“I still remember the time my family flew from Tan Son Nhat Airport to Hanoi on a fixed-wing Dakota airplane made by the Americans but captained by a Frenchman,” recalled 90-year-old Nguyen Ngoc of his first-ever flight nearly 70 years ago. “The plane was small, carrying a few dozen passengers at most, and flying low-altitude, so the whole three-hour trip was shaky,” Ngoc said. “The French stewardess was particularly attentive toward Vietnamese first-time flyers who were vomit-prone. She kept asking in French: Comment allez-vous? Puis-je vous aider? [How are you? May I help you?].”
“My father had had to sell over ten metric tons of rice to afford our plane tickets to Hanoi, but not once did he regret it,” he added.
Two red soil runways
Back then, for the young Ngoc to even sit in the waiting lounge at Tan Son Nhat was a luxury, despite the airport's appearance being a far cry from how it looks today.
Construction on Tan Son Nhat was completed sometime in the early 1930s, but up until 1937 the airport had but one 1,500-meter north-south runway made of red soil.
To expand the airport, nearby farmlands in the possession of both Vietnamese and French plantation owners were either bought or expropriated.
By World War II, a second, 1,300-meter east-west red soil runway had been completed, allowing smaller civil or military airplanes to land and take off.
When Japan replaced France as the occupying foreign force in Saigon during the early 1940s, the runways and infrastructure of Tan Son Nhat underwent minor upgrades to facilitate military troop deployments.
Following the end of the Second World War in 1945 after the Allies’ victory, France restored colonial rule over Indochina and began working on major upgrades to the airport in order to assist the war effort against revolutionaries.
Air travel in Saigon at the time was mostly used by the French elite, while most middle-class Vietnamese opted for trains, as a cross-country railway network was already in place.
Apart from fighter aircraft, the dominant means of aviation at Tan Son Nhat were the DC-3’s, a fixed-wing propeller-driven airliner manufactured by the now-defunct American Douglas Aircraft Company.
The planes could only accommodate around 30 passengers and fly at 300 kilometers per hour.
During the historic Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, so many French aircraft were downed in the northern battlefield that this model of aircraft was mobilized from Tan Son Nhat to deploy paratroopers and resupply ammunition.
Transfer of power
From its establishment until the liberation of Saigon in April 1975, Tan Son Nhat retained its place as the largest civil airport in Vietnam, though most of its activities came from the military sector.
By the early 1950s, some Vietnamese military officers had begun laying the foundation for Vietnam’s Air Force and later the country’s civil aviation industry.
One example was Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Hinh, a graduate from the Air Military School in the French commune of Salon-de-Provence, who was commander of the Vietnamese National Army (1949-55) under Chief of State Bao Dai.
Once a fighter pilot for the Allies in World War II, Hinh was promoted to the rank of general in 1952 and founded the Air Force Division for the Vietnamese military, responsible for sending Vietnamese pilots to France for flight training.
Among those selected for the training program was Nguyen Cao Ky, who later went on to become the chief of the Vietnam Air Force during the 1960s, before serving as vice president under General Nguyen Van Thieu’s administration.
After the signing of the Geneva Accord in Switzerland in 1954, France was forced to return authority over Tan Son Nhat to the new government of South Vietnam headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem’s administration carried out multiple expansion and upgrade projects on the airport, with the ambition to comprehensively transform Tan Son Nhat into an A-class international airport that could facilitate the most state-of-the-art airliners at the time.
The upgrades included construction of a US$759,000 (inflation adjusted) drainage system that would prevent the airport from flooding for decades to come.