Tuesday, May 19, 2015

David M. Bailey, Keep on Walking

I am privileged to call Phil Vancelette and the late singer/songwriter David M. Bailey my friends. The photographs on this video were taken by Phil. David was introduced to me by cancer advocate Keri Kennedy back in 2005. I had the pleasure of interviewing David in over three installments on my feature page called "The Interview". After my print interview, David invited me to Northern Ohio for a concert performance. David's story was also featured in a book written by CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, M.D. This short video is encouraging to anyone pursuing a dream. May it inspire you!

Those of you who wish to read my interview with David M. Bailey:

For Part 1 Click HERE.

For Part 2: Click HERE.

For Part 3: Click HERE.

My Best,


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hefner's Big Bunny: The DC-9 Part 3 (Conclusion)

Photo: Boeing
Aerial view of the Playboy DC-9-32 at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California.

Function and Luxury
To celebrate the delivery of the jet, Hefner invited ten journalists to join the inaugural flight from Chicago O'Hare to Hollywood/Burbank Airport in California on February 17, 1970. The passengers were treated to cocktails along with a luncheon of oysters Rockefeller, Spanish prawns and sirloin strip steak accompanied by Bordeaux or champagne. Following the flight, the normally conservative Chicago Tribune headlined its article on the event: "WHAT  A WAY TO GO!"

Women's Wear Daily's Bess Winakor was among those on board. "The commercial airline people would do well to take a close look at Hugh Hefner's new plane", she later wrote, "The stretched DC-9 jet is a masterpiece of function and luxury." Equally impressed was Chicago Today's aviation and space editor, Peter Reich who said: "Never - but never - before has there been a flying machine like it", while Newsweek correspondent Bob Stokes added that Big Bunny was "the most mind-boggling display of sensual opulence ever assembled in a flying machine". 

Photo: Boeing

Maintaining the Bunny
The day-to-day upkeep of Hefner's DC-9 was contracted to West Lafayette, Indiana-based Purdue Airlines. The carrier was part of Purdue's non-profit affiliate, the Purdue Aeronautics Corporation (PAC), which was also responsible for the running of Purdue Airport. As a technical institution, the aeronautical education and research facility found fame through its links with aviatrix Amelia Earhart, having part-funded the Lockheed Model 10 Electra she used in her attempt to circumnavigate the globe solo.

With three DC-9's of its own (including one on lease from Hughes Air West), Purdue Airlines was well-suited to looking after the Big Bunny, The carrier had started out with a fleet of DC-3's but phased the prop liners out in 1968 in favor of the jet-powered DC-9. The type was put to good use operating military charters on behalf of the US Air Force, while other high profile clients included the Chicago White Sox baseball team and some of the 'Big Ten' of the college football teams.

Then a student, and now Purdue University's Professor of Airline Technology, Dr. Tom Carney recalls seeing the Big Bunny while he was on campus.  "I remember that jet well.The facilities were selected by Playboy Enterprises because they were cost-effective and located within (close) proximity to their Chicago headquarters. We were already familiar with operating that airplane type", he told Airliner World. 

Purdue Airlines maintained the aircraft until it ceased operations on April 1, 1971, when it became the responsibility of St. Louis-based Ozark Airlines.

Photo: Boeing

A Trip to Remember
"The summer of 1970 was one of the most memorable trips I ever took on the plane", Hefner told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "I went with (partner) Barbi (Benton), my brother Keith, the Playboy artist LeRoy Neiman, the film critic Gene Siskel, a couple of other friends and a photographer, a houseman and the jet bunnies. We went to London, the south of Spain, Kenya and the Nairobi bush and Athens and then we sailed around the Greek Islands, and then we went to Rome, Venice, Munich and Paris. And then we went home. It was all remarkably easy", he said. "I loved the convenience of the jet. You're not locked into a seat".

Photo: Boeing

When Hefner wasn't using the DC-9, it was frequently chartered by global superstars -- Sonny and Cher used the aircraft during 1973 and Elvis Presley the following year. 

