. This gave me a chance to run home for lunch. When I got home, I took my brother aside and told him what I had planned. I asked him to take charge of the family, which had all gathered in Saigon, and to keep them close to home. If they heard from me they were to go immediately to the Long Thanh airport, which was about seventeen miles southeast of Saigon. Long Thanh was a former US Army airbase, which I had landed several times during training. It had been closed since the US withdrawal in 1973, and was deserted. I told them to rush there as soon as they heard from me. I didn't know how I was going to get an airplane, but I would try.
When I got back to the airport, I waited for something to happen. At three o'clock, just when I thought we wouldn't get out that day, my friend called to say that he had been assigned to a food re-supply mission to Phan Rang. Actually, one of the other pilots had been assigned to the mission, but when he complained that he had already flown two missions that day and was tired, my friend volunteered to take his place. We were in business. I ran home (my home was within a mile of the airport) and told my family to leave for Long Thanh immediately. There was still another problem. Since we were in different squadrons, we would not ordinarily fly together. In fact, I could not even get into his squadron area, since the guards did not know me and I had no pass to get in. Once again we were lucky. The airplane he was supposed to take had mechanical problems, and his squadron borrowed one of our airplanes (HCF 460). I met him at the airplane. Now the problem was going to be to get rid of his co-pilot. His co-pilot had gone to get something to eat, and when he came back I told him that I would be glad to take his place in order to fly with my friend, and to look for my missing brother. He was only too happy to take the rest of the day off, especially since he had a date! I warned him not to go back to the squadron, since they might not like our switching places without authorization. The flight engineer and loadmasters accepted the story without too many questions.
These missions had become so routine that we could take off within a few minutes, and that created another problem for my plan. The seventeen miles from Saigon to Long Thanh was on a rough country road, and I knew my family could not get there before 4 PM. I also knew that once we took off, timing would be essential. We couldn't land at Long Thanh and wait around for them to show up. A C-130 landing on an abandoned airstrip would raise an alarm, and besides, the rest of the crew would know right away what we were doing. I had to delay our takeoff somehow, so I made sure that I got to the airplane before the Flight Engineer. I pulled several circuit breakers, and since they were breakers that would normally not pop by them selves, I knew they would be hard to spot. One of them was for the APU starter, and that caused a delay right away. The FE finally spotted the popped breakers though, and we cranked the engines at 3:30. Our procedures were 'strictly by the book on this flight, and I am sure the crew was wondering what had gotten into the pilot, since each checklist was being read agonizingly thoroughly. They probably figured their new co-pilot (me) was making sure things went smoothly with an unfamiliar crew. I delayed as long as I could, but we were still rolling before 4PM.
In all my calculations about where we would go, the problem of fuel had always been uppermost in my mind. I did not think we would have more than an hour-and-a-half of fuel on board, which would only have been enough to get us to Thailand, and that was not far enough to insure our safety. Getting this airplane though was an opportunity we could not pass up, no matter what the out come. The first thing I did when I got out to the airplane was flip the master switch on to check the fuel level. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw that the tanks were full! The line crewman must have anticipated my surprise, because he apologized, explaining that he had taken a smoke break while fueling the airplane, and forgot about the new rule regarding rationing. He begged me not to turn him in! Of course, I gave him a stern look and told him don’t ever let it happen again, and then told him to forget about it. With a full load of fuel we could fly all the way to Singapore. This was my first choice because I had heard that they needed pilots in Singapore, and maybe they could use me! My friend was still despondent about the loss of his family, and he didn't care where we went as long as it was out of the country. He said, "Once we are airborne, it's your show." (Because I’m doing all the planning, charting all the routing, he had nothing in his flight bag!). We had filed an IFR flight plan, but I did not call for a clearance when we taxied out. The crew knew we were going to Phan Rang though, so when we turned southeast instead of east, they would know something was wrong. Right after takeoff, I turned off all the radios and the transponder. Then I turned to the pilot, and said on intercom, "What's the matter with them anyway? Why are they sending us to Long Thanh to pick up those people?" Now the crew knew that we were going to Long Thanh, but they thought that we had been sent there by headquarters. We were at 2,000 feet, and my friend was eager to get to Long Thanh. I told him to slow down. "If we fly slow, maybe they will think it is a helicopter, or an L-19 on their radar screens." It didn't take us long to get there anyway, and as we began a slow circle to the right, I looked down and tried to spot my family. The place was deserted, and I got a sinking feeling. The next time around, I searched the country road for a sign of them. There they were! Five little cars, about half a mile from the airport! I turned to my friend and told him to go ahead and land. I knew that my brother had briefed the family to run onto the airplane as soon as they saw the ramp come down. As soon as we landed, I saw their cars pull onto the end of the runway. We taxied to the turnaround and I asked the loadmaster to open the ramp. When he had it open, I asked him to offload the cargo, which was 20,000 pounds of dry-rice. So far they didn't suspect anything, but I knew that I could not take them out of the country without letting them know what I was doing. As soon as my family was on board, I said, "Gentlemen, I have to tell you that this aircraft will not go back to Saigon anymore. We are leaving the country! Anyone who does not want to go is free to leave now." The Flight Engineer unhooked his seatbelt and headset and got halfway out of his seat, then sat back down and said he would go with us. The number one loadmaster must have thought we were defecting to the North Vietnamese. He was a ten-year VNAF veteran and he got off the airplane as quickly as he could. The other loadmaster was on his first C-130 training ride, and didn't know what was going on, he just stood by the open ramp.
