Flying Tigers Over Cambodia by Larry Partridge
McFarland and Company, Jefferson, NC, 2001
I have a ritual when I board an airplane. As I pass through the jetway and into the aircraft, I reach out with one hand and touch the outside of the plane's fuselage.
No. Not right...Fuselage. Fuselage is the wrong word: it's technically correct, but it's wrong. I touch the plane's skin. I touch the plane's body. I pat it once or twice, the way you would pet a faithful old dog.
I don't have any memory of deciding that I would do this whenever I fly; somehow, it just became something that I do. I am, for the most part, a rational person. I'm neither religious nor superstitious, and yet there is a part of me that regards these machines as living things. There is some part of me that thinks of machines as sentient beings. They are friends, colleagues, allies, and occasionally even heroes.
In 1975, Cambodia was badly in need of heroes.
If you wanted a name to invoke pure heroism, it would be hard to do better than the Flying Tigers. During World War II, Claire Chennault's Flying Tiger squadrons scored a number of tactical victories against numerically superior Japanese forces.
After the war, Flying Tigers pilot Bob Prescott persuaded a group of investors to establish an airfreight line in the U.S. By recruiting former pilots and support personnel from the squadron, Prescott quickly built the foundation for one of the world's most successful cargo lines. Prescott's Flying Tiger Line soon expanded to worldwide operation. (A history of the Tigers can be found online at http://www.flyingtigerline.org.)
In 1975, as the Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh, USAID hired the Flying Tiger Line to deliver rice into the besieged city. By March, Phnom Penh's Pochentong airport had come within range of rebel rockets and artillery, and normal air traffic ceased. Aside from a handful of old T-28s flying air support, the only flights in or out provided emergency aid. As the stranglehold tightened, this "ricelift" became a critical lifeline for the crowded, desperate city.
Who in their right mind would pilot an unarmed 187-foot-long commercial jet into the middle of a siege?
If you want to know the answer, read Larry Partridge's Flying Tigers Over Cambodia. In March 1975, Partridge volunteered for the Phnom Penh ricelift. The mission: fly out of Saigon with as much rice as their DC-8 could carry. Unload it as quickly as possible. Fly back. Load up. Do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Partridge eloquently describes the surreal nature of a closing chapter of history. The book captures a feeling that is hard to describe: it's a paradoxical sense of being anchored to Southeast Asia, and yet not really belonging there at all. Vivid details bring the story to life. The banter between the command post ("Tailpipe Brave") and the pilots captures the mixture of efficiency and camaraderie:
"Tailpipe Bravo, Tiger 783 ... 20 out ... 15,000."
"Tiger 783, Tailpipe ... Descend and land your discretion runway 05 ... we'll keep you posted on traffic."
"Tailpipe, Tiger 783 understand cleared to land 05 ... we have some new guys on board could you hold the incoming for a while?"
"Tigers came up with more crazy pilots? ... welcome guys."
"783 ... (laughter) ... not as crazy as you."
"We got a half-inch thick piece of steel to hide under ... what've you got?"
"Good odds? ... see you shortly."
The aircraft -- Tiger 783 -- soon got a new name: Tiger Nancy. On a whim, Partridge christened the plane "Nancy" (after his wife) and hand-painted "Phnom Penh Ph-Nancy" on the plane's nose. Soon enough, even the crew at Tailpipe Bravo referred to the plane as "Tiger Nancy."
The book captures some of the unseen complexity of aviation. Ever think about the plane's tires? One can scarcely imagine the strain that an aircraft places on its tires when landing even under normal conditions. And flying a fully-loaded DC-8 into a combat zone, braking hard on a short runway, in scalding tropical heat? If the tire becomes too hot, it can explode. A device called a fuse plug can release excess pressure safely: "This 'safe blowout' nearly always results in a very expensive tire being damaged beyond repair. But considering the alternative, it's quite acceptable. What is not quite acceptable is a flight crew that doesn't avoid this problem if at all possible." Normally, the blowouts can be avoided simply by spending more time on the ground, and letting the brakes cool. Spending more time on the ground, however, is hardly an option if you're under constant rocket and artillery fire. The Tigers' solution? Leave the landing gear down until reaching 16,000 feet after takeoff, then lowering them early before landing. The cold air at high altitudes helped cool the wheels. "Touchdown was made at the minimum safe speed with the nose high. The nose was held up as long as possible with the engines in reverse. By doing it this way we had no use for regular brakes till we turned off at the end of the runway." By the end of the Ricelift, many tires had to be changed because of damage from shrapnel, but the Tigers never blew a single tire due to excessive heat.
Between flights, the pilots try to relax in the alien world of Saigon. At the hotel, they befriend a 13-year-old tomboy named Maria, who sold newspapers. "Winterberg bought a Stars and Stripes newspaper and she turned to me. I asked Jim if he did the crossword. When he said no I told Maria that I'd just read his when he finished. That's when I learned that I was a 'cheap sumbitch!'" From then on, Partridge writes, "I spent the extra quarter."