"It was a great toy and it was a great gift to give", Hefner said. "I lent it to Elvis Presley to fly to concerts and I lent it to Yul Brynner.

Photo: Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 

Actor Yul Brynner used the jet to carry Vietnamese orphans from San Francisco to their adoptive families across the US, with Jet Bunnies assisting. 

"When the Vietnam War was ending, he had arranged to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. A lot of them had been brought to San Francisco and their adoptive families were across America. He called me and asked if it was possible to ferry them to the families who wanted to adopt them. I said yes. The Big Bunny transported about 40 babies. The babies were everywhere on  the plane, all being taken care of by the Bunny mothers", said Hefner. 

End of an Era
Hugh Hefner's decision to acquire the West Coast Playboy mansion in 1971 marked the beginning of the end for the Big Bunny. The entrepreneur fell in love with Los Angeles and, with trips back to the company headquarters in Chicago becoming less frequent, he decided to sell the jet. At the time of its disposal - to Omni Aircraft Sales and Brokers in March 1976 - it had accumulated just 1,341 flying hours. It was subsequently acquired by Venezuelan carrier Linea Aeropostal Venezolana (Aeropostal) and re-registered as YV-19C. 

Sadly, the airline had little use for a VIP-configured airframe and promptly replaced the custom interior with conventional seating before putting the jet into regular commercial service. In June 1989 it was re-registered again - as XA-JEB Ciduad Juarez - following its sale to Aeromexico. It remained in service until August 31, 2004 when it was retired and parted out. 

    Photo: Juan Carlos Guerra 
The Playboy DC-9-32 corporate jet saw its final commercial service with Aeromexico

The tail and wings were scrapped, but the fuselage was donated to Cadereyta, Queretaro, Mexico, where it is used as an educational tool - 
in stark contrast to its original role. 

The Big Bunny was undoubtedly one of the most luxuriously appointed private aircraft to take to the skies, even by modern standards. It was arguably one of the most important marketing tools for Hefner's empire and was the ultimate projection of the Playboy brand. Asked if he missed the Big Bunny, Hefner replied: "Only when I fly". 

Image: Airliner World

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Airliner World. The author would like to thank Barbara Leigh, Teri Thomerson and Dick Rosenzweig of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., Dr. Thomas Carney, Ph.D, of The Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Pat McGuinnis, Michael Lombardi and Jim Condelles of The Boeing Company for their assistance with this article.  


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hefner's Big Bunny: The Playboy DC-9 Part 2

Playboy Enterprises, Inc. / Airliner World
Flight attendants were dressed like 'Bond Girls' with uniforms that featured a black wet-look nylon mini-dress, black stretch vinyl knee-length boots, a side-wrapped trench coat and a white silk helmet scarf complete with bunny logo. The flight attendant pictured above is Anne Denson.

"I designed the Big Bunny jet to stand out", Hefner later recalled. "I thought: my limo is black, my plane should (also)  be black. Nobody had a black plane at the time." It was a similar story inside the aircraft. According to Douglas, the aircraft was equipped with a supplemental 1,780 US gallon (6,738lit) fuel tank, increasing capacity by almost 50% and giving Big Bunny transatlantic range -- the standard Series 32 was able to fly a maximum of 1,635 miles (2,631km). 

Photo: Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 
What made the Playboy corporate jet genuinely unique was its lavish cabin interior. The aircraft was divided into a living room, office, conference room, lounge and galley and could accommodate up to 55 guests on a dozen sleeper sofas. 

Photo: Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 

The cabin was designed by Daniel Czubak, who had previously worked with Hefner on the original Playboy mansion in Chicago and was familiar with his style preferences. Assisted by associate Gus W. Kostopulos, Czubak worked with Douglas engineers to reduce weight through the creative use of alternative materials and equipped the DC-9 with the latest audio-video equipment. This included seven TV monitors located throughout the cabin, which enabled Hefner and his guests to watch programs played from an Ampex 660 color video tape player installed in the forward galley. In addition, two Bell & Howell 16mm movie projectors showed feature films in Cinemascope on a custom-designed screen which moved along a track in the ceiling.  

