Air America History                          


Air America®

A Historical Synopsis from the Beginning to End

To comprehend Air America, one would need to read many books and articles, and many may arrive at different conclusions. The war in Vietnam and Laos is even more complex. A synopsis only scratches the surface and cannot provide all the ins and outs of a company that lasted twenty-five years in sixteen pages. This synopsis concerns a single airline and not a study of other aviation units that operated in Southeast Asia. The purpose here is to challenge an urban legend and explain who Air America was and wasn't.

The history of Air America is enigmatic and complex because distortion of facts occurs. There is evidence the U.S. Government purposely obfuscated the true nature of Air America, making it difficult to unravel. Authors of books and articles assume, imply, or assign CIA ownership because of the spy agency's romantic overtures and eye-catching appeal. However, the United States Government was the owner of Air America, not the CIA.

The confusion concerning the CIA and the U.S. Government regarding ownership and responsibility is understandable. The complexity of what was going on in China during the 1949-50 era is difficult to grasp. A large portion of the secret history available to the public remains heavily redacted. Many companies were vying for the same equipment and a slice of the pie with various acronyms. CNAC, CATI, Civil Air Transport, CAT, Inc., and to further complicate the issue, many of these different companies were all called CAT by the employees.

The prevalence of money and equipment issues, legal entanglements, lawsuits, imprisonments, personality conflicts, and deaths further complicated the mayhem between the U.S. Government and their Central Intelligence Agency, the Nationalist Chinese, and the Communist Chinese. This historical synopsis does not begin to explain what happened in the 1949-50 era. For brevity reasons, I will say in the end, after everything was said and done, the U.S. Government developed an airline with some semblance of integrity. However, an ordinary citizen could not do what the U.S. Government got away with under a cloud of secrecy. [1]

The CIA is not autonomous. The Agency is an integral part of the U.S. Government, and the Director of Central Intelligence answers to the National Security Council. Therefore, saying the CIA owns something is impossible because the NSC approves every action the CIA takes. Whether operated independently or administered by the CIA, USAF, NAVY, or Army, all priority companies are U.S. Government-owned. Here is an excerpt of CAT, Inc.'s president Hugh Grundy's letter to the Civilian/Military Service Review Board supporting veteran status. "From the time of its secret purchase, in about 1950, from commercial, profit-seeking owners, until its dissolution in the mid-seventies, when it was perceived as no longer needed after the Vietnam War ended, the CAT/Air America complex was owned by the United States government, administered through its Central Intelligence Agency." Mr. Grundy went on to say, "CAT/Air America offered Government a means of conducting vital activities that, due to political or other restraints, could not employ military forces in the usual manner, and CAT/Air America sometimes substituted for a military presence and often worked hand-in-hand with the military, especially in covert operations." [2] Further evidence dismissing the false notion about CIA ownership comes from a statement made by CIA Assistant General Counsel James Harris on December 5, 1978, where he said, "In the case of Air America, Inc, it would have been virtually impossible to preserve the cover story had all corporate employees been advised they were really employees of the United States Government.” [3]

There was, however, a CIA connection, and initially, CIA personnel managed the company, though that did not last long. For the most part, the Air America complex was administered internally by non-CIA personnel. Air America's president, Hugh Grundy, was not a CIA employee. However, George Doole, the CEO of Air America from 1959 until 1971, worked for the CIA overseeing various contract companies that included Air America. It is unclear whether Doole was a staff employee or contracted to work under a personal service agreement. Officially, the CIA says there is no record of him working for them. Doole died of cancer in 1985. He was a lifelong bachelor, and there was no obituary, flowers, or funeral. Ironically, although Grundy was married and had outside interests, he too requested no funeral; both Grundy and Doole died in virtual anonymity.

The U.S. Government tried to make Air America appear as an organization created for business ventures for plausible deniability. However, all work was for the U. S. Government. The U.S. Treasury received the profit when they dismantled the complex and the assets sold.

Air America began life in 1946 with a Chinese company named Civil Air Transport owned by General Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer.

Chennault was best known for his leadership of the Flying Tigers supporting Chinese troops against Japan's encroachment into China before America's involvement in World War Two. Willauer was a Princeton University and Harvard law school graduate. Willauer was unsatisfied with practicing law and fostered an innate desire for adventure and wanderlust. After Japan surrendered, he found a way to go to China, team up with Chennault, and get involved with China's fledgling aviation transport industry.

