Al Topping was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1939. His family emigrated to the United States in 1946, on a Pan Am flight to Miami, and Al grew up in Brooklyn. He made the decision to join the airline industry in 1964, first with United and then with Pan Am in 1969. Pan Am gave Al duties in the Pacific region, and they asked him to go to Saigon – and into the Vietnam war zone. The Vietnam War began to wind down in the period that followed, and as the NVA stepped up its attacks on Saigon, refugees began to fill the city. The war had produced a generation of orphans, and momentum began to build up to find a way out for these children, many of whom were the offspring of American veterans. The plan for Operation Babylift was thus set in motion, and a USAF C-5a plane was loaded and ready to go, suffering a tragic crash not long after take off. More than 100 lives were lost in that terrible event. Other forces came together to look for alternatives, and Al and Pan Am would be at the heart of that: two 747s were chartered, and more than 700 children were spirited out of Saigon. Al then worked to evacuate as many Pan Am employees as possible, knowing their lives could be in danger with the impending North Vietnamese victory – he succeeded there too. Al visited us via zoom in May 2023, sharing stories of the Vietnam War era alongside flight attendant Becky Sprecher and American veteran Stephen Foreman.
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