The Interview

Michael Manning has built a significant portfolio of newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews featuring guests from stage, screen, television, journalism, music, sports, business and more!

What distinguishes “The Interview” online from many Television and Radio programs of the same genre is that Michael chooses to casually “visit” with each guest as if they were having coffee at a cafĂ© and sharing conversation casually. "In this setting, my guests are much more relaxed and encouraged to be themselves, and the result is the privilege of spending some quality time with someone in a more reflective mood", said Michael. "I have been on both sides of the table, and that experience has allowed me to pose questions with the utmost respect and care to my guests. This allows my audience to gain a sense of their personality. In comes the warmth and often humor resulting in a meaningful experience that really stays with you for some time. And that's what the experience should be!" he said.

Please join Michael for his feature, "The Interview".

Saturday, August 08, 2015

A Look Back at Guests I've Featured on "The Interview"

To say that I've been fortunate to have interviewed some remarkable personalities over the years would be an understatement. Just the same, its summertime and a good opportunity to rewind and have a look at some amazing print and videotaped guests I've featured over the years on my Blog Page. Here are some  examples:

NASA Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 Astronaut and Eastern Airline chairman, president and CEO 
Colonel Frank Borman---Actress, Model, Author and Philanthropist Barbara Leigh--Palm Springs' Ingleside Inn Proprietor Mel Haber--From Discovery Channel's "Animal Planet", Co-Host Joseph Pentangelo--Christian Singer/Songwriter David M. Bailey--EVVY Awards Founder, Producer and Television Host Florette Vassall--Airline and Banking Executive Subodh Karnik--Delta Air Lines president  and co-founder of The Star Alliance, Hollis Harris--A Perspective on the 'N' Word with Dr. Neal Lester--Pan American World Airways Executive Al Topping--Steve McQueen Biographer and author Marshall Terrill--Venice, Florida-based Singer/Songwriter Bud Buckley--Sarasota, Florida-based  Sports Anchor and Big Band Magazine Host Doug Miles--Eastern Airlines Trustee Martin R. Shugrue, Jr.--An Introduction to Cable Television's "America's Best Neighbors withMichael Manning--Atlas Air Cargo's CEO William J. Flynn--The MonOrchid Studio's Wayne Rainey--Artist and Children's Book Illustrator Constance Douglas--CNN Aviation Correspondent Jim Tilmon

Michael Manning: The Official Site

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Last Flight Out of Vietnam: An Exclusive Interview with Al Topping (Part 3 of 3)

All Photos: Al Topping
L-R: Al Topping with actor James Earl Jones at a preview/reception for "Last Flight Out" 

Manning: Did you interact with James Earl Jones, Richard Crenna and Haing S. Ngor?

Topping: The film was shot in Bangkok, Thailand, and I wasn't there. I did do extensive interviews with executive producer Michael Manheim and producer Norman I. Cohen. At the time there were so many movies about Vietnam that had been made, such as 'Apocalypse Now' and so forth. The guy who was responsible for getting this project going was married to Lisa Yates, a Pan Am flight attendant who was on the actual last flight out, and he played the role of the co-pilot in the film. When Lisa told her husband about what happened, he said, 'This has got to be a movie'. And it took him years to get Michael Manheim to produce the film.

It was only after the film was made that I met James Earl Jones, and he told me that he didn't want to really talk to me (beforehand), because he wanted to experience for himself what he thought I was going through--that's the way he works. And you want to know something fascinating? He did something in the film that I thought about doing, but didn't do. There was a scene where I found out that the FAA put a restriction on all our carriers and we could not operate flights out of Saigon any longer. And in the scene I take a desk and flip it over and slam a book against a wall. And that's what I had actually felt like doing. But I didn't do it. That was not my style--becoming violent--but that was what I felt. All that work, and then we find out that flight cannot operate! 

Haing Ngor's character--Nguyen Van Luc in real life--was a Pan Am employee who had a wife, eleven children, and a mother who was too sick to travel. So, he kept the whole family behind. Believe it or not, he's in the United States now. I was back in the United States some ten years after all of this when I received a letter from Luc that said "Please help me get out". I helped get him and three of his daughters out. We still need to get the rest of his family out. 

What's sad about that was that a year after we left, his mother died. Then his wife was killed in a motorbike accident, and he was put in a 're-education camp' after the fall of Saigon. His cell was a metal aircraft cargo container that sat outside. He was forced to endure 100-degree temperatures in that container wearing very little clothing. One of his fellow prisoners died, and the North Vietnamese left that man's decomposing body in the container with Luc and the others until the next day. Finally, Luc became so sick that his captors let him out. But he almost died. 

