Southern Air Transport
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Southern Air Transport (SAT) (1947-1998), based in Miami, Florida, was a cargo airline best known as a front company for the Central Intelligence Agency (1960-1973) and for its role in the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s. Southern Air carried four loads of US weapons bound for Iran from the US to Israel, and on the return flights carried weapons destined for the Nicaraguan Contras from Portugal. The shooting down of an SAT flight in Nicaragua in October 1986 helped expose Iran-Contra.
SAT was founded in 1947 in Miami as a charter airline flying cargo to The Bahamas. By the time it was acquired by the CIA in 1960 for $300,000 (from the company's founder, F. C. "Doc" Moor) it was still small, with three aircraft, and "plenty of debts". SAT became a subsidiary of the CIA's airline proprietary network managed by George A. Doole Jr., the Pacific Corporation. SAT's Pacific Division supported the US war effort in Southeast Asia, and operated 23 Lockheed Hercules aircraft in its fleet. According to the Miami Herald, during the 13 years the agency owned the airline it earned $3 million in profits, most of which were poured back into the firm to expand its operations.
The Central Intelligence Agency sold Southern Air Transport for $2.1 million in 1973 to an aviation executive who had fronted for the agency's ownership of the airline for 13 years, the Miami Herald reported on 10 March 1975. According to the newspaper, SAT had a stockholder equity of $4.2 million when the CIA sold it to Stanley G. Williams, who had fronted as president of the firm from 1962 to 31 December 1973, when he purchased the airline. The Herald said, however, that Williams did not get as good a deal as he wanted for the airline. "It was a long, hard, arms-length transaction," Williams said of the sale.
SAT was sold again in 1979, this time to James H. Bastian - described by the Los Angeles Times in 1986 as "a top-notch Washington, D.C., aviation attorney who had worked with Doole at the Pacific Corp. from 1961 to 1974, as secretary, vice president and general counsel." Under Bastian the company expanded its revenues (from $9.8m in 1982 to $38.m in 1985) and had over 500 employees in 1986.
As of 1982, the SAT fleet was as follows:
- Douglas DC-6, c.n. 45325, N28CA, leased in, F.A. Conner
- Douglas DC-6A, c.n. 45237, N6539C, leased in, Civil Air Transport
- Curtiss C-46, c.n. ?, N772A, leased in, Carib Air Cargo
- Curtiss C-46, c.n. 4219, N783V, leased in, Carib Air Cargo
- Lockheed L-100-30, c.n. 4362, N7984S, line number 84S
- Curtiss C-46, c.n. 20749, N87629, leased in, Carib Air Cargo
- Lockheed L-100-30, c.n. 4299, N9232R, line number 32R
- Lockheed L-100-20, c.n. 4250, N9266R, line number 66R
- Douglas DC-8, c.n. 45296, XA-LSA, leased in, Aeroleon, formerly registered N8027U
Although the CIA was ordered to divest its airlines in 1976, SAT continued to support US covert activities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, and elsewhere. On October 5, 1986 Nicaragua shot down a SAT C-123K, Corporate Air Services HPF821, formerly USAF 54-679 (c/n 20128), cargo plane with a Soviet-supplied, shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile and captured the cargo handler, a SAT employee Eugene Hasenfus, exposing the Iran-Contra affair. Two other crew were killed.
SAT operated out of Kenya during the Rwandan crisis using C-130 aircraft. They also recruited and tried to recruit Canadian service members and some members of Relief Air Transport, the Canadian airline operating C-46s in Kenya, into their group.
SAT operated out of Asmara, Ethiopia, (now Eritrea), during the Ethiopian famine of the late 80's. It hauled thousands of tons of relief supplies in the middle of a hot war under contracts for the UN, CARITAS, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, saving thousands of lives.
SAT was heavily involved in famine and disaster relief efforts in other areas of Africa, as well. SAT supported the airlift into southern Sudan from the late 80's into the middle 90's. At one time, SAT Hercules aircraft were the sole food supply for the refugee camps in the Juba, Sudan area, during the north-south war. Again, SAT provided food for the helpless and saved countless thousands of lives.