Photo: Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 
Hefner's bedroom, which could be directly accessed via the aircraft's integral rear air stairs, featured an elliptical bed upholstered in black Himalayan goat leather and covered with a spread of Tasmanian pelts.   

The jet also had a Sony eight-track stereo tape and a 35mm slide projector for conferences and business presentations, while a 'skyphone' enabled Hefner to talk to points on the ground as well as link to other areas of the aircraft.

Photo: Boeing

Significantly, Big Bunny was equipped with an on board shower and polarized windows that could be dimmed at the touch of a button -- technology that is only now becoming commonplace in commercial airliners. True to Playboy's style, Hefner's bedroom, which could be directly accessed via the aircraft's integral rear air stairs, featured an elliptical bed upholstered in black Himalayan goat leather and covered with a spread of Tasmanian pelts. Custom-contoured white silk bed sheets were used and the headboard incorporated retractable arm rests complete with jacks for stereo headsets. 

Photo: Playboy Enterprises, Inc. 
To own a private aircraft during the jet age was the ultimate status symbol and, keen to live up his Playboy lifestyle, it was perhaps inevitable that Hefner would acquire his own. He is shown here with Barbi Benton

The Big Bunny Experience
"On behalf of your host, Hugh Hefner, we'd like to welcome you aboard the Big Bunny", was the standard greeting from the 'Jet Bunny' cabin crews to those lucky enough to fly on the jet (with the identifying tail number N950PB). The aircraft generally carried seven stewardesses from an initial applicant pool of 800. Each successful candidate was sent to Los Angeles to complete training with Continental Airlines before joining one of two crews, split between  California (where Hefner continues to live) and Playboy's spiritual home in Chicago. 

Like the aircraft itself, the flight attendants were eye catching.

Designed by London born couturier Walter Holmes, their uniforms featured a black wet-look nylon mini-dress, black stretch vinyl knee-length boots, a side-wrapped trench coat and a white silk helmet scarf complete with bunny logo. 

In-Flight Dining
Passenger were also treated to a gourmet dining experience on board - the DC-9 carried a crystal dining set for 32 people, while a large galley and customized ovens provided dishes such as roast beef, prime rib, roast duckling with burgundy cherry sauce, steaks, lobster, vegetables au gratin, steaks, crepes and breakfast waffles. 

Next: Our conclusion with Elvis, Sonny & Cher and more...   


Friday, May 15, 2015

Hefner's Big Bunny: The Playboy DC-9 Part 1

Photo: Playboy Enterprises Inc./Airliner World
Following is my three-part article published in the March issue of Airliner World.
With the March issue past, I've received requests to post my article online.

Hugh Marston Hefner is a cultural icon and arguably one of America's best-known entrepreneurs. His ground-breaking Playboy Magazine publication is globally recognizable. 

Born into a strict Methodist household, Hefner served two years in the US Army during the latter part of World War Two before earning a bachelor's degree and landing a job as a promotional copywriter for men's magazine Esquire. He remained there until 1953 when, having been denied a $5 a week pay rise, he quit. He then mortgaged his furniture and raised a further $6,000 in loans to subsidize the launch of his own rival publication, Playboy Magazine.

The 44-page inaugural issue --featuring actress Marilyn Monroe on the cover-hit the shelves in December 1953 and became an instant sensation, selling over 50,000 copies. 

Though the publication's staple was centerfold photos of 'the girl next door', it also included articles by some of the world's best-known authors and personalities such as Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, PG Wodenhouse, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Ben Stein and Alex Haley, the latter conducting interviews for the magazine with Miles Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even today, the Playboy interview remains a highly respected feature with subjects ranging from G. Gordon Liddy, a key player in the Watergate scandal, to reclusive actor Marlon Brando. It also incorporated artwork, with illustrations by the late expressionist painter LeRoy Neiman becoming as celebrated as the Annual Playboy Jazz Festival. In an anniversary issue in 1979, Hefner's 'Playboy Philosophy' was articulated by the editor-publisher as "a response to the repressive anti-sexual, anti-play-and-pleasure aspects of our puritan heritage that have traditionally pitted mind and body against each other". The magazine became a spectacular success, and was coined as a veritable "handbook for the urban male". 