Manning: I believe that you ultimately had 463 souls on board. 

Topping: Yeah, we had an airplane with a capacity for 375 people. 

Manning: And what went through your mind as the plane began to roll? 

Topping: Oh, so many things. 'Will this thing even get off the ground?' 'Will they fire a missile at us?' I don't think I was even breathing. I was just overwhelmed thinking of the newspaper headlines: 'Pan Am 747 Blown Up'. Then finally when we lifted off, I was sitting in the cockpit jump-seat looking out the window for anything, and finally when I saw the fleet of American warships in the South China Sea I knew we had made it. 

 Al Topping visiting Pan Am's old ticket office in downtown Saigon 15 years after the last flight departed. A French trading company now occupies the office. The Pan Am blue globe logo can still be seen above the doorway. 
Manning: Tell us about your return trip to Saigon in 1990.

Topping: Saigon basically looked the same. I returned to the home where I lived that was occupied by a retired North Vietnamese Army officer. Not only that--I went into what was once my den and saw the original US Embassy phone book. And then at the old downtown Pan Am ticket office the original Pan Am logo was still on the wall, but it was a trading company. My office had photos of Pan Am aircraft photos on the wall, but they were all missing, and the only picture on the wall was of Ho Chi Minh. A couple of Pan Am posters were left in the lobby. They were very friendly and let me in. I had an interpreter and we sat down and had tea. After all this time you have to ask, 'What were we doing there?' 

Manning: Ultimately, you wound up working with The Miami Herald as a transportation supervisor. How did that come about? That was a very different job from 22 years with Pan Am and five with United?

Topping: Do you know what is not different? In the airline industry, from an operations standpoint, the objective is to get the plane out on time.  In the newspaper business it's the same thing. You're working with coordinating many different departments together to get the paper out on time. 

Manning: Do you miss the airline industry?

Al Topping in his office at Pan Am with poster of "Last Flight Out" in the background.

Topping: I do. But when I started out I used to look at Pan Am and think, 'In order to fly on Pan Am you had to wear a suit'. This was a classy, upscale international carrier. The message that I've tried to convey is that over the years Pan Am  has affected the lives of so many people beyond the employees. So, what I tried to do was to reach out to anybody involved with any aspect of Pan Am. That meant getting a hold of the flight attendants and the flight crews; even passengers tell me they miss us so much. I've heard from flight attendants who visited wounded military personnel in hospitals, to a woman whose father passed away who was a Pan Am pilot, and she said, "I just feel that I have to be there for him". 

Al Topping retired from The Miami Herald, and will release his new book, "Flight to Freedom" later this year. This interview originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Airways magazine. My thanks to Al Topping for making this retrospective possible.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Last Flight of Vietnam: An Exclusive Interview with Al Topping Part 2 of 3

Photo: Al Topping
On the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon in early April 1975. Pictured Right to Left: Al Topping, at center: General Murray and his wife &amp Ray Collins at far left, protocol officer for the U.S. Military Command. If you look closely behind the right shoulder of Ray Collins, Pan Am flight 842 can be seen taking-off for San Francisco.
Manning: Wasn't that the same week of the crash of a Lockheed C-5A Galaxy carrying orphans to the United States? 

Topping: That was on April 4, and I was at the airport that day helping to load the plane. They were using our air stairs and my buddy from Continental Airlines was with me. They buttoned down and took off, and we watched their departure, and then turned around to walk back to our office. Just a few minutes later, there was a column of black smoke. Suddenly we saw helicopters around that site and I called the US Embassy and they confirmed that the C-5 had crashed. 

At that time, we had no idea what happened. But within twenty-four hours, a Connecticut-based organization called 'AmeriCares' advised us that Pan Am was flying in with two chartered 747's to evacuate not only the orphan survivors, but others who were desperate to get out. This is something I'll never forget. Our 747's came in with all-volunteer crews. We thought that the C-5 crash might have involved sabotage. So, as we were loading the babies one at a time up the steps, we had to make sure that someone had not put explosives in their clothing. We had to be sure. Here I am carrying a little baby up the air stairs and thinking there might be explosives in a diaper; it was an awful situation. If you could imagine: aboard a 747, cardboard file boxes belted into the seats carrying three hundred or more screaming babies at one time with the stench of urine everywhere. And these people were going to fly from Vietnam to California!

Manning: What was your flight route?

