Air America: When The CIA Secretly Bought An Airline

Drug running and other black ops were reported to have found a home in this intriguing period of American intelligence history.

The ominous phrase "we can neither confirm nor deny" is often whittled out by intelligence chiefs worldwide about the clandestine activities of spies and spycraft.

The CIA, which refers to itself as the world's premier foreign intelligence agency, was formed in 1947, replacing the Office of Strategic Services as the USA's primary spy organisation.

Throughout its existence, this civilian department of the federal government has kept tight-lipped about the covert operations it has mounted in theatres worldwide. Such silence has attracted conspiracy theories and rumours, many of which remain just that.

However, one such curious tale from the archives of CIA history has been confirmed as entirely true – that is the story of Air America.

Here are some eyebrow-raising details of how the USA could use its privately-owned airline to conduct off the books operations in important places such as Vietnam and Laos. 

Did The CIA Buy An Airline?

Air America was a passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 by Whiting Willauerby and former US military aviator Claire Lee Chennault. The company was initially called Civil Air Transport (CAT) and was based in China.

Chennault and Willauer's aim in launching CAT was to conduct airlift operations supplying food and stores into war-ravaged China on the side of the anti-Mao forces of the Kuomintang. 

Following Mao's victory in December 1949, CAT faced financial difficulties. By August 1950, the airline was secretly bought by the CIA. 

This gave the intelligence agency the means to covertly operate in the air in a region of significant interest to the USA.

In 1959, the CIA changed CAT's name to Air America. 

How Was Air America Used During Vietnam?

Some of Air America's operations during the Vietnam War included the infiltration and exfiltration of US personnel, the provision of direct and indirect support to US Special Forces, and the conducting of photo-reconnaissance missions on Viet Cong activities. In addition to these standard tasks, Air America pilots, who for the most part were unaware their employer was the CIA, assisted in search and rescue missions for downed US pilots and other shadier types of Black Op activities.

Neil Hanson was one such Air America pilot. In June 2019, Hanson described his experiences flying Air America missions during the Vietnam War in a HistoryNet article. He explained that he and his colleagues in the firm were "shadow people" and that operations in Asia were "irregular and unknown." 

Hanson detailed some secret missions he found himself undertaking at the controls of his Beechcraft aircraft, including when he was asked to fly to a Royal Thai Air Force base near Bangkok. 

"My job was to get a guy out of Vietnam and into Thailand without going through the legal formalities of customs and immigration. It was made very clear that I was not to even look at the passenger. 

"We filed a legitimate flight plan to Bangkok with Takhli as my alternate. Then, just before letting down into Bangkok, I was to announce that I was diverting to my alternate. US Embassy officials in Saigon assured me that no one would get upset over this minor change in plans. They would send one of the spooks from the embassy to make sure everything went smoothly."

Hanson added: 

"Everything went like clockwork. The passenger got off in Takhli and walked to another curtained black car. I refueled, cranked up and was halfway out to the runway when two jeep loads of Thai soldiers blocked the taxiway and raised their rifles. When in deep crap, it is best to act very dumb and quiet. 

"Although the Thais detained me for a week, they finally bought my story of being lost and let me go back to Saigon."

Air America helicopter during the Vietnam War. Credit: Michael Ingham Collection, Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University.

Did The CIA Transport Drugs Via Air America?

Air America pilots became involved in aspects of the CIA's secret war in Laos. During this conflict, the agency used the Meo population to fight enemy Pathet Lao rebels. Still, to support this, the Meo people depended on poppy cultivation for hard currency. When swathes of land became captured by Lao rebels, the Meo poppy operation could not raise funds due to the lack of ground available to land aircraft to transport their opium. 

This shady aspect to CIA and Air America activities was discussed by Alfred McCoy in his 1972 book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. In it, he said:

"Without air transport for their opium, the Meo faced economic ruin. There was simply no form of air transport available in northern Laos except the CIA's charter airline, Air America, and 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 was known to be flying Meo opium as late as 1971. Meo village leaders in the area west of the Plain of Jars, for example, claim that their 1970 and 1971 opium harvests were bought up by Vang Pao's officers and flown to Long Tieng on Air America UH-IH helicopters. This opium was probably destined for heroin laboratories in Long Tieng or Vientiane, and ultimately, for GI addicts in Vietnam."

However, in a later book, McCoy clarified that the CIA's role "involved various forms of complicity, tolerance or studied ignorance about the trade, not any direct culpability in the actual trafficking."

Air America And The Fall Of Saigon

The US ordered an emergency evacuation from Saigon on April 29, 1975, called Operation Frequent Wind

The speed at which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces surrounded the city meant that the evacuation could only occur via helicopter. To aid the mission, the US military called upon the services of Air America.

Over 18 hours, Air America supplied 24 helicopters, significantly contributing to the rescue of 7,000 evacuees. 

The evacuation and withdrawal from Saigon effectively ended the Vietnam War. In August 2021, comparisons were made between Operation Frequent Wind and the capitulation of Kabul.

Air America Pilot Recognition Controversy

Upon the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Air America's surviving aircraft were flown to the Philippines, and the company was dissolved. The CIA no longer had a need to own an airline nor employ pilots who, for the most part, may not have known they were CIA workers. Even though Air America's staff were officially employees of the US government, no accolades or benefits were afforded to pilots, many of whom had risked their lives. 

This uncomfortable truth was summarised by USAF Vietnam War veteran Lt. Col Edward Marek, who remarked on what was seen as an injustice. Marek said:

"Air America people were sent home in 1975, and probably because of all the politics and secrecy surrounding it, Air America people were not received with much, if any, fanfare. As an USAF veteran of the Indochina War whose unit was involved in electronic reconnaissance, mostly over Laos, I can tell you that the term "Air America" has always brought out the "haters" I will call them in the journalism and book writing businesses. My guess is none of them really understood the service, sacrifices, loyalty and valor with which these men flew, and more important, did not understand they did what they did for their country and its allies in that war. I personally tip my hat to them."