In March 1949, Emperor Bảo Đại officially requested that the French help set up a Vietnamese military air arm. Pressure was maintained with the assistance of Lt. Col. Nguyễn Văn Hinh, who had flown the B-26 Marauder with the French Air Force during the Second World War. In March 1952, a training school was set up at Nha Trang, and the following year two army co-operation squadrons began missions flying the Morane-Saulnier MS.500 Criquet light aircraft. In 1954, the French allocated a number of Dassault MD.315 Flamant armed light transports to the inventory of this Vietnamese air arm. Vietnamese pilot trainees began to be sent to France for more advanced training. In May 1954, with the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the position of France changed, and on January 31, 1955, the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) was inaugurated.
The RVNAF initially consisted of 58 aircraft and about 1,300 personnel. Aircraft consisted primarily of C-47 Skytrains, and Grumman F8F Bearcats. French instructors for pilots and mechanics remained until late 1956, and transferred 69 F8F Bearcat aircraft to the VNAF, which throughout the late 1950s were the main strike aircraft. In May 1956, by agreement with the South Vietnamese government, the United States Air Force assumed some training and administrative roles of the RVNAF. Teams from Clark Air Force Base began in 1957 to organize the RVNAF into a model of the USAF when the French training contracts expired.
Recruitment and training
Unlike the ARVN, the VNAF was an all-volunteer service, remaining so until its demise in 1975. The VNAF recruiting center was located at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Recruits were given a screening test, followed by a physical examination.
Basic requirements for service in the VNAF was to be a Vietnamese citizen; at least age 17; minimum age 25 for flight training; no criminal record; the equivalent of a U.S. 9th grade education for airmen; 11th grade for those entering pilot training or a 12th grade for non-rated officer.
If a volunteer met all the qualifications, the recruit was then sent to basic training at the ARVN training base at Lam Song. Non-commissioned officer (NCO) training was held at Bien Hoa Air Base. After two months of training, or four months for aviation cadets, the recruit was given an aptitude test and progressed to specialized technical training. From there, he was sent to one of the ARVN wings for journeymen training. Aviation cadets pursued three additional months of specialized training after completing their initial four-month training course. Some were sent to the United States for advanced pilot training while non-rated officers pursued training in South Vietnam for their non-flying assignments. This training lasted about nine months, whereupon a cadet served in an operational unit for about a year before receiving a commission as a second lieutenant.
Women also served in the VNAF. The
Women's Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) was formed to fill non-combat duties beginning in December 1965. Women were assigned to VNAF wings, Headquarters, the Air Logistics Wing, performing duties as personnel specialists, secretaries and other administrative roles.
Near the end of the Vietnam War Pham Quang Khiem of the VNAF saw the fall of Saigon. He rushed to get his family to safety and needed an escape plan. Khiem was a co-pilot assigned to a Lockheed C-130a flying transport missions. He planned to meet his friend from his sister squadron (Khiem was in the 435th and his friend was in the 437th) at DaLat which is the capitol of a province in Vietnam. He knew that once a pilot managed to steal an airplane and escape that the VNAF would tighten security and make further escapes impossible. Khiem told his friend "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. April 2 DaLat was overrun by communists and he lost contact with his family. April 3 all the C-130's were being used for bombing missions. They planned an escape at Long Thanh airport which was a U.S. military base abandoned since the U.S. withdrawal in 1973. Khiem called his family to go to Long Thanh air base. He loaded onto the aircraft his wife; who had watched her 2 year old daughter get trampled over on the rush to escape. Khiem's wife passed out on the way to the aircraft, during which she dropped her 5 month old son on the runway thinking her daughter was dead. Her sister in-law saw her nephew laying on the runway so brought her safely onboard the C-130a.
As they were taxiing to takeoff the load master started talking to many ARVN soldiers who came in a jeep. They soon confronted the plane and pointed a M-79 grenade launcher at the cockpit but did not fire allowing the aircraft to take off. They got to Singapore at around 7 PM as it was getting dark. Nobody at the country knew what to do with them because they had never dealt with a problem like this. The Prime minister was out of the country for 2 weeks and they were just put in the local prison for a little more than that (Until the Vietnam War ended April 30, 1975).
They got everyone out except for his younger brother who was in the ARVN and was sent to a reeducation camp of brainwashing for 2 years after the communist took over. 16 years later, three months before Khiem's father's passing, they were reunited in America, where all of Khiem's family currently stays. Khiem was reunited with his plane 10 years later in 1985 at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base where it was being used prior to the Smithsonian getting their hands on it where it will soon be moved to a New York Air museum where it will be casted publicly. On March 30, Khiem received his flight suit after 35 years from the son of the military attache who kept his personal items from the C-130a in Singapore. In the spring of 2013, he was again reunited with his plane and her 2 year old daughter, all grown up, with some of his grandchildren.
Fall of South Vietnam
During the final 1975 offensive, it was not simply a case of a massive collapse. The ARVN forces in Long Khánh were fighting to the death. A cooperative effort between the ARVN and the VNAF enabled ARVN troops there to hold on. CH-47 helicopters brought in 193 tons of artillery ammunition over two days. A-1 Skyraiders flew in and C-130 Hercules transports dropped massive 15,000-pound daisy cutter bombs on enemy positions. Flying against intense antiaircraft fire, they took a heavy toll on the NVA divisions around Xuân Lộc.
On 28 April at 18:06 three A-37 Dragonflys piloted by former VNAF pilots who had defected to the Vietnamese People's Air Force at the fall of Danang, dropped 6 Mk81 250 lb bombs on the VNAF flightline at Tan Son Nhut Air Base destroying several aircraft. VNAF Northrop F-5s took off in pursuit, but were unable to intercept the A-37s.
At dawn on 29 April the VNAF began to haphazardly depart Tan Son Nhut Air Base as A-37s, F-5s, C-7s, C-119s and C-130s departed for Thailand while UH-1s took off in search of the ships of the U.S. Task Force 76 offshore. At 08:00 Lieutenant General Trần Văn Minh, commander of the VNAF, and 30 of his staff arrived at the American DAO Compound, demanding evacuation. This signified the complete loss of command and control of the VNAF.
Some VNAF aircraft did stay to continue to fight the advancing NVA however. One AC-119K gunship from the 821st Attack Squadron had spent the night of 28/29 April dropping flares and firing on the approaching NVA. At dawn on 29 April two A-1 Skyraiders began patrolling the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut at 2500 feet until Maj. Trương Phùng, one of the two Skyraider pilots was shot down, presumably by an SA-7. At 07:00 the AC-119K "Tinh Long" flew by Lt. Trang van Thanh was firing on NVA to the east of Tan Son Nhut when it was hit by a SA-7 missile, and fell in flames to the ground. Sgt. Son, one of the AC-119K gunners tried to escape but his chute tangled in the tail of the airplane.
Despite sporadic artillery and rocket fire, Binh Thuy Air Base remained operational throughout 29 April and on the morning of 30 April with VNAF A-37 aircraft flying an unknown number of sorties against PAVN columns moving into Saigon, these were the last combat sorties flown by the VNAF. After the announcement of the surrender of South Vietnam by President Minh the pilots flew their stripped down aircraft to U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand, often carrying three or even four people.
The Unit flag of South Vietnamese Air Force 520th Fighter Squadron, used between 1955 to 1975.
The Unit flag of South Vietnamese Air Force 516th Fighter Squadron, used between 1955 to 1975.