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Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam [Five Volumes]

3 May 2022

Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations Vietnam by Col. Pat Hanavan (USAF, retired). Five volumes of fine history!

  • Vol. I The First Years: 1966-1967, 2012, (ISBN 978-1478195849) 372 pp.
  • Vol. II Tet Offensive: 1968, 2013, (ISBN 978-1492266273 413 pp.
  • Vol. III Ben Het: 1969, 2014, (ISBN 978-1500874858) 380 pp.
  • Vol. IV Dak Pek and Dak Seang: 1970, 2016, (ISBN 978-1535423090) 434 pp.
  • Vol. V Vietnamization: 1971-1972, 2017, (ISBN 978-1973934707) 424 pp.
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol I by Col. Pat Hanavan

Not enough can be written about Hanavan’s epic work regarding one of de Havilland’s most effective if not famed aircraft—the ungainly looking though somehow attractive C-7 Caribou. Col. Hanavan is the authority on the “Bou” being an instructor pilot (IP) for them during his service in the Vietnam War as well as a thorough researcher. Pilots know their aircraft well enough to reliably fly them though instructor pilots know the aircraft much more intimately—almost as well as the aircraft’s crew chief—having knowledge of subsystems as well as aircraft handling. His work required no less than five lively and insightful volumes for readers of aviation history as well as the Vietnam War.

Caribou Airlines relates the history of the U.S. Air Force flying C-7 missions and does so on any one of several levels for the reader to enjoy. Naturally there is an abundance of material on flying the Caribou as well as maintaining it, along with its particular peculiarities (such as the stabilizer changing its angle of attack upon changing the flap setting). Readers, too, soon learn that just about everything with the C-7 is done at 120 knots. Logistic specialists can learn much from Hanavan’s encompassing labor in what is needed to initiate and maintain an effort to keep aircraft effective as well as available with fuel, cargo handling, maintenance, safety, training, admin, housing and routing—no easy thing to accomplish and requiring dedicated professionals to be successful. Vietnam War history readers will experience the Vietnam War from a different historical arc since the Caribous served to supply and maintain communications with fire bases and special forces camps—the nitty gritty of the war where it was at its most personal.

The “Bou” itself is remarkable in that it is essentially a flying truck needing only 1000 feet of runway, prepared or not, to deliver or fly away as much as four tons of cargo. C-7’s were a vital part of the Vietnam War since just about any territory away from an encampment was enemy held or otherwise occupied. Electricity was generally not present in the nearby villages, or even the remotely located bases, so Caribou cargo was often livestock such as eels, water buffalo, pigs and chickens. Animals were delivered alive, at times by parachute, due to lack of refrigeration.

That is a common omission when considering asymmetric warfare from a first world perspective. Yes, there will absolutely be technological advantages enjoyed. But that must be balanced with reliance on electrical power supply, aviation support and generally always being outnumbered (often heavily so).

Caribou missions ranged from the mundane mail and beer runs to more than exciting enough flights. Readers will lose count of how many missions are related where Caribou crews challenged incoming fire to provide airbase and special forces camp support—often enough being a vital link in their salvation when under intense assaults. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as well, as Viet Cong (VC), generally made their attacks at night to mitigate the air superiority of the U.S. Army and Air Force so many missions were nocturnal by necessity. At times, C-7 aircrews could land and offload while under a rapid taxi to taking off—the cargo master, the third man of a three person crew, would have the aft ramp lowered to the horizontal and push the palleted cargo out along the floor’s rollers. All this to the accompaniment of incoming mortar and rocket rounds.

