Air America (airline)

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For other uses, see Air America (disambiguation).
Air America
Air America wings.svg
IATA ICAO Callsign
Founded 1950
Ceased operations 1976
Fleet size 80+
Destinations 2
Parent company American Airdale Corporation
Headquarters Washington, DC

Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline covertly owned by the US government in 1950 as a dummy corporation for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations in China. The CIA did not have enough work to keep the asset afloat and the National Security Council farmed the airline out to various government entities that included the USAF, US Army, USAID and for a brief time the French Republic. Essentially, Air America was used by the US government covertly to conduct military operations, posing as a civilian air carrier, in areas the US armed forces could not go due to treaty restraints contained in the 1954 and 1962 Geneva Accords.


Air America Bell 205 helicopter leaving a Hmong fire support base in the Laotian Plain of Jars, c. 1969

In August 1950, the CIA, at the direction of the National Security Council, formed a Delaware corporation named Airdale. Airdale formed a subsidiary corporation named CAT, Inc. CAT purchased 40% of the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that had been started in China in 1946 by Gen Claire Lee Chennault (of Flying Tigers fame) and Whiting Willauer.[1] Sixty percent remained with Chinese investors. CAT Inc. also formed Asiatic Aeronautical Company Ltd, a Republic of China company.

In 1957 Airdale changed its name to Pacific Corporation. CAT, Inc. changed its name to Air America, Inc. in 1959 after settling objections from Air France. Asiatic Aeronautical Company, Ltd changed its name to Air Asia Company, Ltd the same year. Civil Air Transport remained in existence throughout the tenure of Air America from 1950 through 1976, and for several years was the flag carrier for the Republic of China. This status was lost after a landing accident and China Airlines became the flag carrier. Civil Air Transport became a ticketing company used mostly for inter-company travel.

Air America's slogan was "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally"[2]:xix. Air America aircraft, including the Curtiss C-46 Commando, Pilatus PC-6 Porter, de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou, C-130, and Fairchild C-123 Provider, along with UH34D, Bell 204B, 205, and CH47C helicopters, flew many types of cargo to countries such as the Republic of Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia. It operated from bases in those countries and also from bases in Thailand and as far afield as Taiwan and Japan. It also on occasion flew top-secret missions into Burma and the People's Republic of China.

Air America U-10D Helio Courier aircraft in Laos on a covert mountaintop landing strip (LS) "Lima site"

Air America's headquarters moved several times during its existence, including 808 17th St NW (1964), 801 World Center Bldg (late 1964), 815 Connecticut Ave NW (July 1968), and 1725 K Street NW (1972), all in Washington, DC. The principal continental US maintenance base was at Pinal Airpark, Marana, Arizona.

Operations during the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War)[edit]

From 1959 to 1962 the airline provided direct and indirect support to US Special Forces "Ambidextrous", "Hotfoot", and "White Star", which trained the regular Royal Laotian armed forces. After 1962 a similar operation known as Project 404 fielded numerous US Army attachés (ARMA) and air attachés (AIRA) to the US embassy in Vientiane.

From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong Army under command of Royal Lao Army Major General Vang Pao, and combatant Thai volunteer forces, transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided intelligence on NLF activities. Its civilian-marked craft were frequently used, under the control of the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force, to launch search and rescue missions for US pilots downed throughout Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were the only known private US corporate employees to operate non-Federal Aviation Administration-certified military aircraft in a combat role.

By mid-1970, the airline had two dozen twin-engine transport aircraft, another two dozen short-take off-and-landing aircraft, and 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. There were more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and airfreight specialists based in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. During 1970, Air America delivered 46 million pounds (21,000 metric tons) of food in Laos. Helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month in the same year.

An Air America Pilatus PC-6 Porter

Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, drug enforcement officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon all over Southeast Asia. Its non-human passengers were even more bizarre on occasion. Part of the CIA's support operations in Laos, for instance, involved logistical support for local tribes fighting the North Vietnamese forces and the Pathet Lao, their local opponents. Forced draft urbanization policies, such as the widespread application of Agent Orange to Vietnamese farmland created a disruption in local food production, so thousands of tons of food had to be flown in, including live chickens, pigs, water buffalo, and cattle. On top of the food drops (known as "rice drops") came the logistical demands for the war itself, and Air America pilots flew thousands of flights transporting and air-dropping ammunition and weapons (referred to as "hard rice"[2]):7 to friendly forces.