Topping:  Our route was normally Saigon-Manila, which was three hours, over to Guam--that's another three hours--then Guam-Honolulu, that's seven hours, then finally Honolulu to the West Coast--that's another five hours. It is an eighteen-hour trip. But these trips we routed to Yokota Air Base in Japan, then Hawaii--West Coast. The airplane that arrived in San Francisco was met by President Gerald Ford. Some of the babies were sick and some had expired on the trip.

With the second 747, we had set up the schedule so that we would not have two 747's on the ground at the same time. We felt that would represent too many assets sitting there. So, just as soon as the first plane was lifting off, the second one was on final approach. 

Manning: One of those babies who survived (and I met in 2005) is now Dr. Matt Steiner?

Topping: Exactly. He was about eight years old at the time. I've been in touch with him. In fact, a book has been written about him called "Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy", by Andrea Warren.

Manning: Your family had to be worried sick about your safety throughout all this. How did you get word to them that you were alright? 

Topping: Actually, through Jeff Kriendler (Pan Am's Vice President of Corporate Communications). Jeff was in New York, and he would get word to my mother to relay information as to my status personally. We didn't have fax machines, we used Quip machines, and I had my wife over there with me. In fact, when I first went over to Vietnam, I was single. And I came back to San Francisco and married my fiancee' in March 1973. Talk about culture shock, we spent our honeymoon in Hawaii, and then went right on to Vietnam.

Manning: So, there you were monitoring Citizen Band radios, the Armed Forces Radio Network, local television and radio, and colleagues from other companies. How did you assemble the evacuation plan without endangering lives? 

Topping: My first concern was, 'How do we know when we leave?' Because operations appeared normal on the surface; however, beneath that surface  churning of activity was going on that told me this was not going to last much longer. You couldn't wait too long. So, as the government began lifting restrictions with allowing the orphans to get out, I found out that I could get our people out if I formally adopt them. I got our personnel guy to get me all the paperwork that was needed, and we filled out piles of forms that said, basically, that Al Topping was adopting these 360 people!

Manning: But you had over 700 names. How did you decide which were legitimate? 

Topping: It was awful, because the company said we could evacuate all of our employees and their immediate families. In the United States that meant a wife or a husband and children. But over there, 'immediate family' meant everybody. So, I had to go back and explain that I could be responsible for only immediate family. I didn't want to tell our people that absolutely, positively, you cannot bring your mother. I didn't say that, but they knew they couldn't bring their mothers, fathers and grandmothers. So, eventually we got the numbers down to 303. Then the next challenge was to determine when this flight could operate, and I couldn't tell anyone.

Finally, two weeks before we left, I was taking up residence at the airport. I had already sent my wife back to the States. I was living in a trailer because I didn't want to be stuck downtown if the situation became unglued. So, as I was pacing the floor at night, I looked at the calendar and realized that May 1 was May Day, the communist holiday, and I knew that would be the day they would launch the offensive. So, looking at our schedule, I decided which flight to use without looking suspicious, because it was our scheduled flight anyway.

I decided that April 24 would be our day to leave and I didn't tell our employees until 24 hours beforehand. I told them to be prepared to leave immediately. That particular morning, we had rain, and I received a call from my ticket office manager who said that the office was filled with our people and how do we get them out of the office and on buses to the airport? I said. "Anyway you can". And somehow we got it done, and I had him leave a note on the door that said 'Temporarily Closed'. I met them at the airport checkpoint and from there we began boarding.      

Manning: In the movie, "Last Flight Out", there is a tense scene before departure where an inspector boards the air stairs with armed guards and tells Richard Crenna's character (Captain Dan Hood), 'Before you take off, I must ensure that everyone on board has the proper exit visas. This flight is most irregular. I think Mr. Topping is trying to hide something. Now stand aside!' Was that accurate?

Topping: It was more of a Hollywood kind of thing. It made it look a lot more dramatic than it really was. Having said that, there was a moment of truth, because at that moment there was no turning back. We had a load of people on the airplane already to go, the place was surrounded; this was no time to be playing games. We kind of got together some funds before boarding. So, the confrontation they showed in the film was the kind of thing that would have happened if we hadn't planned and acted wisely. But they made it look more dramatic.

Manheim Company/NBC Productions

Also, let me clarify: Richard Crenna played Captain Dan Hood, who was not the pilot on that flight. Dan was the pilot out there a week before who helped get the orphans out. Captain Bob Berg was actually our pilot. I saw some South Vietnamese soldiers boarding the plane, and of course I didn't try to stop them because I knew they were not going to hijack us. They were there to get out of town. After takeoff we collected their weapons.  

