Edward J. Daly, the entrepreneur who built World Airways, was one of the most unusual air transport entrepreneurs of the Cold War era. Forty years ago Daly made a name for himself during the evacuation of South Vietnam in March-April 1975. Although Daley took over World Airways in 1950s and built it into one of the most important supplemental carriers operating, often under contract to the DoD, in the United States his status changed in that 1975 crisis.
Daly built an aggressive air transport company, largely on the basis of contracts with the military. In 1956 he contracted with the Air Force for his two war-surplus C-46s, the only aircraft owned by World Airways at the time, to assist with Operation SAFE HAVEN, the transport of refugees fleeing Hungary to the United States. A major step forward came on June 15, 1960, when World obtained a transcontinental contract to deliver parts and supplies between U.S. military installations. This action assured a solvent corporation and laid the groundwork for future expansion.
In May 1962 World Airways demonstrated its expansive philosophy by placing an order for three of the new Boeing 707‑320Cs. This was the first jet aircraft order from any of the supplemental carriers and it made World one of the most attractive of these companies operating on the margins of air transport. World prospered during the following years, in part because of the 1962 passage of the Supplemental Air Carrier Act designed to weed out weaker and less safe carriers, steadily expanding its private charter business, but especially finding a niche as a contractor to the Department of Defense.
Beginning in the mid‑1960s it became one of the principal commercial carriers airlifting military personnel between the United States and Southeast Asia. Each year as American involvement in Vietnam grew,World’s profits also rose as well. By the end of the decade of the 1960s World was operating a fleet of nine Boeing 707s and four Boeing 727s to provide charter and cargo jet service. Daly improved this fleet with the acquisition of Boeing 747s in 1973 and DC‑10s in 1978.
In the forced withdrawal of Americans and other refugees from South Vietnam in 1975, Ed Daly and World Airways entered the popular consciousness. It operated several Boeing 747 missions into Da Nang and Saigon as North Vietnamese forces were surrounding those cities to evacuate refugees.
Daly, on March 27, 1975, the day after the North Vietnamese had captured Hue, accompanied a World Airways Boeing 727 carrying 200 refugees out of danger. World Airways completed three more flights before the closure of the Da Nang airport. Two days later, after failing to obtain any permission whatsoever to fly into Da Nang, Ed Daly decided to continue his efforts. He told the media: “People who should have been doing something about it sat on their asses and refused to move.” Just after noon two World Airways 727-100s left Tan Son Nhut Air Base for Da Nang, without clearance or permission.
When the 727s reached Da Nang, the first made a pass over the runway at about two hundred feet. It appeared clear so they landed. Thousands of people rushed the airplane. Jan Wollett, a flight attendant aboard, recalled that “They were running, they were on motorcycles, they were in vans, they were in jeeps and cars and personnel carriers, they were on bicycles—they were coming in anything they could find to get into the aircraft.”
Soldiers, civilians, men, women, adults, and children fought to climb aboard. Daly, who had gone back to assist refugees, was mauled as able-bodied men threw off those less capable of defending themselves. At one point Daly threatened some with a pistol. Almost immediately someone yelled, “We’re full,” and the pilot accelerated the 727 down the taxiway as people climbed onto the wings, and then fell off as the jet became airborne.
A distraught soldier hurled a hand grenade and badly damaged the flaps on the right side. The pilot could not retract his landing gear because several people had crawled into the wheel wells. Shortly after the 727 became airborne, the pilot of the second airplane reported seeing someone lose his grip on the landing gear and fall to his death. The saddest aspect of this flight, there were only ten women and one baby among the 268 people who jammed themselves into the airplane and into the wheel wells. This was the last flight out of Da Nang. The next day it fell to the North Vietnamese without additional resistance.
Daly did pretty much the same thing on April 2, flying an unauthorized World Airways DC-8 flight evacuating 58 orphans and 27 adults from Saigon to Oakland. Daly’s maverick approach toward these evacuation flights were implicitly sanctioned the next day when President Gerald R. Ford announced that the United States government would provide airlift for over 2,000 other Vietnamese orphans in a program called Operation BABYLIFT. Daly and World were heavily involved in this effort as well. Of the 2,894 orphans that reached the United States between April 3 and May 9, 1975, the date that the State Department officially ended the evacuation of the children, World Airways joined other privately contracted airlines to carry 1,090 of them.
Hailed as a hero by the media, Daly’s actions in the Vietnam evacuation were not always appreciated by government officials. When censured Daly sent a Telex to President Ford:
We have just been notified…that our contract with the Military Airlift Command for the supply of food to Cambodia has been terminated effective this date….There is no wonder that the peoples of the world have lost their confidence in the U.S. government and its people….With all due respect to you and your worldwide problems, Mr. President, I strongly urge that you get the incompetents out of there immediately and appoint someone with the intelligence, competency and the guts necessary to get the job done. You don’t have days or weeks—you only have minutes.”
Daly’s contracts were reinstated. He was also profiled in People magazine in 1975 for his exploits.
The fall of South Vietnam was the high point in a career laced with action and not a little adventure. Daly savored the limelight that his flights out with refugees brought him. He probably also savored the complaints about him from certain government officials for his ignoring of regulations, especially the fact that they could do nothing about it.
Thereafter World Airways continued to lead the supplemental carriers. Daly also finally broke into the scheduled ranks in 1979 with limited routes. While the company faced severe financial difficulties during the early 1980s, in part due to the deregulation of the airline industry, it was able to weather the crisis and continue its role as a supplemental carrier for the DoD. Ed Daly died in 1984; World Airways operated for many years thereafter but finally went into receivership in March 2014.
Ed Daly was such an usual, intriguing, and controversial—as well as visionary—figure that I would like to write more about him. Perhaps someday.