When the North Vietnamese Army overran South Vietnam in 1975, Air America helicopters participated in Operation Frequent Wind evacuating both US civilians and South Vietnamese people associated with the Saigon regime.[3][4] The famous photograph depicting the final evacuation by Dutch photographer, Hubert van Es, was an Air America helicopter taking people from an apartment building at 22 Gia Long St used by USAID and CIA employees.[5][6]

Drug smuggling[edit]

During the CIA's secret war in Laos, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964 which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. "According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao's headquarters at Long Tieng."[7]

Air America were alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[8][9][10] or of "turning a blind eye" to the Laotian military doing it.[11][12] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. It is portrayed in the movie Air America. However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees' direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.[1] Curtis Peebles denies the allegation, citing Leary's study as evidence.[13]

After the war[edit]

After pulling out of South Vietnam in 1975, there was an attempt to keep a company presence in Thailand. After this fell through, Air America was dissolved on 30 June 1976. Air Asia, the company that held all of the Air America assets, was later purchased by Evergreen International Airlines.[2] All proceeds, a sum between 20–25 million dollars, were returned to the US Treasury. The employees were released unceremoniously with no accolades and no benefits except for those who suffered long-term disabilities and death benefits for families of employees killed in action. The benefits came from workman's compensation insurance required by contracts with the US Air Force that few knew about. The benefits were not awarded easily. Many disabled pilots were ultimately compensated under the Federal Longshoreman's Act after lengthy battles with CIA bureaucrats who denied the existence of the airline for years. Many died of their injuries before they could be compensated adequately. Accident reports were falsified, redacted, and stonewalled by CIA officials who to this day (2015) deny accident reports.


During its existence Air America operated a diverse fleet of aircraft, the majority of which were STOL capable.[14] There was "fluidity" of aircraft between some companies like Air America, Boun Oum Airways, Continental Air Services, Inc, and the United States Air Force. It was not uncommon for USAF and United States Army Aviation units to lend aircraft to Air America for specific missions. Air America tended to register its aircraft in Taiwan. They operated in Laos without the B- nationality prefix. US military aircraft were often used with the "last three" digits of the military serial as a civil marking. The first two transports of Air America arrived in Vientiane, Laos on 23 August 1959. The Air America operations at Udorn, Thailand were closed down on 30 June 1974. Air America's operating authority was cancelled by the CAB (forerunner of the FAA) on 31 January 1974.

Fixed wing[edit]

Air America Bell 205s being evacuated aboard USS Hancock, in 1975.


Air Asia[edit]

Air Asia was a wholly owned subsidiary of Air America which provided technical, management, and equipment services for Civil Air Transport of Formosa. Air Asia was headquartered in Taipei and its main facilities were in Tainan, Taiwan.[17]

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On 5 May 1954, a C-119 crashed in Laos after being hit by ground fire. Pilot James B. McGovern, Jr. and Wallace Buford were killed.
  • On 5 September 1963, a C-46 aircraft was hit by ground fire and crashed about two kilometers from Tchepone in the Savannakhet Province. American DeBruin, Chinese Y.C. To, and the three Thai nationals, Pisidhi Indradat, Prasit Promsuwan, and Prasit Thanee parachuted to safety, but were immediately captured by the Pathet Lao. Joseph C. Cheney and Charles Herrick were killed in the crash. DeBruin, To, Promsuwan, and Thanee are still missing in action. Pisidhi Indradat was later rescued in January 1967.
  • On 20 August 1965, a UH-34 crashed and sank into the Mekong River. The three crew members managed to escape while the four passengers drowned. Surnames are only mentioned on the manifest for both crew and passengers. The pilot, a Mr. Calhoun, was involved in a hull loss of another UH-34 earlier that day when the helicopter performed a ground loop.[18]
  • On 27 September 1965, a C-45 was shot down by small arms fire as it attempted to land near Bao Trai Airstrip, Hau Nghia Province, Vietnam. Pilot John Lerdo Oyer, and Jack J Wells were killed in the crash.
  • On 16 January 1969, a Douglas C-47A "949" crashed in the Hai Van Pass, 18 miles (29 km) south of Huế, South Vietnam. The aircraft was on a domestic cargo flight from Phu Bai International Airport to Da Nang International Airport. All 12 passengers and crew were killed.[19]
  • In the spring of 1972, a C7-A Caribou loaded with Nationalist Lao Troops "mysteriously" experienced a simultaneous twin engine failure on final approach. Both pilots seriously injured. Sabotage suspected.
  • On 29 December 1973, a Douglas C-53D EM-3 overran the runway on landing at Dalat Airport, South Vietnam. The aircraft was substantially damaged and was not salvaged due to the presence of land mines in the area. It was operating a non-scheduled passenger flight. All nine people on board survived.[20]
  • On 29 April 1975, a Douglas VC-47A 084 crashed on landing at U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, Sattahip, Thailand. The aircraft was on a flight from Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Saigon, Vietnam.[21]

