There were two principal airlines in Laos during the early 70s – Lao Airlines and Royal Air Lao. Both flew old piston-engined planes, especially the rugged DC-3 and a DC-4 – until Lao Airlines bought a Vickers Viscount – a turbo-prop.
One week in February 1972 I needed to visit Savannakhet to find out more about the recording studio there – a joint venture between the Swiss Mission Evangelique and OMF. On the Friday of that week I was due to return on a Royal Air Lao flight that left for Vientiane around midday. (Mrs Roffe, a senior American missionary had arrived from Vientiane on the flight that morning.) I dutifully arrived to check in for my flight, but when I mentioned my intentions the staff at check-in laughed. They told me that when the plane had arrived in Saigon that morning on its way down it had to be towed in off the runway. ‘Nonn Saigon’ (sleeping in Saigon) was their comment… It would not be coming back.
Before long a number of other passengers had arrived also wanting to go to Vientiane. Under some pressure Royal Air Lao staff decided that they would re-route a flight going south to Pakse. But this announcement upset the Pakse-bound passengers – understandably. And so a compromise was found: we would all board the flight south to Pakse – and then the DC-3 would take us from Pakse to Vientiane. So that is what we did – we flew south, then unloaded and took on new passengers and finally set off around 7pm – with a few standing passengers – bound for Vientiane and arriving around 9pm (an unheard of time for commercial flights to arrive).
It was not until Sunday morning that I was aware of any plane crashing. An Air America pilot in church and his English wife came up to me and expressed such relief to see that I was alive. They were aware of my trip to Savannakhet, but had heard that the Royal Air Lao flight on Friday afternoon had gone missing – with all 23 people on board. And they thought I was among them. Praise God, I wasn’t!
If I am not mistaken it was on my way down to Savannakhet that same week that our departure from Vientiane was somewhat alarming. Laos was a land of surprises but on this occasion the surprise was more scary than uplifting (!). When we boarded the Royal Air Lao DC-4 for a late afternoon flight we had a shock as we entered the fuselage. Half the seats had been stripped out and in their place was a huge aero engine. A spare engine? It appeared that it was being taken to Saigon for servicing.
My seat was immediately facing the engine. When it came time for departure we taxi-ed out to the runway -but there was a problem with one of the four piston engines. It was misfiring and would not come up to speed as it went through its pre-flight check. The pilot decided to go back to the apron. There a technician was summoned to check it out – but in a few minutes gave the all-clear and waved us off. So we taxi-ed to the runway, held our breath – and succeeded in taking off. It was not very reassuring…!