A Covert Airline: The Air America Story & Reunion

air america
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Air America

“Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”

Air America was a commercial airline originally created in August 1950 (through a number of odd transactions among ostensibly Chinese companies for the CIA, including one owned by General Chenault of the Flying Tigers). IATA and ICAO assigned the code AAM for the carrier. Air America’s slogan was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally.”

Its fleet (it would have been great to see its Ops Specs, if any real government ever issued them) included:

air america cia operations

Its loads included many types of cargo (probably best that the actual manifests were not shown to the PICs) and its route map spread across the Republic of Vietnam, the Kingdom of LaosCambodia, Thailand, TaiwanJapan, Burma and the People’s Republic of China (the latter two were top-secret missions).

air america cia fleet

Its cover as a covert operation was probably blown by the listing of its headquarters — 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.

Its history in South East Asia shows the variety of its missions:

  • Inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong Armyand combatant Thai volunteer forces, transported refugees.
  • Flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided intelligence on NLF activities.
  • 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.
  • Delivered 46 million pounds (21,000 metric tons) of food in Laos.
  • 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.

air america missions

That’s a war record of high caliber.

The “veterans” of Air America have not been recognized by the US Government, thus precluding them the benefits for which others in the same conflict are eligible.

A group of 66 Air America alumni gathered in a Bloomington, IN to reminisce and talk about an effort to convince Congress of the merits of their claim.

air america saigonTo prove her point, Maureen Bevans Ebersole, counsel for the Air America Association, cites the famous 1975 helicopter rescue of U.S. personnel and allies evacuating Saigon. The aircraft was Air America’s and flown by company pilots. Referring to the American evacuees, “everybody in that picture has a federal retirement, except for the pilot,” said Ebersole, whose late father was the airline’s chief lawyer.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and 13 sponsors introduced a bill that would rectify that differential. The legislation is supported by certain facts: in 2011, the Director of National Intelligence commended the Air America employees for their contributions to the war effort, but denied their eligibility because they were not government employees. The CIA website, surely carefully vetted by the Agency’s lawyers, identified Air America as a “CIA proprietary airline” and an “indispensable instrument” of its “clandestine mission.”



Silly Coincidence

The secret CIA airline was deteriorating; so, the clever CIA set up a “transaction” selling Air America to Southern Air Transport. Any sale of the economic certificate required that the CAB approve the proposed transfer and the Act mandated a public hearing. An Administrative Law Judge called the hearing to order.  At that moment two armed CIA agents blocked the doors and the CIA General Counsel declared that the proceeding was being classified as “Top Secret.” An oath prohibiting anyone present from discussing what was being said in this mundane little government room and all present swore the oath.

A very junior lawyer, attending his first CAB hearing without any supervision, was glad that there was a long walk from the CAB building to his firm’s offices. Unfortunately, no brilliant way to explain to his boss why he could not describe to the partner what had happened at the Board hearing. As he walked into the spacious office of the man who held his future in his hands, the soon-to-be-terminated associate (or so he assumed) saw a big grin on the senior lawyer’s face. Reaching the desk, the youngster saw a two page US News& World Report article with a banner headline “CIA TO SELL COVERT AIRLINE.” My leader had sent me off to the hearing knowing full well that my first assignment would put me in a predicament.

 


Survivors of CIA's Clandestine Airline Gather to Reminisce, Organize
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2 Comments on "A Covert Airline: The Air America Story & Reunion"

  1. Marie E Steele ; nee Hook | August 21, 2019 at 6:02 am | Reply

    I flew as cabin crew in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980’s with an American Airline contractor. The aircraft were DC8’s, not an aircraft that British airline crew were familiar with. We were hired because of our excellent training or I suspect, we knew little about the origins of the Flight crews, all ex Air America. Finding it hard to gain employment, they were very happy to be flying. They were a great bunch of guy’s, excellent crew men and adhered to the Official Secrets Act that they were all bound by. Good enough to do a great job overseas but not good enough to be acknowledged! Dreadful.

  2. Carlito Catuncan | May 14, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Reply

    I WAS AN AIR AMERICA AIRLINE MECHANIC DURING FEBRUARY 1967 TO JUNE 1969. I WAS STATIONED IN TAN SON NHUT AIR BASE IN SAIGON AND DANANG AIR BASE. MAINTAINING DC-3, C-45, CARIBOU, PILATUS PORTE, VOLPAR, AND BELL HELLI 204/205. MY SUPERVISOR NAMED JOE PETERS, UPON LEARNING THAT I WILL BE TRANSFERRED TO DANANG, HANDED ME A BANANA TYPE JUNGLE BOLO AS A REMEMBRANCE OF OUR TEAM. I WAS SO PROUD OF THAT JUNGLE BOLO AND PROUD TO BE A FILIPINO. I AM NOW IN CANADA AND A RETIRED AIR CANADA EMPLOYEE.

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