04 May, 2021

PROFILE 149: Cessna A-37B Dragonfly as flown by Col. Từ Đễ, North Vietnamese Air Force


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
             - Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

This is how it came down.

I was on a rented shuttle bus, rumbling from Ho Chi Minh City to a 'farm' somewhere on/near the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. We were traveling to be the guest of one North Vietnam's great aviation heroes, Nguyen Van Bay.

There were eight of us — Rick Lingberg (heavy-lifter for the show "Old Guys and Their Airplanes"), ex-POW CAPT Charlie Plumb USN (Ret.), four ex-North Vietnamese fighter pilots, a translator and myself.

Rick, Charlie and I knew, maybe, four words in Vietnamese.

Our translator was (thankfully) AWESOME.

Anyway, one of the ex-NVAF pilots decided to start reading our palms. Charlie was seen as macho, tough and strong. Me? I was a weenie intellectual artist-type. Dang. It's not as if I hadn't heard that before but still...

...I was little piqued. So, I asked what made him significant and he replied that in addition to being a fellow macho, tough and strong fighter pilot, he partook of the raid on Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in 1975.

* break break *

We Americans do a horrible job of teaching/remembering The Vietnam War. IMHO, the moment (1964 - 1973) did more to affect American culture than anything since, including 'the internet' or anything the Kardashians have ever (ever, ever!) done.

However, recognize this: on April 28 of 1975, the American military was scrambling to evacuate all of its friends & family from South Vietnam while North Vietnamese forces advanced towards the capitol of South Vietnam, Saigon. And when I write "scrambling," I mean it! Think, "You've got five minutes to cram your life into a bag and meet me outside or else you're not going!"

What did that mean? Well, depending upon your perspective, Vietnam was about to be united or South Vietnam was about to fall. The United States was reneging on a sworn duty or the United States was finally finished with a grueling war.

Regardless of your point-of-view, one point remains clear: four North Vietnamese pilots used freshly captured South Vietnamese A-37s to attack Tan Son Nhut Air Base, located just outside of Saigon. At the time, the base was a whirlwind of activity as South Vietnamese and Americans alike, as I wrote before, scrambled to leave.

In spite of his palm reading skills, I was fascinated by the pilot's history. Of course, I offered to draw an airplane representing his service in exchange for an interview. It's taken a few years to finally make good, but I'm pleased to introduce you to Col.Từ Đễ, born 1949, MiG-17/Su-22/Su-27/A-37 pilot with 923 FR, veteran of Vietnam air war (1968-1975), former Vice Chief-of-Staff of VNP AD&AF Service, former Vice Head of Operational-training Department of VNP Army, (Ret.)

The following is our conversation, edited only (by myself) for formatting and clean up the most noticeable of grammatical/translation issues.

Btw - yeah, yeah... there will be argument on any number of points. My brand is built on hanging out with people who've experienced important moments in history. I don't hand out Report Cards and frankly, no one wants one from me anyways.

A quick pic snapped at Ho Chi Minh City - L-R, Vietnamese fighter pilots
Dr. Nguyễn Sỹ Hung, Col. Từ Đễ, General Le Hai and Charlie Plumb.


Me: So... tell me about how you grew up? What was your childhood like, what were your parents like?

Từ Đễ: My father and my father-in-law are both French-trained doctors, so they brought the French cultural model in the life and they are really good doctors. Besides basic knowledges, we have the chance to learn more on arts, for example, I was learned to be able to drawing, one my brother learned to play the violin, the youngest was to do sports. During the resistance war against the French, they all followed Ho Chi Minh and when the US involved to Vietnam conflict, they continued to fight against the US until the victory. I have been studying in Schools for 10 years since Hanoi had liberated from French(1954), furthermore, we received good teaching from the French-trained teachers an furthermore we got very early personalities: love of freedom, honor and deep love for the country.

My aspire was to become a military officer: brave, strong and disciplined like my father. In addition, as many young boys, I also want to be a good boy, that get attractive from girlfriend, because like a old Vietnamese idioms has saying: “Boys in wartime, girls in peacetime”

Me: So, tell me about how you got interested in aviation?

Từ Đễ: The way to enter the Air Force, it should be noted that, my generation was able to usually watch movies, photos, and books praising the Soviet Red Army in fighting with the German Nazi Facism. All of us as young people want to become a fighter pilots, but that dream seems a bit far-reached. Unexpectedly there was once, a my boy friend went to a selection committee and passed over the exams to be able to become a flight cadet, which made me decide to go to the medical examination to try to test my lucky fate, and surprisingly, yet I passed. At the beginning, I didn't dare to inform everyone, and only when I got an official call from Medical Committee I informed to my friends and especially the girlfriend, whom I secretly loved for a long time. At that time I was only 16 years and 3 months old. When you thought about a distant dream comes true, there is no great(er) joy.

