IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

An officer saved dozens of babies in a plane crash. Decades later, she shares a bond with 1

In 1997, Aryn Lockhart turned to the internet to find answers about the plane crash she was told she survived as a baby.
/ Source: TODAY

On April 4, 1975, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane touched down in Saigon for the inaugural flight on Operation Babylift, launched by President Gerald Ford to evacuate 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans already adopted by American families.

Then-Lt. Regina Aune, 30 at the time, was the medical crew director on the inaugural flight.

"The Air Force colonel said, 'Your mission is going to be to take 200 people out of Saigon and most of them are children under the age of 2,'" Aune recalled in an interview with TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie.

She immediately began preparing the flight to load the plane with its precious cargo and had a chance to hold and look at each baby in the process.

"I took (the babies) from whoever was bringing them on board, they handed me the baby and then I handed the baby to the next person, till we filled it up," she said.

Lt. Regina Aune helped load the babies into the cargo plane on the inaugural flight of Operation Babylift in 1975.
Lt. Regina Aune helped load the babies into the cargo plane on the inaugural flight of Operation Babylift in 1975.TODAY

The plane took off for a base in the Philippines. The first 20 minutes of the flight were uneventful — until, as the plane flew at 23,000 feet, the locks on the rear cargo ramp failed, causing the back floors to burst open, triggering a rapid decompression.

"I'm kneeling on the floor of the back of the plane. And all of a sudden this loud bang, and all the insulation from the aircraft started flying around," Aune said. "There's an open grate, where I was kneeling, that you can look down into the cargo compartment and what I saw was the South China Sea so the whole back end of the plane was gone."

The pilots tried to steer the plane to safety, but it crashed into a rice paddy just short of the airfield.

Aune said she could feel the bones in her foot breaking upon impact. She then clambered out and saw the wreckage. The plane had broken into four pieces and was still burning.

Operation Babylift continued until late April 1975.
Operation Babylift continued until late April 1975.TODAY

Her training immediately kicked in, and she worked to carry the babies from the wreckage and through mud to the helicopters that had arrived to help. But after a while, she couldn't do it anymore.

"I walked over to the navigator, Maj. Wallace, and I said to him, 'Sir, I request to be relieved of duty because my injuries prevent me from continuing,'" she recalled. "And then probably fainted on him."

The crash killed 138 passengers, including 78 children. Aune — who sustained a broken foot, fractured spine and puncture wound to her leg during Operation Babylift — always wondered what happened to the children she helped save.

One of the babies, Aryn Lockhart, was adopted by a family in the United States. She said her parents always told her they believed she was a survivor of the inaugural flight of Operation Babylift.

In the early days of the internet, in 1997, she searched online for information about the crash and found Aune's name. She looked up her phone number and decided to give her a call.

"I remember what she said," Aune recalled. "She said, 'Col. Aune, I've been looking for you, and I just want to thank you for giving me life.'

"I was just overwhelmed. I reflected thinking about how ... I’ve probably held her."

The two women have had a strong connection ever since they reconnected as adults. After that initial call, they met for dinner in Washington, D.C. Their connection grew even stronger when they ended up in the same town and Lockhart began to work for the Air Force.

Aune and Lockhart reconnected decades after Aune saved Lockhart's life.
Aune and Lockhart reconnected decades after Aune saved Lockhart's life.TODAY

They grew so close that Aune's late husband, Bjorn, told Lockhart to call the couple mom and dad. She started referring to them as her "San Antonio mom and dad," to distinguish them from her parents.

"I think about my daughters and Aryn the same," Aune told Savannah. "In many ways, it's hard to imagine her not being a part of my life, so motherhood is more than just giving birth. It’s nurturing and loving, and it can happen anytime."

Lockhart added: "I see many forms of motherhood. There's my birth mom, who had to make the tough decision to put me up for adoption, their sister, Ursula, who took care of me in the orphanage. There's my adopted mom and then later in my life, this relationship created, and it also is a form of motherhood. For me, that's how it's evolved, and now that I am a mother too, it takes on a whole new meaning."

Lockhart adopted her three daughters from foster care in September.
Lockhart adopted her three daughters from foster care in September.TODAY

Lockhart adopted three girls from foster care last fall and celebrated her first Mother's Day on Sunday. Her daughters call Aune, "Mor-Mor," which is Norwegian for grandma.

"It's been life changing and I couldn't be happier," Lockhart said. "I felt like it was just the way it was supposed to be."