Vietnam War veteran in pilot's seat for different reason this time


The Mirror

Robert Franklin, a World Airways captain and 28-year-Federal Way resident, will pilot the commemorative Operation Babylift flight to Vietnam Sunday, flying 21 former Vietnamese orphans to visit their birthplace.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Franklin, who served with the Marines as a fighter pilot in Vietnam from August 1969 to August 1970. “It’s an honor to be going back.”

For some of the former orphans, this will be the first time visiting Vietnam. Some will search for birth parents and relatives.

The flight marks the 30-year anniversary of Operation Babylift, which saved the lives of more than 3,000 orphans in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

“The greatest humanitarian gesture of the century, that’s what I call it,” said Shirley Peck-Barnes, who helped contact former orphans for the visit.

On the night of April 2, 1975, a cargo plane left Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam from an unlit runway in an attempt to rescue 57 orphans from Saigon, known today as Ho Chi Minh City. The World Airways DC-8 cargo plane headed toward the city, keeping all lights off for fear of being shot down by the North Vietnam military.

After picking up the children, the plane headed to the United States for an unauthorized landing in Oakland, Calif. There, the children were unloaded and embarked on their new lives as American citizens. The once-orphaned children were adopted by families across the United States.

After witnessing what some call heroic efforts made by World Airways, the U.S. launched Operation Babylift.

The original flight by World Airways didn’t have an official name. Operation Babylift was given to the later flights in April 1975, said Steve Forsyth, World Airways spokesman.

Jeff Gahr, a child from the original flight, was adopted by an Oregon family and now works as an electrical engineer at Boeing in Washington. Gahr will accompany the 20 former orphans on the commemorative flight Sunday.

“I’m excited to fly to Vietnam again,” said Franklin.

World Airways chose Franklin to be the pilot for the commemorative flight by seniority, said Forsyth.

Franklin, now 59, served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1972 as a fighter pilot and has been with World Airways for 33 years. He has received 18 Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Franklin is the senior MD-11 captain at World Airways. He also is a Federal Aviation Administration designated examiner, doing evaluations and ride checks for the certification of pilots.

Living almost half of his life in Federal Way with wife Katherine, Franklin said he enjoys the community. For about the last five years, he has volunteered with the Federal Way Symphony, where Katherine works. He makes programs, posters and brochures.

This week, he and his World Airways crew, chosen by seniority and availability, were in Atlanta, Ga. preparing for the flight. Franklin wanted an all-Vietnam-veteran, crew but there was difficulty because the cut-off for pilots at World is age 60.

Franklin said the only thing he hopes to gain from the flight is the “satisfaction of taking these special people back that were once orphaned.”

The plane, a modern MD-11 equipped for passengers, was painted red and white to resemble the 1975 DC-8 that made the original flight.

Guests on the plane will include 21 former orphans, five of whom were on the original World Airways flight, and 16 others who were brought by later flights. Some of the family members of the adopted orphans will also be aboard.

Accompanying them are seven original crew members, World Airways corporate executives and other ranking company officials, and 12 media members. A CBS television crew reportedly is going along.

The night before departure, a banquet in San Francisco will bring together retirees and former associates of World Airways with guests of the commemorative flight, said Franklin.

Once departing from Oakland on Sunday, guests will endure a 14-hour flight to Taipei, where they will rest for 24 hours, said Franklin. From there, it is another three and a half hours to Ho Chi Minh City.

Upon arrival, guests will tour the city and cruise the Saigon River, said Forsyth.

They also plan to visit orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City. Some guests are bringing gifts for the children. World Airways plans to make a $5,000 contribution to the orphanages, said Forsyth.

On the last night, guests will attend a formal dinner at Unification Palace –– formerly the President’s Palace, now a museum and ballroom, said Forsyth.

“I think the trip will be very, very warm and emotional,” said Forsyth, adding some of the former orphans have e-mailed each other and sound excited for the visit.

World Airways began planning the trip two years ago, said Forsyth. The actual preparation of the plane and finding a crew started last January.

Peck-Barnes, 75, is a former employee of a Denver healthcare facility and an Air Force wife who helped orphans after their arrival in the U.S. She kept in touch with a few of them.

It took about a year to contact the children from the flights because Denver didn’t keep track of the records, said Peck-Barnes. Even then, it was difficult and she couldn’t contact all 57 from the original flight.

“I’m so thrilled they are going back,” said Peck-Barnes.

“I think they’ll be pleased with the progress their homeland has made,” said Franklin, who is most interested in “revisiting a country in transformation.”

This flight “says we still care and remember,” he said. “Bringing these orphaned babies back to where their journey began is quite moving. They are U.S. citizens now discovering roots.”

News intern Christine Pettigrew:

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