Photo: Boeing 
"Big Bunny" carried seven stewardesses, who were drawn from Playboy's global network of clubs

Onward and Upwards  
By the mid-1960's, the jet age was well under way with Boeing 707's plying their trade across the Atlantic with the likes of Pan American World Airways and tri-jet 727's serving many of North America's domestic routes. To own a jetliner during this period was the ultimate status symbol and, keen to live up to his Playboy lifestyle, it was perhaps inevitable that Hefner would acquire his own. It was a trip to the UK in 1966 that ultimately inspired him. "I saw the future when I was in London", he later told the Wall Street Journal. "The sexual  revolution was going on and the mini-skirt had just arrived. I decided then and there to get the (corporate) jet."

The new aircraft was to be an important extension of the Playboy brand and Hefner enlisted the services of his senior adviser and Playboy Director, Richard S. Rosenzweig to find a jet "that can be like my apartment". The four-engine Lockheed Jet Star was rejected for being too small while the larger Sud Aviation Caravelle was ruled out by Hefner's requirement for intercontinental range. However, it was the French manufacturer's representatives who turned Rosenzweig to Long Beach, California-based McDonnell Douglas and the proposed stretch variant of its twin-engine DC-9.

Photo: Boeing
Hefner sought special permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to paint "Big Bunny" in a unique all-black livery to match his limousine

A DC-9 Like No Other
The DC-9 Series 32, certified on March 1, 1967, shared the same T-tail and rear fuselage-mounted engines of the original Series 14. But it featured a 14.9 foot (4.5m) fuselage stretch - to 119.3 feet (36.37m)  - providing space for up to 115 passengers, a higher maximum all-up weight and improved take-off and landing performance thanks to more powerful Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7 ducted turbofan engines (each generating 14,500 lbs. of thrust), an increased wing span (by 3 feet/0.9m) and the addition of full-span leading edge slats. 

Photo: Boeing
Hefner personally visited Douglas' Long Beach, California facility to oversee the planning and execution of the jet's exterior livery and interior cabin appointments. This is a photo of the unveiling ceremony.

Hefner's example rolled off the McDonnell Douglas production line on January 27, 1969 and was delivered to the Playboy chief a month later. Nicknamed "Big Bunny" (or occasionally "Hare Force One"), the aircraft proudly wore the Playboy logo on its tail fin and was the very first DC-9 in the US to be configured as a corporate jet. In keeping with the brand's stylish image, Hefner personally visited Douglas' Long Beach, California manufacturing facility to oversee the planning and execution of the jet's exterior livery and interior cabin appointments. Unsurprisingly, the entrepreneur spared little expense: the aircraft cost $4.5 million (equivalent to well over $30 million today) and a further $1 million was spent on the heavily customized interior. He also sought special permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to paint the jet in a unique all-black livery, and installed spotlights to illuminate the white Playboy bunny logo on the tail. 

To Be Continued... 


Friday, May 08, 2015

A Tribute to Television and Rock Music Pioneer Rick Nelson...

Photo from Personal CD Collection: Michael Manning
Rick Nelson CD / Capitol Records

Had he lived Rick Nelson would have been 75 today. My aunt told me a few years ago, "My God, I remember watching him grow up on television. He was the apple of our eyes". Incidentally, I'm not allowed to tell you my aunt's age. But as a Rick Nelson fan, I can tell you what a true rock music pioneer he was, and how his music continues to be every bit as relevant today as it was when he first emerged on the scene in 1957. 