Me: Describe your thoughts on (what you call) "The American War"...

Từ Đễ: Thoughts and impressions of the war with the US... I thought that when the French was defeated in Dien Bien Phu Campaign, then US would jump in to involve the conflict, it might has been that some plan-markers of the US thought that they had never lost to anyone during its history, so it would win this war. I think that the Vietnam must be fought and won this war to prove that Vietnamese people is not afraid of any invaders, either France or the US. In fact, in the Vietnam air war neither the Soviet Union nor the Chinese gave us any lessons and training courses in tactics and experience getting from Korean war, we had to find-out the way to fight against US Air Power by ourselves. The VNPAF pilots were very proud of their commanders of VNPAF at that time, the two our Lieutenant Colonels, who had to/confronted/faced/ with four/or may be more/ 4-star Generals of the USAF & USN for 8 years and won/get/the victories. That was a big surprise!

This is my drawing of Gen. Le Hai's MiG-17. The "PF" is similar but has
a big bump on the front of the nose to accommodate the additional radar.

During the war, I myself used to fly on MiG-17PF with radar that only detected targets at about 4 km range, but still took off at night time to find-out and destroy helicopters during the search and rescue mission of the US Air Force, of course, by the same time,- I became a target to be destroy by the USN's F-4B flying MiGCAP and escort missions. They managed to fire missiles at me twice with 4 AIM-7s, but I avoided them thanks to the tail alarm system, there (was once a near hit) from a missile that detonated at about 500 m away from my MiG-17. Realizing that our forces was small and weak, we only chose favorable opportunities to intercept and fight with US aircrafts, except the engagements on 10 May 1972, when the air engagements lasted throughout all day, and ending with the score of ratio 5 / 5.

In 2016, when former USN pilots visited Vietnam, I had the opportunity to meet F-4J pilots who attacked us at Kep airport that day (note: Mr. Curt Dose, living in San Diego).

In April 1972, I also witnessed the MiG-17 attack on two USS battleships, that were USS Higbee and Oklahoma City of the USN 7th Fleet on the coast of Quang Binh on April 19, 1972.

If an aggressive war happened now, I would have acted the same way, to protect our motherland, but I believe that our opponent will not be the United States.

Me: What can you tell me about your thoughts regarding the "War with the South"...?

Từ Đễ: On the conflict with the South... I still keep the idea of comparing this war with the Civil War of the South and North in United States (in the 18th century). It is a war to unify the country according to the wishes of the people of entire country. The mental consequences of any war may last several generations, but the country of Vietnam develops like it is today proves that our choose was right. And now an independent and unified Vietnam want to have friendly relationship with all nations in the World in peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual benefit.

Progress shot on Từ Đễ's A-37. It's a mess. I ended up redrawing about a third of it
because I had so much wrong. And at this point, I wasn't quite certain of
the markings anyways. 

Me: What can you tell me about how you acquired and learned to fly the A-37s?

Từ Đễ: When we took over/got in/liberated Danang airport, there is a pile of A-37s, F-5s aircraft and Helicopters that the South VNAF left at Da Nang airport (some sources figured a total more than thousand aircrafts and helicopters of South VN AF). With the assistance of the technical staff of the both VNPAF and the South VN AF captured technicians, we quickly picked up aircraft’s components from many aircraft and combined back to fit-up to be have two good flyable A-37s aircraft, that could be in operation status. in fact at that time we were experienced pilots, who participated in many air battle with American pilots, some time,-even we experienced our fly skills by making some adventurous flying movement in the skies/I don’t know exactly what in English called this action, but in Russian and Vietnamese air force language, we call it, "hooligan in the air."

Obviously, we are self-confident to fly steadily in all weather conditions, when operations away from the GCIs. In a very short time -with assistance of 2 captured pilots of the South VNAF - I had study the aircraft manual and got acquainted with the A-37B cockpit and was ready to have my first fly in A-37B.

I was the one assigned to be the first VNPAF pilot, that implemented first fly of the conversion training from MiG to fly in A-37B. This is the first inspection flight. With the initial feeling, I believe in the American aviation technical system (ease of use, high modular connectivity and high reliability). Thinking like this I confidently take the first test flight. This flight was accompanied by a captured- pilot of South VN AF- lieutenant Phạm Ngoc Xanh, and after only 15 minutes of flight, I was able to master of the aircraft, found the feeling of flight and quickly returned to the airport to save the flight reserve time for other VNPAF pilots. After those 15 minutes, I was the first person approved to successfully complete the conversion course from Soviet build-MiG into fly in US A-37B. The remaining MiG pilots in the squadron only flew 2-3 flights per person to complete the extremely short conversion course from the MiG soviet aircraft to the American A-37 aircraft(from 25 to 27 April 1975).

