Desperation and chaos: Ocala resident reflects on similarities between Saigon and Kabul
Allan Topping, who worked for Pan Am for 22 years, talks about some of the newspaper clippings from the 1990 movie “Last Flight Out” in the clubhouse at Del Webb’s Stone Creek Golf Club in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. James Earl Jones played Topping in the 1990 NBC-TV movie. Topping was the Pan Am director of operations in Saigon, Vietnam and helped organize the evacuation of 463 people on a Pan Am Boeing 747 that was only rated to carry 375 passengers after the fall of Saigon on April 24, 1975. The flight was the last Pan Am flight to leave Saigon after it fell. Topping recently published his own book titled “Wings Of Freedom” to elaborate more on the story and to correct some of the factual errors in the movie, he said. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
He remembered thinking on the tarmac: How is this airplane going to get in the air? It looked too big, and people kept climbing aboard with all their heavy suitcases and carry-on bags, making it even heavier.
The future airline director had no way of knowing that the same question would occur to him more than 30 years later – for very different reasons and under very different circumstances.
On April 24, 1975, Topping, director of operations in Saigon for Pan American World Airways, helped evacuate almost 500 people out of Vietnam – just days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese.
A single Pan Am 747 jumbo jet carried 463 American and South Vietnamese civilians to safety and freedom — almost twice the listed maximum capacity.
One plane. One flight. 463 passengers.
Six days after that last flight, 19 years of fighting the Vietnam War would end. The Viet Cong moved in and took hold of Saigon.
Now, 46 years later, recent images of the Afghanistan withdrawal are strikingly similar to the Vietnam evacuation he remembers so well. The Afghanistan withdrawal ended nearly 20 years of conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“My initial reaction [to the end of the Afghanistan conflict] was that I knew exactly what they were going through,” said Topping, now 82. “I knew that it was going to be a very difficult situation.”
Topping described the end of both conflicts as being full of “desperation and chaos.”
“They were running for their lives [in Kabul],” said Topping, “and they knew it.”
It was a similar story in 1975 as they tried to get as many people as possible out of Saigon without alerting the Viet Cong.
“I finally figured out that the takeover would take place on [or around] May 1,” Topping said. “So, I started working my plan backward from that date.”
Since a regular flight was scheduled on April 24, Topping was able to conceal the evacuation plan.
“All of my communications were done in code. So not even our own staff or New York [Pan Am headquarters] knew what I was planning. I couldn’t tell them when we were leaving or how we were going to leave without possibly tipping off the North Vietnamese,” said Topping.
After the last American troops withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30, Topping got many calls and emails from friends noting the similarity.
“’This is just like Saigon,’ they’d say. ‘I had no idea this was going to happen.’ You would think that after ’75, it would never happen again. But we did the same thing. History keeps on repeating itself,” he said.
With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this week, Topping reflected on the events.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Topping. “How could an airplane be flying into this building? It’s such a beautiful, clear day. And then, while I’m watching it, I see the other plane hit.”
He remembered that a couple of years before the twin towers fell, he and his wife had spent an evening at a restaurant with their two grandchildren at the top of one of the towers.
“All that came back to me,” he said. “What would have happened if we were up there right then? I remember feeling that idea vividly.”
After leaving Saigon in 1975, Topping managed operations in various other stations overseas for the next eight years. He would work at Pan Am until it went out of business in December 1991.
Now, Topping is retired and living with his wife, Jan, in Del Webb Stone Creek.
In 1990, NBC made a movie out of the daring escape called “Last Flight Out,” starring James Earl Jones as Topping.
Largely because of the film, Topping wrote his new book, “Wings of Freedom: A True Story,” which was released in April.
“The film left out so much,” said Topping, whose book tells a more complete story from his perspective. “[The film] was based on like our last three or four days in Saigon. That was the whole focus. So much more happened.”
A famous scene in the film shows Jones as Topping upturning several tables and chairs in frustration as time is running out.
“I never did that,” Topping said. “But I wanted to. I felt like doing things like that.”
He said his memories of April 24, 1975, are just as vibrant today.
“I’ll never forget that airplane as long as I live,” said Topping. “I flew on it a number of times on a regular-scheduled basis afterward. Every time I got on that plane, it was kind of eerie.”
Topping’s book is available to purchase on the Pan Am Museum website at bit.ly/38Tuj5o