Long before MTV was even imagined, Eric 'Rick' (aka 'Ricky') Hilliard Nelson was introduced to US audiences as a teen idol on his parents' long-lived television series, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet". He later became a pioneer of 'country rock', influencing such artists as John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Paul McCartney (The Beatles), bands including Poco and The Eagles, along with the British composer Tim Rice. 

By all accounts a likable, easy-going, shy man with a reputation for humility, Rick Nelson was nevertheless a perfectionist with a knack for picking good material. His television (and real life) family--comprising big band leader Ozzie Nelson and singer Harriet Hilliard Nelson, along with Ricky's older brother David--reflected the tenor of the United States as a country emerging from the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidential years in 1960, toward President John F. Kennedy's youthful optimism for a decade of prosperity. They were 'America's Family'. 

Each episode of his family's television show featured a musical performance by Rick, backed by lead guitarist James Burton (who later toured with Elvis Presley from 1969-1977). At the age of 16, Rick's first 45 rpm recording was "A Teenager's Romance", with Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" on the B side. Both songs became chart-topping hits. During a period of three-years between 1957 to 1959 Rick Nelson placed 18 songs on the Top 40 for nearly 200 combined weeks! Today, such a feat is unimagninable. In 1966, with audience tastes changing at a time when the country was mired in the Vietnam conflict, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was canceled. 

Undeterred, Rick went on to 'reinvent himself' with his newly-formed Stone Canyon Band, debuting at The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, California on the famous Sunset Strip. Audiences were pleasantly surprised. Here was a new vibe that combined country and rock and eventually led to a successful live album. A personal friend of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp and Paul McCartney he remains today a highly respected singer/songwriter and musician. Here is a partial list of Rick Nelson's hits through the decades:

  1.  I'm Walkin' (1957 also recorded by Fats Domino)
  2.  Stood Up (1957)
  3. Be Bop Baby (1957)
  4. Lonesome Town (1958)
  5. Poor Little Fool (1958)
  6. Believe What You Say (1958)
  7. Waitin' In School (1958)
  8. My Bucket's Got A Hole In It
  9. I Got A Feeling (1958) 
  10. It's Late (1959)
  11. Just A Little Too Much (1959)
  12. Never Be Anyone Else But You (1959)
  13. I Wanna Be Loved (1959)
  14. Sweeter Than You (1959)
  15. Young Emotions (1960)
  16. You Are The Only One (1960)
  17. Everlovin' (1961)
  18. Travelin' Man (1961)
  19. A Wonder Like You (1961)
  20. Hello Mary Lou (1961)
  21. Teenage Idol (1962)
  22. Fools Rush In (1962 also recorded by Elvis Presley)
  23. It's Up To You (1962)
  24. Young World (1962)
  25. She Belong's To Me (1969)
  26. Garden Party (1972)
Rick returned to embrace his rockabilly sound by 1980, and had heard an import single by songwriter Johnny Burnette's son Rocky called "Tired of Toeing the Line". His touring schedule included 200 dates a year. For reason's I'll never understand, Rick produced and recorded the song for Capitol records, who chose not to release the single. In the opinion of this author, had it been released, this strong performance would have clearly topped the music charts. 

One of the contemporary groups Rick admired was Creedence Clearwater Revival, and in particular, the group's leader John Fogerty. In fact, the two men met some time after Fogerty left the band, and Rick reportedly discussed plans to include Fogerty's song "Almost Saturday Night", which opens the album "Playing To Win". A strong recording, the album included a new arrangement of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette's "Believe What You Say", the infectious rock single "Doll Hospital" by John Hiatt and Isabelle Wood, along with Hiatt's "Radio Girl". Nelson had hopes for Fogerty to produce the album, but this never materialized. 

Another curious project was proposed at an industry gathering when Paul McCartney approached Nelson to produce a new rockabilly album at the fabled Sun Studios in Memphis. All four member of The Beatles were huge fans of Nelson. However, Capitol Records reportedly nixed this effort as well, according to an account by writer James Ritz. 

Sadly, on December 31, 1985 Rick Nelson and six others perished when his Douglas DC-3 aircraft sustained an in-flight fire before crash-landing in DeKalb, Texas en route to Dallas for a New Years Eve concert performance. Rick was 45. 