Chennault and Willauer did well in the late 1940s, hauling furs, tin, food, and practically anything else people needed moving from one place to another. Flying was treacherous and, with the absence of navigation aids, difficult at best. The pilots, World War Two veterans, were experienced, spunky and brave.[4]

The Civil Air Transport employees liked to use the abbreviated term CAT for the company. In 1945-46 civil war broke out again between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse-tung. CAT sided with the Chinese Nationalist Party headed by Chiang Kai-Shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled China when they lost the war, and CAT helped them move to Formosa, where Chiang Kai-Shek ruled the Republic of China until he died in 1975.

Once the Nationalists finished moving to Formosa, CAT no longer had a job and was nearly insolvent. Chennault pleaded with the State Department to purchase the airline using the argument that the company had the assets and expertise to contain China from expanding along the Pacific Rim. The CIA wanted to use the air transportation assets for their intelligence-gathering operations in China and urged the U. S. Government acquisition. The argument fell on deaf ears. The State Department did not want clear ownership of a Chinese company.

The CIA devised a plan for indirect ownership. They suggested establishing a U. S. Government-owned corporation in Delaware that would create a subsidiary. The subsidiary would purchase a portion of Civil Air Transport and thus disguise the actual owner.

The State Department agreed and incorporated the slightly misspelled Airdale, Inc. as the holding company. The subsidiary was named CAT, Inc., which in turn purchased forty percent of Civil Air Transport. Chinese investors held sixty percent.

CAT, Inc. created a wholly owned Republic of China company called Asiatic Aeronautical Company Ltd. CAT, Inc. transferred all the hard assets to the new company. Then, CAT, Inc. transferred all the pilots, mechanics, and staff personnel from Civil Air Transport to CAT, Inc.

Civil Air Transport became the flag carrier of the Republic of China, hauling people and freight all over Southeast Asia. The pilots often wore two hats the same day, flying for CAT, Inc. in the morning and Civil Air Transport in the afternoon. They remained on a single CAT, Inc. seniority list.

Southern Air Transport was a Florida corporation touted as a CIA front company. However, it too was owned by the U. S. Government. Further confusing the ownership issue, SAT had two divisions (SAT Atlantic and SAT Pacific) but only one operating certificate. Employees of SAT Atlantic could not interact with SAT Pacific. Moreover, all the employees of SAT Pacific were on the same seniority list as CAT, Inc. employees even though incorporated in different states.

Initially, the State Department charged the CIA with operating CAT, Inc. However, the CIA soon realized they did not have enough work to keep the airline afloat. Additional U. S. Government funding would require congressional approval and reveal the Government's ownership. The State Department, wanting to preserve secrecy, decided to allow the company to act as a private enterprise and bid on Government contracts. At that point, the project became an ongoing operation, but no one considered the plight of the employees.

The U.S. Government never revealed the actual owner to the employees. Some were told the CIA owned the company, and a scant few worked directly for the CIA, but the CIA is part of the U. S. Government and does not own anything. Therefore, the Government could not enroll the employees into the civil service retirement program because that would reveal the actual owner. They could not issue personal service agreements because, technically, they did not contract the employees. As a result, the SAT Pacific, CAT, Inc., Asiatic Aeronautical, and Civil Air Transport companies were seemingly, and perhaps legally, separate entities.

However, the truth is they were the same and all U.S. Government-owned. All on the same seniority list, the employees were left dangling and were never officially recognized as federal employees.

Nevertheless, now, the companies had an inside track for Government bids, and the ruse worked for financial funding, thus providing an avenue for the Government to conduct clandestine and covert operations where political pressure prevented overt military activity. The scheme also stymied congressional oversight.

CAT now had multiple customers that included the USAF and the CIA. Later, the customer base broadened and included the French Republic, U. S. Army Special Forces, USAID, IVS, and CORDS, all of which provided income to the airline while keeping the ownership secret.

The U.S. Government was contracting itself and paying itself back. It was a grand scheme for the Government, but increased hazards came to the employees, many of whom thought they were working for a private enterprise.

