Sunday, May 17, 2020

Flight Status - During the Vietnam War, the women who served on special Pan Am flights flew into a war zone to transport soldiers. Why has their role been forgotten?

In the winter of 1968, a Boeing 707, heavy with American troops and body bags, took rounds of antiaircraft fire immediately upon takeoff from Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. At once, a right engine burst into flames. It was the middle of the Tet Offensive, when coordinated Viet Cong raids pounded American installations in South Vietnam. A GI sitting by the wing spotted the engine fire outside his window and caught the attention of one of the stewardesses, Gayle Larson, then 25 years old, who sped to the front to alert the cockpit crew of three.
The flight engineer raced into the cabin to inspect. As Larson remembers, the planeload of GIs was unimpressed, “paying no attention to the disaster outside the cabin windows.” The flight was redirected from its original destination — some holiday spot in the Pacific: maybe Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo, no one remembers now — and instead flew to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The 707 was a first-generation long-distance jet with four engines, but it could fly on just three. In an all-economy configuration, it could carry 180 GIs.
Larson and her roommate, Susan Harris, who was also on the flight, secured the cabin for safety and fed the troops. “We were just trying to make sure everything was okay,” Harris says.
Now in their 70s, Larson, of Portland, Ore., and Harris, of Kingston, Wash., both remember that surviving a sniper attack and an engine failure was a moment of comic juxtapositions: The wing was on fire, but inside the smell of freshly baked Nestlé Toll House cookies wafted through the cabin. During their years of service, it was a ritual for the roommates to mix up and freeze rolls of cookie dough at their home in Sausalito, Calif., for the trips to Vietnam.

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