Throughout his year-long tour in 1986, friend and musician Bob Dylan paid tribute to Rick Nelson by performing, "She Belongs To Me", a song written by Dylan that Rick had previously recorded. 

In the opinion of this author, the simplicity and honesty of a Rick Nelson song lends a remarkable authenticity to the listener. He was among rock's finest, and remains respected worldwide by fans old and new. 

Rick Nelson was inducted into The Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame by John Fogerty in Cleveland, Ohio in 1987. Today, we celebrate the life of a genuine television star and musical pioneer.


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Last Flight Out of Vietnam: An Exclusive Interview with Al Topping Part 3 (Conclusion)

All Photos: Al Topping
L-R: Al Topping with actor James Earl Jones at a preview/reception for "Last Flight Out" 

Manning: Did you interact with James Earl Jones, Richard Crenna and Haing S. Ngor?

Topping: The film was shot in Bangkok, Thailand, and I wasn't there. I did do extensive interviews with executive producer Michael Manheim and producer Norman I. Cohen. At the time there were so many movies about Vietnam that had been made, such as 'Apocalypse Now' and so forth. The guy who was responsible for getting this project going was married to Lisa Yates, a Pan Am flight attendant who was on the actual last flight out, and he played the role of the co-pilot in the film. When Lisa told her husband about what happened, he said, 'This has got to be a movie'. And it took him years to get Michael Manheim to produce the film.

It was only after the film was made that I met James Earl Jones, and he told me that he didn't want to really talk to me (beforehand), because he wanted to experience for himself what he thought I was going through--that's the way he works. And you want to know something fascinating? He did something in the film that I thought about doing, but didn't do. There was a scene where I found out that the FAA put a restriction on all our carriers and we could not operate flights out of Saigon any longer. And in the scene I take a desk and flip it over and slam a book against a wall. And that's what I had actually felt like doing. But I didn't do it. That was not my style--becoming violent--but that was what I felt. All that work, and then we find out that flight cannot operate! 

Haing Ngor's character--Nguyen Van Luc in real life--was a Pan Am employee who had a wife, eleven children, and a mother who was too sick to travel. So, he kept the whole family behind. Believe it or not, he's in the United States now. I was back in the United States some ten years after all of this when I received a letter from Luc that said "Please help me get out". I helped get him and three of his daughters out. We still need to get the rest of his family out. 

What's sad about that was that a year after we left, his mother died. Then his wife was killed in a motorbike accident, and he was put in a 're-education camp' after the fall of Saigon. His cell was a metal aircraft cargo container that sat outside. He was forced to endure 100-degree temperatures in that container wearing very little clothing. One of his fellow prisoners died, and the North Vietnamese left that man's decomposing body in the container with Luc and the others until the next day. Finally, Luc became so sick that his captors let him out. But he almost died. 

Manning: I believe that you ultimately had 463 souls on board. 

Topping: Yeah, we had an airplane with a capacity for 375 people. 

Manning: And what went through your mind as the plane began to roll? 

Topping: Oh, so many things. 'Will this thing even get off the ground?' 'Will they fire a missile at us?' I don't think I was even breathing. I was just overwhelmed thinking of the newspaper headlines: 'Pan Am 747 Blown Up'. Then finally when we lifted off, I was sitting in the cockpit jump-seat looking out the window for anything, and finally when I saw the fleet of American warships in the South China Sea I knew we had made it. 

 Al Topping visiting Pan Am's old ticket office in downtown Saigon 15 years after the last flight departed. A French trading company now occupies the office. The Pan Am blue globe logo can still be seen above the doorway. 
Manning: Tell us about your return trip to Saigon in 1990.