As we started taxiing to the takeoff end of the runway, I saw our loadmaster talking to several ARVN soldiers who had shown up in a Jeep. Our landing had aroused their curiosity. The loadmaster was gesturing wildly, so I knew he was telling them our plan. As we turned to take off, the Jeep pulled alongside and they pointed an M-79 grenade launcher at the cockpit. But I didn't think they would fire, and we started the takeoff. Our ramp was still open though, and I had to run back to start it coming up. I grabbed the confused new loadmaster and told him to hold the switch until the ramp was up, then ran back to the cockpit. I got back into my seat just in time to raise the gear for Major Canh. From the time we landed until we took off again seemed like a long time, but it was only seven minutes. Once we were off, we headed out to sea at tree-top level. Once we got out over the sea, we dropped down to sea level. I mean, we were low! Later, my family would say that they thought they were getting out by boat, we were so low! It was extremely humid in the rear, so much so, in fact, that a fog formed which was so thick that they could not see each other. After an hour of skimming the wave tops we climbed to 16,000 feet and we set a course directly for Singapore. I got on the PA system and announced that we were now over international waters. There was a very joyous cheer from the cabin. The Flight Engineer then told me that he had planned to do exactly what we were doing, with another high ranking pilot in the squadron. He had been into the Singapore airport several times, and briefed us on its layout. The loadmaster had no family in South Vietnam, and was just happy to be getting out alive.
We arrived in Singapore around 7 PM. It was dark and raining when I called Approach Control for instructions. I couldn't understand their reply, so I just changed to Tower Frequency, and called, "Singapore Tower, Herky 460. Request landing instruction." They replied, "Herky 460, cleared to land runway 02." They gave me the wind and altimeter setting, but didn't ask, "Who are you?" or "What the hell are you doing here?" So we just went in and landed on 02! This was the civilian international airport and I thought that they would get excited when a military aircraft landed there. But when we parked on the ramp, the ground personnel came and hooked up an auxiliary power cart when the engines were shut down, then left. I told my people that they were now in a free country, but that no one was allowed to leave the aircraft until we had surrendered to the proper authorities.
My friend, my brother and I all changed into our civilian clothes, got off the airplane, and headed for the terminal building. It took us a half hour to find the airport office. When I explained to the guard on duty that we were a group of Vietnamese who had just gotten out of the country, and that we wanted to talk to his boss, he said, "Well, the airport office closes at 5 PM. Why don't you guys come back at eight tomorrow morning?" We finally convinced him that we had entered his country illegally, and that he had to do something about it. Well, he couldn't find his boss, who was out partying somewhere. We wandered around the airport until midnight, then went back out to the airplane. I found that my people were well taken care of. Some of the ground crew from the airlines had become curious, and had come over to our airplane. When they found 56 refugees from the war, they brought food and drink from the airline service area. Finally, at about 1 AM, twenty trucks filled with police surrounded our airplane, and we surrendered to the Chief of Police. We explained that we would like political asylum in Singapore, but that if they could not take us, we would like the gas to get to Australia or New Zealand. They called the Vietnamese counsel, and he came down to the airport. We told him that we did not want to go back to Vietnam , and that we wanted asylum. He left without commenting, and we never heard from him again. The local officials could not make up their minds what to do with us. It was obvious that we had created a problem that they did not want to deal with. (It was a problem they had not had before). Finally, I suggested that they just give us the gas and the charts to get to Australia and we would leave. That seemed like a good idea to them, since the only person who seemed to have the authority to OK political asylum was the Prime Minister, and he was out of the country for two weeks. We were deciding how to get to Australia when the matter of how we would pay for the gas came up. They would not accept anything but US currency, and even after taking up a collection among the passengers, we only had about 400 dollars of the 5,000 we needed to pay for the fuel. We had another couple of thousand dollars in gold watches, rings, and jewelry, but when I asked the airport authorities if they could accept them, they said, "No way! We don't take that junk-US dollars only!" "Well," I said, "If I don't have fuel, I can't go anywhere." Fortunately, they were sympathetic. We did create a problem for them, but they must have had an idea of how the war would end. They billeted us in the local jail until the end came, then treated us as heroes. Within three weeks we were on our way to a new life in the United States.
Khiem had managed to get his entire family out, with the exception of his youngest brother, who was in the Army, stationed at Vung Tau. The original plan called for an escape attempt on 6 April, when the family expected him to be home for the weekend. But the opportunity that presented itself was too good to pass up, and he was left behind. After the communists took over, he was sent to a re-education camp for two years of brainwashing. On Aug 1, 1992 Khiem added: just 3 months before my father passed away in September 1991, my brother and his family were reunited with us after 16 years apart, through the ODP program.