SAT's extensive operations included both offshore and domestic operations and SAT aircraft touched down on all seven continents and in well over a hundred countries. SAT aircraft were based in Papua New Guinea, the U.K, and very commonly in various African countries, as well as other offshore locations, with crews rotating in and out as demand required.
The crews were unique. Highly talented crew members were recruited from both ex-military and civilian-trained personnel. SAT consistently performed highly difficult and challenging tasks on a wide variety of contracts, many in disturbed areas such as Somalia, both prior to and after the notorious Blackhawk Down incident. SAT Hercs also operated in Angola, Mozambique, Djibouti, Senegal, and the DRC.
SAT's crew training was maintained to the highest standards in aviation. The aircraft were consistently well-maintained, often under the most difficult of circumstances. Maintenance personnel were of the highest caliber.
Prior to the military cutback during the Clinton administration, SAT supported the U.S. Air Force's Logair cargo system, as well as the U.S. Navy's Quicktrans systems, operating much more efficiently than the military could using their own airlift. SAT also flew extensively in Europe and west Asia in support of both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy, basing out of Ramstein Air Force Base near Landsthul, Germany, and RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia, U.K.
SAT carried cargo of all possible description, from hauling newspapers from the U.K. to Ireland at night in winter across the Irish sea, to carrying breeding horses to Brazil. Additionally, SAT was entrusted with King Tut's treasure. One notable 747 mission involved hauling a load of lions from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, South Africa, the lions being on loan from the Amsterdam Zoo to the Johannesburg Zoo.
SAT L-382's, 707's, DC-8's and 747's served many commercial carriers carrying outsize cargo and hazardous materials. It also performed routine U.S. Embassy supply missions throughout Latin America, covering all of Central and South America, as well as Mexico.
One of SAT's most notable accomplishments was a three year contract supporting Chevron's drilling operations in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, operating from a base at Nadzab airport near Lae. Chevron was totally dependent on SAT L-382's, as no roads reached the massive oil recovery operation near Lake Kutubu. Papua New Guinea provides some of the world's most challening flying conditions, due both to the rapidly changing tropical monsoons that sweep the island nation, and the incredibly rugged terrain features of the country.
During the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, SAT's accomplishments became legendary. Both the company and the participating crewmembers received performance awards as members of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet from a grateful U.S. Air Force.
The airline declined during the late 1990s but continued to operate freight charter flights worldwide. In late 1998 it tried to merge with other aviation companies, but it filed for bankruptcy on October 1, the same day that the CIA released a report detailing allegations that it had been used for drug trafficking.
On March 10, 1999, the assets of Southern Air Transport were purchased by Southern Air, and the new carrier began operations in November, 1999.
- Air America
- Civil Air Transport
- Pegasus Aviation Finance Company
- Rendition aircraft
- St. Lucia Airways
- Tepper Aviation
The history of Southern Air Transport from its founding in 1947 to its purchase by the CIA in 1960 is covered in the book "Then Came The CIA" published in May, 2011 by Fred C. Moor III
- Barry Bearak, Los Angeles Times, 26 December 1986, Intrigue Trails Airline Linked to Iran, Contras
- United Press International, "CIA Sold Miami Airlines To Former 'Front' Executive", Playground Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Tuesday 11 March 1975, Volume 30, Number 28, page 6.
- The 23 Lockheed Hercules aircraft were c.n.s 4134, 4147, 4208, 4248, 4250, 4299, 4300-4302, 4362, 4383, 4384, 4388, 4391, 4472, 4477, 4558, 4561, 4562, 4565, 4586, 4590 and 4763. - Olausson, Lars. Lockheed Hercules Production List 1954-2008, 25th edition. Lars Olausson, self-published, Såtenäs, Sweden, April 2007. p. 140, no ISBN.
- Endres, Günter G. World Airline Fleets 1983. Aviation Data Centre, Feltham, Middlesex, 1982. p. 351. ISBN 0-946141-02-9.
- Omang, Joanne, and Wilson, George C., "Questions About Plane's Origins Grow", Washington Post, Washington, D.C., Thursday, October 9, 1986, pages A-1, A-32.