Fortunately, the A-37 has two seats, so each flight we can do training for two pilots. The very next day (April 28, 1975), we took off from Thành Sơn airfield, with 5 aircraft carrying 4 MK-82 bombs and 4 additional fuel tanks, flying and heading toward Tan Son Nhất airport . When taking- off from Thanh Son airfield, we had to turn-on the screen system/mode just from the take-off first stage in order to minimize the take-off run, because the plane was too heavy with maximum takeoff weight.

Regarding with the pilot’s parachutes used on this mission, we had to wear the MiG-17 parachutes instead the A-37 parachutes. The A-37's parachute is the (worn on the back), while the Mig-17's parachute is (one we sit on), so I have to bend down low to hold the aircraft stick, like character hunchback in the Notre Dame Cathedral of French Victor Hugo.

Attack leader Than Trung (left) and Từ Đễ post-mission - it's quite possible
this was a publicity photo. Credit: Nguyen Xuan At

After I finished bombing, I still followed Nguyen Thanh Trung* aircraft until he shouted that his bombs were went out, just I lost him in sight. Seeing Saigon from above look so beautiful I decided to take a round trip of Saigon downtown at a altitude of 300ft, this causing the anti-aircraft gun protecting the president building to drop red bullets when Saigon skies were getting dark. When I pulled- up, I suddenly saw a C-130 aircraft turning right after taking-off and flying to the sea, I followed, flying by at a distance of about 10-15 m. Thinking that the A-37 could threat and shoot at his aircraft, the pilot of C-130 got level and flew straight. Actually, I just want to tilt my wings to say goodbye to this friend/guy, “I wish you safe flight back to America ". I guess this vehicle was carrying civil evacuees and now the US troops were withdrew, so it was no longer an enemy aircraft.

Burning C-130 during the attack on Tan Son Nhut. 
Source: wikipedia

Actually, the war has ended, everyone should go home for their family-wife and children. Because I was spend fly time to ‘’cruising around the City center”, when I flew back to the airport, my fuel almost run-out, I had to turn off one engine when approaching the airport, and when I flying at a altitude of only 1 meter above the run-way, the other one also stopped. All five A-37B of my Squadron was landed safely, after accomplish bombing mission. God saved our life. Post-mission assessment point-out that actually we only need 3 aircrafts to bombs in the combat aircrafts storage, and rest two A-37 should use to bomb the parking area of the F-5E (in the night time of that đay,and in the next day morning, two F-5E flew to attack Thành Sơn airport, but getting not any damage to aircrafts and peoples).

Me: So, go into greater detail on your role in the April 28 mission...

Từ Đễ: I flew number 2 in a group of 3 attackers A-37, the two other assigned to support us, if we met the VNSAF F-5.By the way, I am not highly assessed the F-5 pilots, because they never really have any air engagement, and perhaps could not effectively fire airborne guns. Note: The USAF did not equipped with missiles for the South VN AF aircraft.

Since Trung had previously flown the F-5E at the Tân Sơn Nhất Airport, he was assigned to fly in the first position to indicate the target. But because during the attack Trung’s bombs didn't come out, so I decided that when diving to attack, i switched the bomb-switch from throwing a series to single-shot mode to indicate the target. Because I had seriously study the air navigation map of Tan sơn Nhất, so I have accurately image about the targets, and my indicating bombs were drop precise.

Publicity photo of North Vietnamese pilots post-attack. Leader Nguyen Thanh Trung is
far left, Từ Đễ is third from left. Clearly, these guys have the swagger of victors.
Note the motley mix of A-37s from various ex-South Vietnamese units... Credit: unknown

** break break **

Right now, a lot of Vietnam/American war veterans are reading this, pouring over Từ Đễ's words — this interview is historic for many reasons, not withstanding the fact that it's the punctuation of nearly thirty years of conflict. I respect Col. Từ Đễ as well as rest of history's witnesses. For me, this kind of interview is exactly what I hope to bring to the world.

However, recognize that wars are fought by people. If I've learned anything by interviewing old combat veterans it's that we are a fundamentally homogenous species. To know the "enemy" is to know oneself.

[Back to the interview]

Me: Let's just talk about airplanes. What's your favorite?