In contrast to the (relative) quiet in Saigon, Phnom Penh was for all practical purposes off-limits. They flew in and got the hell out. On one of his first missions, Partridge asked a member of the ground crew if anyone was going hungry. "After giving me a funny look he answered by telling us that Phnom Penh was 'going hungry' two months ago and it was literally starving now." Pochentong had become its own world. An old couple at the airport eked out a living by patching holes in the runway:
"Probably in their seventies, she had something in her apron and he was carrying a small pail with a handle. The 'something' in her apron was sand and his pail held thin tar. Every time an incoming round pecked a small hole in the ramp they would quickly fill it with sand and tar... they just showed up one day and started filling holes while everyone, military and civilian alike, assumed that someone of authority had let them into the area."
It turned out, however, that they had simply arrived on their own. After a round of recriminations over their sudden appearance in the supposedly secure perimeter, an officer asked them where they lived. "The Old Man stood quietly while she gestured toward a small pile of belongings behind Tailpipe Bravo. Using scrap corrugated sheet metal, some troops assembled a lean-to and the Old Couple had a humble home again. Their 'pay' for the job was whatever spilled rice they could sweep up plus handouts from Tailpipe Bravo."
As the situation in Vietnam and Cambodia worsened, it became apparent that the end was near. Partridge describes an exchange with the ramp monitor at Tailpipe Bravo shortly after the fall of Ban Me Thuot:
"Big John had been hoping for some kind of intervention in Cambodia, and when a major city in South Vietnam was overrun without a peep from anyone else? The handwriting on the wall was loud and clear.
"You could almost see the spirit flow out of him, and like special effects in a movie, he aged while he stood there. All the work, the hot days, the discomfort, and risk were now just silly things that probably, in the end, would mean nothing. As John quietly left I wondered if we were going to create some widows while chasing what was looking more and more like a hopeless cause."
It's difficult to imagine the stress that the pilots and crews must have felt. As the crews announced incoming rounds, "We quickly unfastened our seatbelt/shoulder harnesses and sat, waiting for hearts to either restart or stop forever." Incoming rockets could at least be seen; with artillery, there was often no warning at all. On one occasion, a 105mm artillery round hit the offloading area as Tiger Nancy came in for a landing, killing seven people and wound several others.
Inevitably, those who risk their lives must at some point ask themselves whether or not the dangers were worthwhile. Sometimes the broader questions came into focus as well. Reflecting on the war in Vietnam, Partridge wonders about the North's victory: "If you're the last one to bleed to death does that mean you won?"
Tigers is a memoir, and it falters occasionally in minor historical details. (The number of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime, for example, is said to range from 2 to 10 million... at a time when the entire population of Cambodia was only about eight million.) There are also a few moments when the narrative seems to be a reflection of what we know now, rather than what the characters knew at the time. These, however, are very minor points. Overall, the book is excellent. It's an engrossing retelling of a story that is largely unknown.
Flying Tigers is an excellent companion volume to Call Sign Rustic, Richard Wood's fine history of American pilots who served as forward air controller's for Lon Nol's doomed army. Wood's book gives us a glimpse of the doomed Republic in the early days of its downward spiral. Tigers shows us the sad end.
History, of course, does not really end. We get new chapters, but it's always the same book. What happened to the characters from the last chapter? In some cases, it's far too easy to guess. The ground crews at Pochentong? It isn't likely that they survived. The old man with the pail of sand, and the old woman with the apron? Perhaps it's best not to think too much.
What about Maria? Maybe she's still out there, safe and happy in her current chapter. You win some, you lose some. Even in the midst of misery, sometimes you can score a few small victories.
Which brings us back to the plane: cold metal parts with a heroic soul hidden somewhere inside.
What happened to Tiger Nancy? In the early Eighties, she was leased to Air India, and was later operated by Lufthansa Cargo, then by Emery Air Freight. She was later updated and given a new tail number.
The Flying Tiger Line, meanwhile, was bought by Federal Express in 1988, and subsequently merged into FedEx the next year.
Now, thirty-four years after she braved rockets and artillery to deliver rice to a starving city, Tiger Nancy -- aka tail number N783FT, aka tail number N603AL -- is still flying. As of this writing, she is owned an operated by Air Transport International, flying routes in Europe.
Does her crew know her history? Do her pilots have the good sense to reach out a hand to for a grateful pat as they board? Do her mechanics know: this one is special. She was part of a team, and she saved lives. Every member of that team deserves recognition: Pilots, crew, support personnel: Larry Partridge, Robert "Bob" Bax, Jim Winterberg, Gregory Slack, Ted Brondum, Gary Kangieser, Grant Swartz, Ernie Miranda, Joe Pacini, Oakley Smith, G. Dick Riemer, Bill Popp, Archie Hall.
Many of them are gone now. The ricelift was long ago.
On the morning of their last flight into Phnom Penh, Partridge reflected on the brevity of it all: "How quickly your tracks fill in when walking through the soft mud of the world."
Thanks to this fine book, the Flying Tigers' tracks will be preserved a little longer.
Also by Larry Partridge: Kindred Spirits (available from Amazon.com).
Click here to return to the Recommended Reading page.