More detail on this person: Fort Walton Beach veteran known for daring rooftop rescues killed in car collision Jim Thompson Northwest Florida Daily News FORT WALTON BEACH - Bob Caron, the pilot of the Air America helicopter featured in an iconic news photograph of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, died early Wednesday in a traffic accident. He was 88 years old. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Caron was driving an SUV eastbound on Carmel Drive approaching Beal Parkway at about 3 a.m. when he struck a car traveling in front of him. After the impact with the car, Caron's SUV hit a tree, and he died from his injuries. Caron's story: Helicopter pilot in iconic Vietnam photo says full story still unfolding The 26-year-old man driving the car struck by Caron and a 25-year-old woman passenger suffered minor injuries. The April 29,1975, image captured by United Press International photographer Hubert van Es was among the last pictures sent out of Saigon as the city fell to North Vietnamese forces, effectively ending America's controversial years-long involvement in Vietnam. But it wasn't until some years later, as the result of investigative work by People magazine - which included examination of other photographs taken that day and some expert analysis - that it was proved conclusively that van Es had photographed Caron's helicopter. In an August 2020 interview with the Northwest Florida Daily News, Caron recounted the circumstances surrounding the photograph. He estimated there were 15 people aboard the helicopter when it lifted off the roof of the Pittman Building, home to some of the few Americans remaining in Saigon. "We just stuffed them in," said Caron, who was at the controls of the helicopter along with a co-pilot, Jack Hunter. In all that day, Caron guessed that he flew 150 people to safety at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where they would board larger helicopters to be flown to American ships just off the coast. Caron and Hunter had been sent to the Pittman Building to evacuate a high-ranking South Vietnamese official and his family, but as word got out that a helicopter was coming, dozens of other South Vietnamese raced to the building for a chance to evacuate. The van Es photo shows some of those people clambering toward the helicopter. Air America's work to evacuate Saigon had begun days before Caron found himself fluttering dangerously above the Pittman Building. As information that the end was near began to circulate, pilots for Air America - a supposedly private air transport company that, in reality, was an instrument of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency - flew across the city testing rooftops for their ability to hold a helicopter and accommodate passenger loading. Suitable rooftops were marked with an "X" to guide pilots flying evacuation missions, Caron said in the 2020 interview, but "suitable" was often a relative concept. For instance, Caron said that landing on the roof of the Pittman Building put his helicopter dangerously close to ventilation pipes and other obstructions which, if the helicopter had struck them, could have had disastrous consequences. Caron, a New York native and a 1956 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served initially in Vietnam as an Army pilot who, while the war was still going on, became part of Air America. Throughout the Vietnam War, as with the Korean War and the Cold War, pilots and crew members with the government-owned corporation were used in countless covert operations. The work in Vietnam, Caron said, was very hush-hush, with instructions to pilots and crew members often being little more than "go there, meet so-and-so, and do what he tells you." There was little doubt about what was going on at Air America in Vietnam, not the least because its offices were located right alongside military flight units at Tan Son Nhut Air Base just outside Saigon. "Everybody knew. It wasn't a secret," Caron said in the interview last year from his home, where the decor included a color painting based on the black-and-white UPI photo. Air America closed its doors in 1976 and Caron returned to the Army after eight years with the company to complete 20 years of military service. He came back to the United States in 1985 to serve as director of contract administration for an aviation company. He subsequently went to Indonesia to work for another aviation services firm, and closed out his long career in the air by flying aircraft for the government of Lee County, Florida. At some point before his death, Caron had noted military author Lewis Sorley write a statement to be delivered to his West Point classmates at his death. The statement details Caron's military career - he earned 11 Air Medals, two Army Commendation Medals and held the Master Army Aviator and Parachute badges - along with his exploits with Air America and in the civilian arena. April 29, 1975, gets scant mention in the document, with Caron remembering it as "a sad, horrific day" and calling the evacuation of Saigon "utter chaos." On many flights to Tan Son Nhut Air Base from Saigon, his tiny UH-1 "Huey" helicopter was loaded with up to 20 passengers, the document notes. In his later years, Caron became involved in efforts to have Air America employees made eligible for federal retirement benefits. During the company's existence, the CIA worked hard to maintain the fiction that Air America was a private company. As part of the ruse, the agency kept its employees off federal pension rolls, apparently to eliminate any hint of a paper trail that might link Air America to the U.S. government and its top intelligence agency. For young Air America employees like Caron - he was in his 30s at the time - in the midst of the Vietnam War, whether or not they were going to one day be eligible for a federal pension wasn't much of a consideration. "We never gave it a thought," he said. "We were told to fly." And fly they did. Caron remembers one 16-hour stretch when he didn't leave his helicopter. "I didn't even pee," he joked. The long hours also were punctuated by danger. Caron was shot down once, and he remembered one incident when a mission's departure route took him directly across an array of anti-aircraft guns. And, since those dangerous missions were undertaken on behalf of the U.S. government, Caron and other Air America personnel came to believe that they were entitled to federal pension benefits. Their case was bolstered a decade ago when unclassified CIA documents confirmed that Air America personnel were, in fact, federal government employees. In the intervening years, there have been some legislative efforts in Congress to get benefits to them and their survivors. In February of this year, U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, introduced the Air America Act in the House aimed at accomplishing that goal. The bill was the subject of a House Oversight and Reform Committee meeting on Tuesday. It's 106 co-sponsors include a bipartisan group of 13 of Florida's 27 House members. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, who represents much of Northwest Florida, is among them. Funeral arrangements for Caron are being handled by Trahan Family Funeral Home in Milton. The arrangements had not been completed as of Friday afternoon.
This information was last updated 05/29/2021
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Date posted on this site: 05/13/2023
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