Tim Nguyen: A Life With Flare

SAIGON, South Vietnam, 29 April 1975 - The city is about to fall. Tan Son Nhut AB is surrounded and under attack from the North Vietnamese. An all-night mortar barrage leaves more than 100 aircraft—the bulk of what had been the South Vietnamese Air Force—in twisted, burning hulks strewn across the airfield. Around 0900, the shelling stops. One C-130A remains intact. It will become the last flight out.

Tinh (Tim) Nguyen, then twenty-four years old, had a choice to make, and he had to make it that instant. "The decision was not real hard," he recalls. "It was either leave right then or stay and get killed. We saw a C-130A taxiing out so we ran as fast as we could."

Nguyen (pronounced "win"), who has become one of the pioneers in the development and fielding of large aircraft defensive systems, ran to the transport and hopped aboard, leaving his former life and everything and everyone in it behind. He was not alone.

Literally hundreds of other people were trying to get on board as well. The C-130 pilot, a South Vietnamese Air Force, or VNAF, major with the family name of Phuong, repeatedly revved the engines, lumbered forward, and slammed on the brakes. Each time he did that, more people sprinted out to try and get on the aircraft.

"The pilot wasn't trying to pack people in, he was avoiding debris on the ramp," explains Nguyen, who got what could loosely be called a premium spot to stand by the porthole near the C-130's left paratroop door. "The loadmaster said, 'I think that's enough,' and closed the cargo ramp. We taxied out and then took off." When the ramp door was finally shut, there were four hundred and fifty-two people aboard the Hercules. An entire subdivision's worth of people was crammed into an aircraft designed to carry ninety paratroopers.

With thirty-one other people on the flight deck, none of whom knew how to fly, Phuong tried to lift off at the 9,000-foot runway marker. Nothing happened. The aircraft, overloaded by at least 20,200 pounds, trundled past the end of the 10,000-foot runway. "He couldn't pull the nose up until he got to the end of the 1,000 foot overrun," remembers Nguyen. "We stayed in ground effect for twelve or fifteen miles before we started gaining altitude."

Phuong, who didn't have a map, aimed for Thailand. One and one-half hours into the flight and over the South China Sea, he realized he was going the wrong direction. A C-7 Caribou pilot managed to work his way through the crowd and take the copilot's seat. Fortunately, that pilot had a map and began navigating. The duo turned the aircraft around and flew a reciprocal heading back over Saigon. They landed at U Tapao Royal Thai AB, southeast of Bangkok, three and one-half hours later in what should have been a ninety-minute flight.

The next day, most of the record crowd from Nguyen's flight was put on a C-141 transport to Guam, where the US had established a refugee processing center. "We thought we would be able to go back to Vietnam and regroup and fight again," recalls Nguyen, who was serving in the VNAF at the time. "That night, we found out South Vietnam's president had surrendered and the Communists had taken over. I realized I couldn't go back."

A New Start
Nguyen stayed at the refugee camp for a few days and pondered his next move. "I knew I couldn't just sit on the beach at Guam and daydream about going back to Vietnam," he says. "I knew I had to go America. I also knew I wanted to work for the company that built the C-130 that had gotten me out."

From Guam, he flew to the relocation camp at Eglin AFB, Florida. The camp was designed not only to help refugees learn to speak English — or to speak better English, in Nguyen's case — but also to learn such life skills as getting a job and driving on American roads.

When he arrived at the camp, he and the other refugees were given personal necessities, such as towels, soap, and underwear. But no shoes. The ground, hot from the Florida sun, inspired Nguyen to design his own footwear. He found a two-by-four plank, cut it into two pieces, and strapped the pieces to his feet. It was then that he met his future wife for the first time, an American volunteer named Cheri. The Nguyens were married in April 1978 at the Eglin AFB chapel.

An area family sponsored Nguyen and helped him with his new life in his new country. He took English classes at night and worked at the newspaper during the day, making deliveries and doing odd jobs. He later transferred from a junior college in Florida to the University of Alabama where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1981.

After graduating, he sent his resume to what was then known as Lockheed-Georgia Company. "I had a 3.7 GPA and had been working fulltime at the university medical center, but Lockheed rejected me," Nguyen recalls. "I was a little insulted." He went to work with Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah. Georgia. Later, he applied again to Lockheed and was hired to work in the company's Marietta facility in 1983.

Smooth as SATIN
In 1982, the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board released a report titled The Enhancement of Airlift in Force Projection. One of the critical recommendations was that transports needed a suite of defensive equipment to counter infrared and radar-guided threats.

Call it a coincidence, call it fate, but one of Nguyen's first tasks at Marietta's so-called Possum Works advanced projects group was to help develop a prototype defensive system for transport aircraft called SATIN, or Survivability Augmentation for Transport Installation—Now. "I really jumped at the chance to work on defensive systems," Nguyen noted. "In Vietnam, I saw so many aircraft get shot down. That last morning, I saw a VNAF AC-119 gunship get hit by a surface-to-air missile and it crashed right in front of us. Although the crew bailed out, they were so low their chutes didn't open. I felt so helpless. I knew then I wanted to help protect flight crews so that never happened again."