Topping: Saigon basically looked the same. I returned to the home where I lived that was occupied by a retired North Vietnamese Army officer. Not only that--I went into what was once my den and saw the original US Embassy phone book. And then at the old downtown Pan Am ticket office the original Pan Am logo was still on the wall, but it was a trading company. My office had photos of Pan Am aircraft photos on the wall, but they were all missing, and the only picture on the wall was of Ho Chi Minh. A couple of Pan Am posters were left in the lobby. They were very friendly and let me in. I had an interpreter and we sat down and had tea. After all this time you have to ask, 'What were we doing there?' 

Manning: Ultimately, you wound up working with The Miami Herald as a transportation supervisor. How did that come about? That was a very different job from 22 years with Pan Am and five with United?

Topping: Do you know what is not different? In the airline industry, from an operations standpoint, the objective is to get the plane out on time.  In the newspaper business it's the same thing. You're working with coordinating many different departments together to get the paper out on time. 

Manning: Do you miss the airline industry?

Al Topping in his office at Pan Am with poster of "Last Flight Out" in the background.

Topping: I do. But when I started out I used to look at Pan Am and think, 'In order to fly on Pan Am you had to wear a suit'. This was a classy, upscale international carrier. The message that I've tried to convey is that over the years Pan Am  has affected the lives of so many people beyond the employees. So, what I tried to do was to reach out to anybody involved with any aspect of Pan Am. That meant getting a hold of the flight attendants and the flight crews; even passengers tell me they miss us so much. I've heard from flight attendants who visited wounded military personnel in hospitals, to a woman whose father passed away who was a Pan Am pilot, and she said, "I just feel that I have to be there for him". 

Al Topping retired from The Miami Herald, and will release his new book, "Flight to Freedom" later this year. This interview originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Airways magazine. My thanks to Al Topping for making this retrospective possible.   


Monday, May 04, 2015

Last Flight Out of Vietnam: An Exclusive Interview with Al Topping Part 2

Photo: Al Topping
On the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon in early April 1975. Pictured Right to Left: Al Topping, at center: General Murray and his wife &amp Ray Collins at far left, protocol officer for the U.S. Military Command. If you look closely behind the right shoulder of Ray Collins, Pan Am flight 842 can be seen taking-off for San Francisco.
Manning: Wasn't that the same week of the crash of a Lockheed C-5A Galaxy carrying orphans to the United States? 

Topping: That was on April 4, and I was at the airport that day helping to load the plane. They were using our air stairs and my buddy from Continental Airlines was with me. They buttoned down and took off, and we watched their departure, and then turned around to walk back to our office. Just a few minutes later, there was a column of black smoke. Suddenly we saw helicopters around that site and I called the US Embassy and they confirmed that the C-5 had crashed. 

At that time, we had no idea what happened. But within twenty-four hours, a Connecticut-based organization called 'AmeriCares' advised us that Pan Am was flying in with two chartered 747's to evacuate not only the orphan survivors, but others who were desperate to get out. This is something I'll never forget. Our 747's came in with all-volunteer crews. We thought that the C-5 crash might have involved sabotage. So, as we were loading the babies one at a time up the steps, we had to make sure that someone had not put explosives in their clothing. We had to be sure. Here I am carrying a little baby up the air stairs and thinking there might be explosives in a diaper; it was an awful situation. If you could imagine: aboard a 747, cardboard file boxes belted into the seats carrying three hundred or more screaming babies at one time with the stench of urine everywhere. And these people were going to fly from Vietnam to California!

Manning: What was your flight route?

Topping:  Our route was normally Saigon-Manila, which was three hours, over to Guam--that's another three hours--then Guam-Honolulu, that's seven hours, then finally Honolulu to the West Coast--that's another five hours. It is an eighteen-hour trip. But these trips we routed to Yokota Air Base in Japan, then Hawaii--West Coast. The airplane that arrived in San Francisco was met by President Gerald Ford. Some of the babies were sick and some had expired on the trip.

With the second 747, we had set up the schedule so that we would not have two 747's on the ground at the same time. We felt that would represent too many assets sitting there. So, just as soon as the first plane was lifting off, the second one was on final approach. 

Manning: One of those babies who survived (and I met in 2005) is now Dr. Matt Steiner?