Next: Our Conclusion...

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Last Flight Out of Vietnam: An Exclusive Interview with Al Topping Part 1 of 3

Airways Magazine

May 24, 2015 marked a special 40th anniversary. On that date in 1975, Pan Am station manager Al Topping organized a daring evacuation of Pan Am personnel and their families from Saigon, Vietnam. The country was falling rapidly to North Vietnamese communist forces. This story was so compelling, that in 1990, the NBC Television movie, "Last Flight Out" was filmed and released. By the end of this year, Al Topping will have completed "Flight to Freedom", a new book that covers his life before, during and after his experience in Vietnam to date. I felt it was entirely appropriate to reprint my original report and interview with Al Topping from the April 2006 issue of Airways Magazine.

By April 1975, US troops engaged in the Vietnam War had dwindled from a peak of 500,000 to 25,000. North Vietnamese Forces began to take over provinces without firing a single shot. When it became apparent that Saigon would soon fall to the communists, one man organized a daring feat to evacuate Pan Am personnel and their families. That man is Al Topping, then Pan Am's station manager in Saigon. 

Recently Topping reminisced with Airways how his life and those of 463 people (and hundreds of orphans) changed forever. In 1990, his story was made into an NBC TV movie entitled "Last Flight Out" (not to be confused with the 2004 movie of the same name), starring James Earl Jones as Al Topping, and featuring the late Richard Crenna, and Barry Corbin. The role of South Vietnamese ramp supervisor Nguyen Van Luc (dubbed 'Pham Van Minh' in the movie) was played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian who won the 1985 Academy Award (Oscar) as Best Supporting Actor for his role in "The Killing Fields". Haing S. Ngor was murdered in Los Angeles in February 1996.  

ManningTell us about your career at Pan Am.

Topping: Oh, man that is a story! I worked at United Airlines and that's where I started out in the airline industry in 1964, as a ticket agent at JFK Airport. One day we had some problems getting my uniform out of the dry cleaners. So, I went to work with my suit instead of my uniform. My supervisor said, "Where is your uniform?" I said, "I had a little trouble and I couldn't get my uniform out of the cleaners today". He said, "I like you in that suit". So, right there I got promoted to handling VIP's and from that moment on, I began meeting a lot of people simply because I was no longer just selling tickets. And I started to meet some frequent travelers with Pan Am.

One day I was helping a Pan Am Executive and he told me, "If you ever decide to leave United, give me a call", and he gave me his card. After five years at United, I wanted to be a sales rep downtown. But at that particular time they didn't want to hire a black sales rep. So I decided to call Pan Am and they gave me the job I always wanted. They hired me in a fast-track management training sales program, and after about three years they said, "We're going to transfer you to our sales office in San Francisco". At the time I said, "Are you kidding?" I had visions of Cleveland or Buffalo. But this was like going to Heaven! So, after a couple of years I was promoted to telephone sales manager. It was a challenging job in charge of 150 people in reservations.

Then Pan Am began to go through one of their many restructurings, and they decided to go with a one-man concept of a 'Mr. Pan Am'--so to speak at each location with sales, service and airport director all folded into one person. That was in 1972. And in all of my evaluations with Pan Am, I always put down that I wanted to be a station manager. So, my boss called me in one day and said there's a possibility of an opening coming available in the Pacific. When he said that, I was thinking maybe Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan... 
To cut to the chase, he said, "You could be our Station Manager in Vietnam". And my immediate response was,"No thank you!" The war was going on and Vietnam did not turn me on. So, he said, "Before you say no, why don't you go out there and take a look around?" So, I did and as we drew closer to the coastline of Vietnam, I was glued to the window like a kid, and I saw remnants of the war. But after spending about three days walking around, I saw that there were a lot of people from the United States, and Pan Am was operating a lot of civilian and cargo flights in and out of the country, so I accepted the assignment.
I was the Pan Am director in Vietnam responsible for all of Pan Am's operations including our station, our sales, operations, cargo, you name it. I guess the most challenging part of all was adjusting to the culture. That was my first time out of the United States. I met some other people there who represented other companies like Continental Airlines, Flying Tigers, Shell and Bank of America. So, you start to move in those circles.   

ManningIt's hard to imagine an American living safely in Vietnam at that time.