Often enough Caribou crews would deliver cargo to open patches of land only 100-200 feet in extent. These deliveries, usually ordinance and ammunition, occurred most often during desperate times. How does an aircraft flying by put cargo on a postage sized piece of ground, anyway? Well, at 120 knots (like everything else in a C-7) and at 200 feet—as the drop zone (DZ) comes under the nose pilots pitch up sharply while the cargo master (having cut all but one of the restraining straps and having positioned the ramp to horizontal) gives the pallet a kick to send it on its way to a skid of a landing, if not a tumble. One especially courageous mission to a DZ, while a base was under attack, had to be done in daylight hours as the base’s mortar tubes had burned out. Fighting must have been intense for tubes to burn out and it was part of the base’s vital defensive artillery—so a Caribou crew had a mission to deliver tubes and rounds to a DZ generously measured at 100 feet long. After an approach to the DZ which has to be read to be believed and with no second chance as an option, the aircrew flew in at a bare 50 feet (with the FAC screaming a warning sensing an imminent crash) and successfully made their drop which was instrumental in saving the base from being overrun. Why 50 feet? As the pilot said, “At 50 feet you can’t miss.” FedEx may have coined “Just in Time Delivery” but C-7 Caribou crews lived it before FedEx was born. Another system was worked out for nighttime DZ deliveries using down-to-the-second timing of a searchlight from an orbiting AC-119 gunship and daring low level flying up a valley without night vision—all while under fire. Curiously, it was noted that the relatively slow speed of the Caribou worked in its favor since NVA and VC gunners were accustomed to faster aircraft and would shoot too far ahead of the C-7s as they made their drop passes.

The sense of mission seen by aircrews extended to the maintainers, as well, with many tales told of Caribous being repaired (e.g., damaged wings, bent props, engine swaps) at remote air strips with the barest of equipment on remote airstrips. 

Hanavan’s volumes are packed with photos of Caribous during their everyday existence—most sourced from private collections so these are unlikely to be seen anywhere else (unless, hopefully, they find their way to museum archives). Readers see Caribous at rest and on missions as well as crashed (including one inadvertently dropped from a CH-54 Tarhe [Skycrane] during a recovery operation). Readers also see living and working environments for the USAF service personnel—which were not up to the usual USAF comfort ratings.

Amazing close escapes are well told as well as tragic losses due to working in close proximity to U.S. Army bases where artillery fire and large helicopter movements (i.e., CH-47 Chinooks) caused mishaps and deaths. Photos of severely damaged C-7s which brought their crews back are awe inspiring. The details of planning and accomplishing transoceanic flying in these twin radial engines (using the Pratt & Whitney R-2000) slow moving aircraft is enlightening as is the narrow escape for one Caribou’s crew on such a flight.

Each of the volumes reiterates vital historical sections such as the tête-à-tête between the Army and the Air Force regarding helicopters, sizes, and the C-7 as to which would fly what. Of course, an excellently written section describing the C-7 Caribou is also repeated (reinforced rather). The author also includes a variety of appendices relating vital statistics which historians will relish–these are focused on the time period of each volume. These volumes are well written and well cited though not indexed—but detailed chapter headings more than suffice for the most part.

As might be expected in this encompassing history, Hanavan publishes medal citations which underscore the importance as well as fantastic accomplishments of these C-7 Caribou operations. This is the meat of this history. Happily, the author also includes many first hand recollections and these make the heart of this history.  

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Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol II by Col. Pat Hanavan

Personal Note

I’ve been intrigued by de Havilland’s C-7 Caribou ever since I was young and excitedly seeing the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachuting from theirs, ages ago (they now use the Fokker C-31A Troopship which is the militarized Fokker F27 Friendship—more modern, less charm). There are a few around in museums but not much history about them when displayed except for basic numbers. A shame that so little is made more public about their roles and the crews who flew them as well as the troops who relied upon them in the most dire of circumstances. Relying on the Caribou’s STOL performance as well as flying in ways the FAA would never contemplate for approval. My thanks to Col. Hanavan for capturing the Caribou’s history so well and so eloquently. Readers may note a few YouTube videos showing Caribou pilots making “wheelbarrow landings” in Australia. I couldn’t suss out any benefit using this technique of landing nose wheel first–but who better to ask than the unofficial C-7 historian, as well as former Caribou IP, Col. Hanavan? He replied that the technique would be an idiotic maneuver—with only risk and without benefit.

Thanks again 🙂

Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol III by Col. Pat Hanavan
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol IV by Col. Pat Hanavan
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol V by Col. Pat Hanavan
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kia0056 permalink
    5 May 2022 09:25

    very good

  2. Doug Hastings permalink
    5 June 2022 08:08

    It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of USAF Col. (Ret) Harry C. Pund. He was a man of integrity and honor who served in Vietnam. He was a dear friend and great patriot.

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