Without permission, they landed. They took off on a taxiway, were shot at, and evacuated at least 268 lives (probably dozens more) in the process.
This video, titled “Last Flight Out of Da Nang”, recounts the heroic efforts of World Airways to fly refugees out of the besieged South Vietnamese city of Da Nang and take them to comparatively safe Saigon. First aired on the CBS Evening News on March 30th 1975, the story is told through news broadcast footage, interviews with World Airways chairman Edward Daly, and pilots and airline officials involved in the effort. This is truly eye-opening stuff. Other broadcasts relating to World’s involvement in the rescue effort that aired on subsequent broadcasts are also included in the video.
World Airways became a key military contractor during the Vietnam War. For the majority of America’s involvement in Vietnam they flew troops and equipment back and forth between World’s base at Oakland International Airport and Southeast Asia. Flying a mix of Boeing 707, 727, and Douglas DC-8 aircraft, World would be thrust into a maelstrom of humanity and nearly lose several hundred lives while attempting to help refugee women and children get out of Da Nang.
World and Daly were chartered by the United States Government to make 20 evacuation flights out of Da Nang. When the United States Embassy cancelled contract after only three flights, Daly took matters into his own hands. On March 29th 1975 Daly took two World Airways 727-100s into Da Nang without clearance or permission. One of the 727s was unable to land. The other 727 was carrying Daly. Forced to lift off from a taxiway when the runways were blocked by abandoned vehicles and humanity, the airliner was fired upon and sustained severe damage to the fuel tanks and flaps. The 727 had used its under-tail air stair to load the passengers. Daly was forced to stand his ground at the air stair so the aircraft would not be too overloaded to take off at all. As it was, 268 people were crammed into the cabin and another 60 or so jammed themselves into the cargo holds which had been left open on the ground.
In a masterful piece of flying, the World Airways pilots landed the overloaded aircraft, nearly out of fuel, with the damage to the wings and flaps causing controllability problems, main landing gear unable to retract due to human beings in the gear wells, and the air stair stuck in the open position, some 90 minutes after leaving Da Nang. The human side of this tragedy is that World and Daly had flown into Da Nang to rescue refugee women and children. Instead, aside from the five women and two or three children aboard, the flight carried nearly all South Vietnamese military personnel- about 300 of them.
World Airways and Daly flew a DC-8 freighter into Saigon a few days later and rescued 58 Vietnamese orphans. Dubbed “Operation Baby Lift” by President Ford, this flight was the impetus for the continuing effort to bring nearly 3,000 orphans to the United States. Footage of the aftermath of this flight (a much more joyous occasion) is included in the video as well.