Americans in Korea needed logistical support for the conflict there because they didn't have the necessary assets. An opportunity arose for CAT, Inc. The first lucrative contract was Operation Book lift for Far East Material Command, known by its acronym FEAMCOM. The requirement was extensive, with more than 28 aircraft and 500 or more people. The operation was short-lived, but CAT performed admirably under difficult circumstances. As one commentator put it: "Five members of the CAT Incorporated flying staff gave their lives on the Korean Airlift. Although civilians, the pilots took all the risks of the military members of the Combat Cargo operation, including the possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice. The CAT on the Airlift had done a good job." [5]

In November 1952, CAT, Inc. pilots Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy, both WW2 decorated pilots, were assigned to extract an agent from Manchuria in Communist China using a newly developed snatching apparatus. The U.S. Government designed a C-47 with a hook that would snag a line between two poles. The person on the ground would have a harness attached to the line. The aircraft would snatch him up as it flew by at a slow speed. Two CIA agents would then drag the seized person into the plane.

However, the Communist Chinese compromised the mission and laid a trap for the unsuspecting pilots. They shot the aircraft down, and the crash killed the pilots. The two CIA agents, John Downey and Richard Fecteau survived and were captured and sentenced to prison for 20 years. No one knew their whereabouts until they were released and showed up in friendly territory two decades later.

At about the same time, a conflict in French Indochina between the French Republic and the Viet-Minh received national attention. Ho Chi Minh had worked with Allied Forces against Japan and indicated that President Roosevelt told him he would grant control of Vietnam for his services. Roosevelt died, and Truman did not honor the agreement, declaring the French Republic retained control of the area. Ho had communist connections and vowed to take Vietnam by force. The French Republic asked the United States for military air cargo support, but Eisenhower was reluctant to use American military pilots in a conflict unpopular in France and America.

The U.S. Government gave CAT, Inc. the job instead. CAT, Inc. pilots were secretly trained in C-119 aircraft at Clark AFB in the Philippines. The plane was faster than the C-46, had more powerful engines, and could carry a heavier load. The rear door allowed quick egress of parachuted supplies and thus shortened the time on the target. The aircraft had French colors to hide their identity. The C-119 was not FAA certified, and it was against FAA regulations for a civilian pilot to operate it. It was the first time for CAT, but it wouldn't be the last.

The missions were not void of hazards, and several crew members were wounded. In 1954, The Viet-Minh shot down CAT pilots James McGovern and Wallace Buford over Dien Bien Phu. The crash killed both pilots. McGovern was good-naturedly nicknamed Earthquake McGoon for his appearance by his peers. Both pilots were well-liked, and their deaths cast a pall over the CAT community. Their deaths were a devastating blow to morale, and the U.S. Government never acknowledged the tragedy, which added to their despair. The U.S. Government recovered partial remains several years after the war in Laos ended.

On February 24, 2005, James McGovern was posthumously awarded (along with Buford and six other surviving pilots) the Legion of Honor with the rank of knight (chevalier) by the President of France Jacques Chirac for their actions in supplying Dien Bien Phu during the 57-day siege.

One of the pilots honored was Allen Pope, who flew the Douglas B-26 Invader in the Korean War and earned three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Pope left the USAF in 1954 and accepted employment with CAT Inc.

The Eisenhower administration feared Indonesia would become a communist state but did not want to use U.S. military troops to intervene. The solution again was using CAT, Inc., which provided plausible deniability.

In 1958, Pope went to Clark AFB in the Philippines, where he was assigned to fly a B-26 painted black with the markings obscured. Others included CAT, Inc. pilot William Beale and Connie Seigrist flying the Consolidated PBY Catalina. Their mission was to support the PRRI/Permesta movement against President Sukarno's Government of Indonesia.

Pope was shot down on a bombing run and captured. An Indonesian military court tried and convicted him and sentenced him to death. Bobby Kennedy negotiated a release in 1962, and Pope left CAT, Inc., which was now Air America, Inc., and went to work for Southern Air Transport but remained on the same seniority list.

Airdale Inc. was renamed The Pacific Corporation in 1957. Moreover, because calling both CAT, Inc. and Civil Air Transport by the acronym CAT caused confusion, a name change for CAT, Inc. to Air America, Inc. was proposed. Some major airlines grumbled, but in 1959 the U.S. Government changed the name from CAT, Inc. to Air America, Inc. It was the same company but with a different name. Asiatic Aeronautical Company Ltd. also received a new name: Air Asia Company Ltd.

Eisenhower told his successor John F. Kennedy that Laos was the "key to the entire area of Southeast Asia." [6]

Laos was landlocked, but it served as a natural barrier from China. Fearing a Pathet Lao Communist takeover, Kennedy sent a carrier task force to the Gulf of Siam in April 1961. U.S. Special Forces were already in Laos, training Lao troops as early as 1959 under Project Hotfoot.