Từ Đễ: (It) is true that the aircraft (is) operated by pilot, so in my opinion, the Mig-17 is one of best aircraft. Later I flew in some modern airplanes like the Su-22/27, actually, the plane was controlled by a computer system, humans were interfered by computers so I didn't like it, and MiG-17 is the most favorite aircraft, the A-37 was also cute one.

(Personal note - I think A-37s are 'cute' in a squished-frog sort of way, too).

Me: So, what do you think it means to be successful in life?

Từ Đễ: The most important thing that I believe (helped) me to get success in life: Honesty and courage.

Me: If you could go back in time and visit yourself, what would you say?

Từ Đễ: If I can go back in time to the past, and could to tell myself something...I would say that, I still like to fly, and enjoy doing some adventurous flying movement in the skies, and ready to fought against any invader to protect my Fatherland.

Me: Who are the people you admire most?

Từ Đễ: The person that I most admire is my commander, Ace-pilot MiG-17, Colonel Nguyen Van Bay** (A). He is the legendary of VNPAF.

This is me doing what dorky intellectual-artist-types do when we get to
hang around people who've accomplished something - that's Nguyen Van Bay (right).

Me: So, what is then your greatest achievement?

Từ Đễ: My greatest achievement is having a harmonious, and happy family- through the war time –I should say thank my wife, who is my classmate-girlfriend more than 60 years ago and she is a Sen. Col. military doctor also.

** break break **

Last year (2020), I got to partake in producing a film, live Q&A and Educator's Kit (in partnership with the Distinguished Flying Cross Society) featuring Col. Marty Mahrt's famous rescue from North Vietnam on May 10, 1966.

Marty returned to Vietnam to serve with MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) where he helped with the evacuation of Saigon. He witnessed, first-hand, Từ Đễ's bombing run on Tan Son Nhut. I let Từ Đễ know of Marty's eyewitness experience and it fostered a connection that was brokered through email; I share it below.

Marty Mahrt c. 1965. Interesting that he'd STILL be in Vietnam TEN YEARS LATER.
Photo: USAF, courtesy Marty Mahrt.

[Back to the interview]

Từ Đễ: About Colonel Marty Mahrt seeing the group of A-37 bombing Tân Sơn Nhất at 28 April 1975-, It is very interesting and I would like to ask you to extend my best regard to Him. 

Taking this opportunity I would like to ask him a question. If he was at Tan sơn Nhất airport on the afternoon of 28 April 1975, so how you think about a point of time that the Commander of SGN AF realized that these A-37 are not friends, and the airport was bombed by North VNAF A-37? After that attack, did you go to the scene to see the results of the bombing, if so what would you see the situation at the airport at that time, and why does the CIA recommend using helicopters instead of air transport planes to carry-out the mission of evacuation,- causing public panic and creating a bad image of the chaotic evacuation of US Embassy and US staff (in these photos that were captured in that day in Saigon by some international photographers).

Marty Mahrt: I was loading the VNAF wives and their children on a bus to go to the processing center to depart. I saw 3 planes coming on initial and didn't suspect anything unusual until they went in to a dive angle. I shouted for them to unload and get under the bus. (The wives and children) were unharmed but the runway was in disarray and a C-130 was aflame.

The VNAF themselves were trying to evacuate, so they did not even try to retaliate. Most all the planes were being used to evacuate — the helicopters took many trips to the USS MIDWAY (aircraft carrier) which was stationed in the South China Sea. Some VNAF took their F5s to Thailand. C141s and C130s were used as well. It was chaos and we (25 officers) evacuated at 9 pm, leaving the area to the Marines to clear and burn the MACV headquarters. We were evacuated to the Midway and sailed to Thailand to safety.


Từ Đễ: Anyway, thank you for remembering and learning about the history of the air force of the two countries, that happened for so long time ago.

Me: You. Are. Welcome. (checks palm)


Parting comment — on account of my experiences in Vietnam with "their" veterans, I'm oft asked if there's any antipathy towards Americans. So far, that's been extraordinarily rare. In fact, I experienced it only once and that's a story for another time.

Instead, I've been consistently reminded of a familiar Vietnamese saying. Từ Đễ referred the sentiment and frankly, I agree with it wholeheartedly.

We remember the past, but we must move forward…


*Hopefully, I'll be talking to him very soon. Stay tuned...

**There were/are two "Nguyen Van Bay" pilots, "A" and "B." The one I met is "A" - a hero by anyone's standard.

Credit needs to go to Hungarian VN War/Soviet aircraft expert/photographer, Dr. Istvan Toperczer. He's a huge resource for all-things-MiG (and appropriate ops). Also, aviation enthusiast Pha Truong Son was also a huge help in hunting down photos - the next twenty beers are on me. And that goes for both of you.