Real Life Air America: The CIA’s Covert Airline Used for Everything, including Drug Smuggling
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.
How it all began
In August 1950, the CIA, at the direction of the National Security Council, formed a corporation named Airdale. They bought 40% shares of Civil Air Transport or CAT, an airline that was started in China in 1946 and remained in existence throughout the tenure of Air America from 1950 through 1976.
In 1957 Airdale changed its name to Pacific Corporation. CAT changed its name to Air America in 1959. Air America’s slogan was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”.
They 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.
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.
Air America Bell 205 helicopter leaving a Hmong fire support base in the Laotian Plain of Jars, c. 1969 (Wikipedia)
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.
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.
Air America U-10D Helio Courier aircraft in Laos on a covert mountaintop landing strip (LS) “Lima site” (Wikipedia)
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”) to friendly forces.
Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975. (Wikipedia)
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.
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.
Air America complex at Udorn, Thailand, 1973 (CIA.gov)
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 Meo depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Meo 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 Meo were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several 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.”
Air America were alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao, or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it. 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. Curtis Peebles denies the allegation, citing Leary’s study as evidence.
During its existence Air America operated a diverse fleet of aircraft, the majority of which could take off from short runway. 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 on 31 January 1974.
Air America aircraft included:
Curtiss C-46 Commando,
Pilatus PC-6 Porter
de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou
Fairchild C-123 Provider
Bell 204B helicopter
Bell 205 helicopter
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 27 September 1965 a plane 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.
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.
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.
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.
All proceeds, a sum between 20–25 million dollars, was 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 (2016) deny accident reports.