Topping: Exactly. He was about eight years old at the time. I've been in touch with him. In fact, a book has been written about him called "Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy", by Andrea Warren.

Manning: Your family had to be worried sick about your safety throughout all this. How did you get word to them that you were alright? 

Topping: Actually, through Jeff Kriendler (Pan Am's Vice President of Corporate Communications). Jeff was in New York, and he would get word to my mother to relay information as to my status personally. We didn't have fax machines, we used Quip machines, and I had my wife over there with me. In fact, when I first went over to Vietnam, I was single. And I came back to San Francisco and married my fiancee' in March 1973. Talk about culture shock, we spent our honeymoon in Hawaii, and then went right on to Vietnam.

Manning: So, there you were monitoring Citizen Band radios, the Armed Forces Radio Network, local television and radio, and colleagues from other companies. How did you assemble the evacuation plan without endangering lives? 

Topping: My first concern was, 'How do we know when we leave?' Because operations appeared normal on the surface; however, beneath that surface  churning of activity was going on that told me this was not going to last much longer. You couldn't wait too long. So, as the government began lifting restrictions with allowing the orphans to get out, I found out that I could get our people out if I formally adopt them. I got our personnel guy to get me all the paperwork that was needed, and we filled out piles of forms that said, basically, that Al Topping was adopting these 360 people!

Manning: But you had over 700 names. How did you decide which were legitimate? 

Topping: It was awful, because the company said we could evacuate all of our employees and their immediate families. In the United States that meant a wife or a husband and children. But over there, 'immediate family' meant everybody. So, I had to go back and explain that I could be responsible for only immediate family. I didn't want to tell our people that absolutely, positively, you cannot bring your mother. I didn't say that, but they knew they couldn't bring their mothers, fathers and grandmothers. So, eventually we got the numbers down to 303. Then the next challenge was to determine when this flight could operate, and I couldn't tell anyone.

Finally, two weeks before we left, I was taking up residence at the airport. I had already sent my wife back to the States. I was living in a trailer because I didn't want to be stuck downtown if the situation became unglued. So, as I was pacing the floor at night, I looked at the calendar and realized that May 1 was May Day, the communist holiday, and I knew that would be the day they would launch the offensive. So, looking at our schedule, I decided which flight to use without looking suspicious, because it was our scheduled flight anyway.

I decided that April 24 would be our day to leave and I didn't tell our employees until 24 hours beforehand. I told them to be prepared to leave immediately. That particular morning, we had rain, and I received a call from my ticket office manager who said that the office was filled with our people and how do we get them out of the office and on buses to the airport? I said. "Anyway you can". And somehow we got it done, and I had him leave a note on the door that said 'Temporarily Closed'. I met them at the airport checkpoint and from there we began boarding.      

Manning: In the movie, "Last Flight Out", there is a tense scene before departure where an inspector boards the air stairs with armed guards and tells Richard Crenna's character (Captain Dan Hood), 'Before you take off, I must ensure that everyone on board has the proper exit visas. This flight is most irregular. I think Mr. Topping is trying to hide something. Now stand aside!' Was that accurate?

Topping: It was more of a Hollywood kind of thing. It made it look a lot more dramatic than it really was. Having said that, there was a moment of truth, because at that moment there was no turning back. We had a load of people on the airplane already to go, the place was surrounded; this was no time to be playing games. We kind of got together some funds before boarding. So, the confrontation they showed in the film was the kind of thing that would have happened if we hadn't planned and acted wisely. But they made it look more dramatic.

Manheim Company/NBC Productions

Also, let me clarify: Richard Crenna played Captain Dan Hood, who was not the pilot on that flight. Dan was the pilot out there a week before who helped get the orphans out. Captain Bob Berg was actually our pilot. I saw some South Vietnamese soldiers boarding the plane, and of course I didn't try to stop them because I knew they were not going to hijack us. They were there to get out of town. After takeoff we collected their weapons.  

Next: the Conclusion...