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Air America headquarters at Udorn.

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.



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

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.[1]

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 October 7, 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 Curtiss C-46 Commando,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 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, 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 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 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, 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.[2][3] The famous photograph depicting the final evacuation by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es was an Air America helicopter taking people from an apartment at 22 Gia Long Street building used by USAID and CIA employees.[4][5]

Drug smuggling

Air America were alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[6][7][8] or of "turning a blind eye" to the Laotian military doing it.[9][10] 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.[11] 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 (except for those employees that said they did know about it) and that the airline did not trade in drugs.[1] Curtis Peebles denies the allegation, citing Leary's study as evidence.[12]

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.[1]


During its existence Air America operated a diverse fleet of aircraft, the majority of which were STOL capable.[13] There was "fluidity" of aircraft between some companies like Air America, BOA, CASI and the USAF. It was not uncommon for USAF and United States 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 August 23, 1959. The Air America operations at Udorn, Thailand were closed down on June 30, 1974. Air America's operating authority was cancelled by the CAB on January 31, 1974.

Fixed wing

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


Air Asia

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.[16]

Accidents and incidents

  • On May 5, 1954 C-119 crashed in Laos after being hit by ground fire. Pilot James B. McGovern, Jr. and Wallace Buford killed
  • On September 5, 1963 C-46 aircraft was hit by ground fire and crashed about 2 kilometers from Tchepone on the Savannakhet Province. DeBruin, Y.C. To, and the three Thai nationals parachuted to safety, but were immediately captured by the Pathet Lao. Joseph C. Cheney and Charles Herrick were killed in the crash. DeBruin, To and two of the Thai nationals died in captivity.
  • On January 16, 1969, 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.[17]
  • On December 29, 1973, 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.[18]
  • On April 29, 1975, 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.[19]

See also

Air America Pilot's Cap


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "History of CAT/Air America". Archived from the original on April 24, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  2. "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. 
  3. "Air America Association - Articles". Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  4. Van Es, Hubert (April 29, 2005). "Thirty Years at 300 Millimeters". Retrieved December 17, 2012. 
  5. Butterfield, Fox; Haskell, Kari (April 23, 2000). "Getting it wrong in a photo". New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  6. "Opium Throughout History". PBS. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  7. Cockburn, Alexander; Jeffrey St. Clair (1998). "9". Whiteout, the CIA, drugs and the press. New York: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-258-5. 
  8. Blum, William. "The CIA and Drugs: Just say "Why not?"". Third World Traveller. Retrieved May 26, 2013. 
  9. Robbins, Christopher (1985). The Ravens. New York: Crown. p. 94. ISBN 0-9646360-0-X. 
  10. "Air America and Drugs in Laos - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 16, 2013. 
  12. Peebles, Curtiss. Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations Against the USSR. pp. 254–255. ISBN 1591146607. 
  13. "Air America Inc". April 1, 1976. Archived from the original on June 8, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  14. "Air America: Beech/Volpar Turbo Beech 18". University of Texas at Dallas, 2006. Retrieved: August 12, 2008.
  15. P.31 Wings of Air America, A Photo History by Terry Love
  16. "Air America Inc". April 1, 1976. Archived from the original on June 8, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2011. 
  17. "949 Accident Description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved January 23, 2011. 
  18. "Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  19. "084 Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved August 21, 2010. 

Further reading

  • 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 Story of the CIA's Secret Airlines by Christopher Robbins (Hardcover – Jan 1, 1978)
    • Air America: From WWII to Vietnam: The Explosive True Story of the Cia's Secret Airline by Christopher Robbins (Paperback – Jan 15, 1988)
    • 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
    • Air America From World War II to Vietnam by Christopher Robbins (Paperback – 2003)
  • Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos (Asia Books Co., 2000) ISBN 974-8303-41-1
  • Vietnam Magazine, August 2006

External links

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