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Closing two chapters: Operation Babylift crash survivor tours last C-5A

Karen Keshura, Babylift crash survivior, poses for a photo with Chief Master Sgt. Justin Thurber in the cockpit of C-5A Galaxy 0461, the Air Force's final C-5A that recently was retired.

(Left) Karen Keshura, a Babylift crash survivor, poses for a photo with Cheif Master Sgt. Justin Thurber, 439th Maintenance Superintendent, August 31, 2017 in the cockpit of C-5A Galaxy 0461 at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass. Keshura was one of more than 150 children, Air Force personnel and civilians who survived the crash of the C-5. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Hanna Smith)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. --

The last time Karen Keshura was in a C-5A Galaxy, the war in Vietnam was coming to an end. It was a different kind of homecoming flight—at just seven months old, Keshura was one among hundreds of orphan Vietnamese children aboard the aircraft heading to meet their new families in America.

Keshura’s flight was the first of several under what would later become known as President Gerald Ford’s Operation Babylift.

Just minutes after take-off, a malfunction caused the cargo doors to blow out and rapid decompression to occur inside the aircraft. Ultimately, the pilot was forced to crash land the plane filled with delicate passengers.

“I don’t know if it is necessarily survivor’s guilt, but I just never liked to talk about it,” Keshura said. “A lot of lives were lost. A lot of babies were lost.”

Keshura was traveling in the upper-troop compartment, which remained largely intact despite the rest of the plane’s devastation after the crash-landing. She and more than 150 children, Air Force personnel and civilians survived the crash.

 But many did not.

Aside from a binder full of photos and news clippings, Keshura said she never really had dug too deep into her Vietnamese roots or what happened that day.

“I’ve always just been me, a Keshura, an American,” she said. “I didn’t know anything different.”

She found a renewed interest in her story, however, when an old friend and classmate, Chief Master Sgt. Justin Thurber, invited her to Westover Air Reserve Base, home to a fleet of C-5s and at the time, the last C-5A in the entire Air Force inventory.

“When I saw a post on her Facebook, I couldn’t believe it,” Thurber said. “Being a maintenance superintendent at a C-5 wing, I thought, ‘what a coincidence!’ and what an amazing story.”

Keshura graciously accepted Thurber’s invitation to Westover, despite his hesitation to dive into an aspect of his friend’s personal life that she had always kept tucked away.

“This visit brought about my desire to know more,” Keshura said. “When I came here I didn’t just want to be looking at an airplane. I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted to connect with it.”

Emotion overcame Keshura as she and a group of family and friends climbed up the ladder to the C-5A’s troop compartment during their tour of Westover. The day of the crash, orphan babies like Keshura, were strapped two or three to a seat in that area.

“This closes that chapter for me that has been left hanging open for so long,” she said.

After the tour of the aircraft, the group waited anxiously on the flightline after receiving word a C-5 was about to depart on a mission.

“I had an enormous sense of peace seeing the plane take off and fly,” Keshura said.

The visit ended, and the C-5A has since left Westover for the boneyard in Arizona, but Thurber plans to hold on to Keshura’s story and the entire experience to connect with his troops.

“My greatest fear is that we get complacent and start to unintentionally let maintenance best practices slip,” the chief said. “This story is a unique way for me to personalize to the troops that everything they do matters, and that the consequences of complacency could lead to loss of aircraft, and more importantly, life.”