Topping: Back home, you would see and hear stories on the television about people flipping grenades into houses and stores and sidewalk cafes. As a matter of fact, my first night in Vietnam, I was standing on the top of The Palace Hotel at the rooftop bar and restaurant at about dusk. And all of a sudden I started hearing a series of giant explosions in the distance with flashes of light as we're sitting there having a gin and tonic--and it just became so normal to hear every single night. 

Saigon itself was a bustling place. Sometimes, I felt very secure. I had a car and a driver that the company provided. Traffic there was horrific. I'd say 90 percent of the traffic was Honda motorbikes, and I'm in a four-door Chevrolet Impala. At traffic lights, you're surrounded on all sides by these people looking in the car and at you and you wonder, 'Who are all these people? Are they Vietcong?' Fortunately, nothing ever happened.

Directly across the street from our house was a compound that housed the vice president of South Vietnam, and he had towers with gunmen at each corner of the rooftop. Then, on the other side of our house was the President of Air Vietnam, directly across the street from the U.S. Embassy. So, I felt relatively safe.

ManningEd Trippe (son of Pan Am's founder, Juan Trippe) told me that outside of JFK, Tan Son Nhut was the second busiest airport in the world.
Topping: Ed Trippe was absolutely correct. But by the time I arrived, the war was winding down significantly. We did have the R&R (Rest and Relaxation) flights carrying troops from Saigon to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Malaysia, Hawaii and Australia. In addition, we had scheduled flights, and I got there in December 1972. There was a lot of pressure in this country for us to get out of Vietnam. Dr. Henry Kissinger finally reached an agreement at the Paris peace talks that all of the US troops had to be out of the country by February 1975. I can recall, by the way, the North Vietnamese literally checking our men off the lists as they would leave. At that point the peace agreement was signed and the war was basically over. But of course it really wasn't.
Manning: When did you first become concerned that Saigon would fall to communist forces?
Topping: In February 1975. That's when the pressure was really stepped up against the United States to exit the country and to reduce the amount of aid coming in. The South Vietnamese felt that they could not adequately defend the country without the same level of aid and so they started pulling back. As they pulled back, the North Vietnamese moved in. There was no resistance. As the weeks passed, province after province was falling and there were no shots being fired. This trend really concerned me. I had no experience in evacuation planning. It suddenly became obvious to me and to everyone that the end was literally around the corner. Our employees were getting concerned about what I was doing to help them out. I started communicating with our people back in New York. The most difficult part of this was although the country was falling, the South Vietnamese government was still in charge and we could not leave the country. So, I had 61 employees and their families. My challenge was, 'How do I effectively evacuate them with a workable plan without endangering their lives?'

It all came to a head in early April, when a South Vietnamese pilot who was sympathetic to the war because his father was killed, took an F-5 fighter jet and tried to bomb the South Vietnamese President's house. That plane flew about five hundred feet over our ticket office (which was) filled with people at the time. People were screaming and running out into the streets. That hit the AP (Associated Press) wires...'Saigon was under attack'. But I was able to determine that this was an isolated incident. Nevertheless, I had to convince our people in New York not to cancel an incoming flight, because I had people with tickets waiting to get out.

Manheim Company/NBC Productions
To be continued...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Steve McQueen Biographer Marshall Terrill (In the Studio with Michael Manning)

Marshall Terrill is recognized worldwide as a leading biographer of the late American actor, Steve McQueen (1930-1980). 

Interestingly, Hollywood is re-discovering McQueen's work. In this interview, Marshall and I focus on his book, "Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon". 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The N-word, a perspective with Neal Lester (In the Studio with Michael M...

Dr. Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English and Founding Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. He has been a Professor of English at Arizona State University since 1997, having taught previously at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and the University of Montevallo (AL).  His areas of specialization are African American literature and cultural studies. Dr. Lester earned his B.A. in English and was Valedictorian at the State University of West Georgia (Carrollton). He took his M.A. and Ph.D. in English at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and is the first African American to receive the doctorate degree in English at Vanderbilt. A popular public speaker, frequent radio guest, regular op ed contributor, newspaper columnist and blogger, and discussion facilitator, Dr. Lester has an extensive record of  lectures and keynote addresses, local and national media interviews, guest speaker events, scholarly consultations, conference presentations, and editorials. In our interview, Dr. Lester discusses the focus of his lecture series, "The N-Word: An Anatomy Lesson". 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Illustrator Connie Douglas (In the Studio with Michael Manning)

Constance Douglas returns to my "In the Studio" series after having been a print interview guest on these pages for four consecutive days back in 2011. As an artist and illustrator of children's books, by "making the world a better place, one act of kindness at a time", her goal is to encourage children to make healthier choices in their lives.