SATIN was designed as a strap-on kit that required no permanent modifications to the aircraft. All the antennas for the AN/ALR-69 radar warning receiver and the AN/ALQ-156 missile warning radar that tell the crew the location of incoming threats were screwed on the aircraft's exterior. The two standard paratroop doors were replaced with alternate doors that contained four built-in AN/ALE-40 dispensers. These dispensers launch clouds of chaff, very tiny shards of spun aluminum or other materials, that spoof radar-guided missiles or antiaircraft artillery, and flares, particles of higher temperatures than the hot parts of the aircraft—like engine exhausts—that decoy heat seeking missiles.

"We tested SATIN for two years on all kinds of IR and RF ranges," observes Nguyen, who often flew with the crews while the tests were being conducted. "It performed well. However, it was developed on the Air Force's nickel. When the time came to put the kit into production, the Air Force put the contract out for bids. We didn't win. The Air Force did come back and ask us to start installing the necessary wiring and brackets for a defensive system on new-production C-130H3s, though. Basically, every large aircraft defensive system in service today is based on the work we did."

As Operation Desert Shield got underway in 1990, the Air Force asked Lockheed and Nguyen's group specifically to develop a defensive system for the C-5 Galaxy strategic transport. "We crawled all over the aircraft, we developed a kit, and we tested it," Nguyen notes. "There were a lot of naysayers, but we completed development of the system in six months. We understood where the aircraft was going to go." Again, Nguyen worked with the maintainers and flew with the pilots to get the system operational.

You Can Launch Just One
"SATIN didn't have any dispensers on the forward part of the aircraft," adds Nguyen. "However, when Desert Storm came around, we knew that there were some really advanced shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of people who might use them against us. Because these missiles could lock on a target from any aspect, we had to figure out a way to counter these threats and the forward dispensers were added to the aircraft configuration."

"Twenty years ago, you could almost fly straight and level, pop one flare out each side, and defeat a threat," Nguyen notes. "Today, an enemy doesn't need to aim at the hot spots on the aircraft anymore. An advanced missile can lock anywhere on the aircraft. A crew doesn't know where the missile is coming from; just that it has been detected. They have to fire chaff and multiple flares to protect the area around the entire aircraft, not just specific areas."

The game of cat-and-mouse between advanced missiles and advanced defensive systems was elevated to a new level in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Today, crews not only have to use their defensive systems but also must employ a greater variety of flight tactics, such as rapid descents from altitude. There are even specific patterns for releasing chaff and flares against specific threats. "Because the threats are advancing, the defensive systems need to advance as well," Nguyen notes.

Unlike on older aircraft, where the defensive system was an add-on, the defensive suite is built into the C-130J. Nguyen was an instrumental part of ensuring the system worked. Group A equipment, such as wiring and brackets, is installed in every aircraft on the assembly line. Software to operate the system is built into the mission computer. Group B equipment, the chaff and flare dispensers, is a relatively straightforward matter to install.

"Three hours after we delivered the first C-130J to the Italian Air Force, we were out there installing the defensive system hardware," recalls Nguyen. "We flew to a range in France, tested the system, wrote the report, and got clearance from the Italian government.”

Almost immediately after the aircraft arrived at Pisa AB in August 2000, the Italian C-130Js were put into operation, flying relief missions to Eritrea as well as flights to the Balkans, Kosovo, Pristina, Albania, and Sarajevo.

In April 2002, Italy was chosen to fly Afghanistan's ex-king Mohammad Zahir Shah, the then-interim head of the government, Hamid Karzai, and Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum for a triumphant return to Kabul. Specifically because of its advanced defensive systems, those leaders were brought back to their homeland on a C-130J. Italy used two of its Super Hercules on that mission, one to transport the dignitaries and one to fly top cover.

Maintenance is also easier with an integrated system, such as the one on the C-130J. "There are eighteen dispensers on a Marine KC-130. That's several hundred flares," Nguyen says. "In the old days, if one didn't fire, a maintainer would first have to check each dispenser. When he found the right dispenser, he had to check each individual wire. Now on the C-130J, the system's diagnostics displays which wire on which box malfunctioned."

Quite A Life
Nguyen's diligence in developing systems and working with customers to deploy them was recognized in 1992, when he was named as the Hercules program employee of the year. He also volunteers with several community groups in his off-hours. "I have been very lucky in a lot of ways."

In 2000, after some initial hesitation—and with approval by company security because of the sensitive nature of his work—Nguyen went back to Vietnam. "On approach to Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City, but he says none of the residents call it that], I was very nervous. But the terrain looked the same. The runways looked the same and the revetments were still there. The sights brought back a lot of memories."

Nguyen rode out to his hometown of Nha Trang, where he found his father, brother, and sister. His father had been forced to go to a "reeducation" camp after the North Vietnamese took power. His brother and sister are both married with children. His mother and several members of his extended family passed away in the intervening years.

"My hometown had not changed much," Nguyen notes. "The South Vietnamese Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy were both there, and they are still being used for the same purpose. The North just came in and changed the signs."

Nguyen is glad he went back, but he is even happier to return to the United States. "I am an American now. I missed being in America after just a week in Vietnam. I felt like an outsider."

Four decades ago and 10,000 miles away, Tim Nguyen made a decision that changed his life. He sums up his feelings succinctly, "I have no regrets."

This is an update to a story that originally appeared in the Volume 18, Number 3 issue of Code One. One other interesting note about Tim Nguyen—his birthday is 23 August. When the first YC-130 prototype was first flown on 23 August 1954, he was celebrating his third birthday.

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.