A saga that began nearly four years ago and 12,000 miles away during the American evacuation of Saigon-when a pilot for the CIA boarded a refugee ship with his Vietnamese wife of four days instead of flying a plane out of Saigon without her-wound to a close yesterday in D.C. Superior Court.
Judge James Belson ruled that the pilot, James L. Roberts, was not entitled to back pay from Air America, a company then owned by the CIA, which fired him for abandoning the plane to the North Vietnamese.
After his firing, Roberts spent two years as a security guard, an appliance repairman and a tugboard dispatcher. He sued Air America for $100,000 damage to his reputation in the airline industry and $15,000 back pay.
Roberts claimed he had failed to fly the plane out of Saigon because he could not get to the airport, and that he could not get to the airport because an Air America helicopter never came to pick him up from a rooftop and take him there as scheduled.
Air America countersued for the value of the plane-$150,000-saying that Roberts could have radioed his supervisor that he was stranded, and had his supervisor summon a helicopter.
In ruling against Roberts, Judge Belson said he had showed a "passive attitude" about getting to the airport and flying the Voplar plane to the United States. His altitude, Belson said was influenced by "family circumstances."
"As of April 28, Roberts had no secured an American passport for them (his Vietnamese wife, stepdaughter and mother-in-law) to leave Vietnam as dependent of his as opposed to being in refugee status," Belson said. "He knew that unless he stayed with them as an American sponsor there was a very real chance that they would not be airlifted out of Vietnam."
As it turned out, Roberts and his family spent eight days abord a reguee ship with 6,000 Vietnamese escaping from Vietnam to Guam.
"during the voyage to Guam, I ate two 8-ounce tins of rice a day, had no shelter, no clothes and no bath," Roberts wrote in a letter to Air America. "We ednured 110 degrees heat by day and freesing rain at night. How only three people died I will never know."
Although Roberts lost his lawsuit, Air America also lost its countersuit. Belson said Roberts did not have to pay for the stranded plane because of a clause in an Air America contract absolving pilots of responsibility in such cases.
Air America also had sued Roberts for $11,200 in cash that he had been given to distrbute to other pilots. Roberts said he had left the money in a locked desk drawer at the airport.
Belson ruled that Roberts did no thave to reimburse Air America for that sum because he supervisors never tried to return to the airport and retrieve the money from the drawer.
Air America's lawyer, Qilliam Nelson, suggested that Roberts could not have been deeply concerned about keeping his appointment at the airport, since he fialed to wear a watch.
"During an evacuation, isn't time a crucial element?" Nelson asked Roberts in cross-examination. "Isn't time a crucial element in meeting objectives?"
Roberts replied that he did not need a watch because he had "nothing to do but wait for the aircraft to pick us up from the roof."