Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline established in 1950 and covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Special Activities Division from 1950 to 1976. It supplied and supported United States covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
In August 1950, the CIA secretly purchased 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.
In 1951, the parent company of Air America’s forerunner, Civil Air Transport (CAT), was reorganized. The owner, Chennault, was approached by the CIA, who bought out the company through a holding company, the American Airdale Corporation. Under this agreement, CAT was allowed to keep its initials and the company was reorganized as Civil Air Transport, Inc.
On 7 October 1957, American Airdale was reorganized to add another layer of obfuscation to its ownership. The new Pacific Corporation became a holding company for Air Asia Company (Air Asia (Taiwan)), Ltd; Air America, Inc; Civil Air Transport, Inc; Southern Air Transport; Intermountain Aviation; Bird and Sons (known as BirdAir); and Robinson Brothers. CAT attempted to change its name to Air America at the same time, but objections from Air France and American Airlines delayed the name change for two years.
Air America’s slogan was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”. Air America aircraft, including the de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou and Fairchild C-123 Provider, 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’s headquarters moved several times during its existence, 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. Marana, Arizona was the principal continental United States maintenance base for Air America of which was located at Pinal Airpark.
Operations during the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War)
From 1959 to 1962 the airline provided direct and indirect support to CIA Operations “Ambidextrous”, “Hotfoot”, and “White Star”, which trained the regular Royal Laotian armed forces. After 1962 a similar operation known as Project 404 fielded numerous U.S. Army attachés (ARMA) and air attachés (AIRA) to the U.S. embassy in Vientiane.
From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted U.S. personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, 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 valuable 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 U.S. pilots downed throughout Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were the only known private U.S. corporate employees to operate non-Federal Aviation Administration-certified military aircraft in a combat role, although many of them were actually military personnel who had been transferred to the airline.
By the summer of 1970, the airline had some 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 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, drugs, 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”) 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 regime from Saigon. The iconic photograph depicting the final evacuation from the “U.S. Embassy” by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es was actually an Air America helicopter taking people off of an apartment at 22 Gia Long Street building used by USAID and CIA employees.
Alleged drug smuggling
Air America allegedly transported opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao. 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.
University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America itself, however claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge (except for those employees that said they did know about it) and that the airline itself did not trade in drugs. Curtis Peebles denies the allegation, citing Leary’s study as evidence.
After the war
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 officially disbanded on June 30, 1976, and was later purchased by Evergreen International Airlines, which continues to provide support for U.S. covert operations.
During its existence Air America operated a diverse fleet of aircraft, the majority of which were STOL capable. There was “fluidity” of aircraft between some companies like Air America, BOA, CASI and the USAF. It was not uncommon for USAF and US Army aviation units to loan aircraft to Air America for specific missions. Air America tended to register its aircraft in Taiwan, operating in Laos without the B- nationality prefix. Ex US military aircraft were often used with the “last three” digits of the military serial as a civil marking, sometimes with a B- prefix. 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 on 31 January 1974.
Air America (film)
Air America is a 1990 American action comedy film directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots, during the Vietnam War, flying missions in Laos. The protagonists discover their planes are used by other government agents to smuggle heroin; and then, they must avoid being made patsies in a frame-up.
The plot is adapted from Christopher Robbins’ 1979 non-fiction book, chronicling the CIA financed airline during the Vietnam War to transport weapons and supplies within Laos and other areas of Indochina subsequent to the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The publicity for the film—advertised as a light-hearted buddy movie—implied a tone that differs greatly with the tone of the actual film, which includes such serious themes as an anti-war political spin, focus on the opium trade, and a negative portrayal of Royal Laotian General Vang Pao (played by actor Burt Kwouk as “General Lu Soong”).