See also[edit]

Air America Pilot's Cap


  1. ^ a b "History of CAT/Air America". Archived from the original on April 24, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c Robbins, Christopher (2005). Air America; from World War II to Vietnam (4th ed.). Bangkok: Asia Books. ISBN 974-8303-51-9. 
  3. ^ "Air America: Played a Crucial Part of the Emergency Helicopter and Fixed Wing Evacuation of Saigon". History Net. Archived from the original on June 11, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  4. ^ "Air America Association – Articles". Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  5. ^ Van Es, Hubert (April 29, 2005). "Thirty Years at 300 Millimeters". The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2012. 
  6. ^ Butterfield, Fox; Haskell, Kari (April 23, 2000). "Getting it wrong in a photo". New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  7. ^ McCoy, Alfred (1972). The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. Harper & Row. pp. 263–264,. ISBN 0060129018. Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen. Vang Pao's headquarters at Long Tieng. 
  8. ^ "Opium Throughout History". PBS. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  9. ^ Cockburn, Alexander; Jeffrey St. Clair (1998). "9". Whiteout, the CIA, drugs and the press. New York: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-258-5. 
  10. ^ Blum, William. "The CIA and Drugs: Just say "Why not?"". Third World Traveller. Retrieved May 26, 2013. 
  11. ^ Robbins, Christopher (1985). The Ravens. New York: Crown. p. 94. ISBN 0-9646360-0-X. 
  12. ^ "Air America and Drugs in Laos". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 16, 2013. 
  13. ^ Peebles, Curtiss. Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations Against the USSR. pp. 254–255. ISBN 1591146607. 
  14. ^ "Air America Inc". April 1, 1976. Archived from the original on June 8, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Air America: Beech/Volpar Turbo Beech 18". University of Texas, Dallas, 2006. Retrieved: August 12, 2008.
  16. ^ P.31 Wings of Air America, A Photo History by Terry Love
  17. ^ "Air America Inc". April 1, 1976. Archived from the original on June 8, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Monthly Report: Aug/Sept 1965" (PDF). Freedom of Information Act. Retrieved 11 Nov 2015. 
  19. ^ "949 Accident Description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved January 23, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  21. ^ "084 Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved August 21, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cockburn, Alexander & St. Clair, Jeffrey. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. (Verso, 1998) ISBN 1-85984-258-5
  • Conboy, Kenneth & Morrison, James. Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 1995.
  • Dale Scott, Peter. Drugs, Oil, and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Columbia and Indochina (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) ISBN 0-7425-2522-8
  • Leary, William M. Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia. (The University of Alabama Press, 1984) ISBN 0-8173-0164-X
  • Love, Terry. Wings of Air America: A Photo History (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998) ISBN 0-7643-0619-7
  • Parker, James E. Jr. Covert Ops: The CIA's Secret War in Laos (St Martin’s Press, 1995) ISBN 0-312-96340-8
  • Robbins, Christopher. Air America (Corgi, 1988) ISBN 0-552-12821-X
    • Air America: The True Story of the C.I.A.'s Mercenary Fliers in Covert Operations from Pre-war China to Present Day Nicaragua by Christopher Robbins (Jan 1991) Corgi; New Ed edition (January 1991) ISBN 0-552-13722-7 ISBN 978-0552137225
  • Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos (Asia Books Co., 2000) ISBN 974-8303-41-1
  • Vietnam Magazine, August 2006
  • Honor Denied: The Truth about Air America and the CIA by Allen Cates (iUniverse) ISBN 9781462057481

External links[edit]