Secret CIA Civilian Pilots Honored
LAS VEGAS (AP) - For years, they operated in secret - civilian pilots who worked for the CIA on missions they couldn't even discuss with their families.
But on Saturday, 25 years after Air America dissolved, the government finally recognized them. The CIA was to present a unit citation to the men Saturday evening.
"This is a family," said Leigh Coleman Hotujec, whose father was an Air America pilot when his plane crashed in Laos in 1972. "It is a band of brothers that served overseas."
Most people likely have never heard of Air America, unless they know the 1990 Mel Gibson movie by the same name.
Air America began after World War II in the 1940s when the Civil Air Transport commercial airline was started in China. Pilots hauled relief supplies and evacuated people throughout the country during China's civil war.
In 1950, the CIA bought the airline to use in secret missions to fight communism in Asia, and in 1959, CAT was renamed Air America. CAT and Air America flew supplies, food and personnel to anti-communist troops in Southeast Asia, including the CIA's "secret war" in Laos.
In 1975, Air America helicopter crews helped Americans and South Vietnamese evacuate during the fall of Saigon. The airline dissolved in 1976.
On Saturday, 850 former CAT and Air America pilots and their families gathered to swap stories and remember missions many Americans know nothing about. They also honored the 242 people who died or disappeared during the secret missions.
The missions were so secret, the men referred to the CIA as "the customer," said Jim Alexander, an operations manager for Air America who lives in Dallas.
A plaque honoring the missing and the dead hangs in the McDermott Library on the University of Texas at Dallas. A smaller version of the plaque is also in the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
But until Saturday, CAT and Air America workers had never been recognized by the CIA for their service, Hotujec said.
"They're quiet heroes," Hotujec said. "They've not demanded or asked for this recognition. They just did their job."