Laos was primitive by most standards and had few navigable roads. The only logistical source at the time was Air America. Later Continental Air Services and Arizona Helicopter were involved, but neither of these companies operated military aircraft that was not FAA certified. Both companies complained. Why could only Air America bid for lucrative Government contracts? The U.S. Government did not have a plausible answer, and they provided arrangements to both companies to preserve Air America's secrecy. Kennedy ordered Marine Air Base Squadron 16 to Udorn, Thailand, to set up Air America's operations and maintenance departments and had 16 UH-34D helicopters sent directly from the Marines. At the same time, the Government renamed Project Hotfoot to White Star.[7]

The 1962 Geneva Accord was an agreement between the United States, the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, South Vietnam, France, India, Poland, Canada, and Laos.[8]

All U.S. troops departed Laos, but the North Vietnamese remained in violation of the Accord and used neutral Laos to transport military troops and supplies along the Lao-Vietnam border into South Vietnam to kill Americans and South Vietnamese troops.

America faced three bad choices: • Overtly attack North Vietnamese troops in Laos and be publicly criticized for violating the Accord. • Walk away and risk losing the Pacific Rim to communism. • Conduct covert and clandestine operations to halt the traffic.

They chose the latter, but they needed logistical support and could not retain secrecy while using the U. S. military. The solution once again was Air America.

Activity in Laos in 1963 was minimal, but tragedies still occurred. The Pathet Lao shot down an Air America C-46 near Savannakhet. The rear crewmembers bailed out, but the pilot, Joseph C. Cheney, and his newly hired co-pilot, Charles G. Herrick, were killed when the plane blew up in midair. The Pathet Lao captured the crew members who bailed out. One American, Eugene H. DeBruin, and five indigenous Air Freight Specialists, commonly called "kickers," became prisoners of war and endured inhumane hardships for several years. One of the survivors, Phisit Intharathat, escaped after almost three and one-half years in captivity. His courageous story is heartbreaking. All the other kickers died in captivity. Eugene DeBruin is listed as MIA but presumed dead. [9]

In 1964, the Navy used F-8 Crusaders as photo-reconnaissance aircraft to fly over the eastern Lao border to verify North Vietnamese activity heading south on what was later called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese used anti-aircraft guns against the photo-reconnaissance aircraft to prevent international disclosure. The ground fire damaged an F-8 Crusader, and the pilot ejected over Laos. Air America tried to rescue him but failed after encountering intense ground fire. The pilot escaped, but the Navy insisted on available search-and-rescue aircraft if North Vietnamese shot more aircraft down. By December 1965, the U.S. lost 170 aircraft during interdiction operations called "Rolling Thunder." Initially, northern Laos was too far away from Thailand to be useful for search-and-rescue (SAR). The USAF kept helicopters in Laos, but the risk of being captured and publicly exposed as violators of the Accord was too high. The Secretary of State ordered Air America as the primary Search-and-Rescue for northern Laos.[10]

Air America once again took up a combat role. Five fixed-wing pilots -- John Wiren, Rick Byrne, Ed Eckholdt, Joe Hazen, and Tom Jenny -- and later Don Romes were secretly trained in the T-28D Trojan and used as close air support for search-and-rescue operations. The exact number of rescues made by Air America is not known precisely but estimated at more than a hundred.[11]

The USAF used enlisted men as forward air controllers (FACS) in Laos in 1963. They were called Butterflies and flew on Air America Helio Couriers and Pilatus Porters. It was a successful program, and not one person died or was injured. However, the Commanding General of the USAF Tactical Air Command wanted commissioned officers who were rated, fighter pilots.[12]

In 1966, the USAF founded the Raven program flying Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog aircraft. It was an aggressive and hazardous program, and enemy gunfire killed a significant percentage of the pilots. They, too, needed logistical support. Air America handled the maintenance for the aircraft, hauled white phosphorus rockets for spotting targets from Thailand to various places in Laos, and acted as SAR for downed pilots.[13]

USAF military strikes in Laos escalated throughout the 1960s, but the weather in Laos made flying difficult.

The USAF needed navigational gear, and the Government installed a secret radar installation in northern Laos on one of the tallest mountains in the area labeled as LS-85. Air America supplied the location with food and other items and was jointly responsible for emergency evacuation of the site should that become necessary. USAF technicians with no combat training or experience operated the site.

The USAF prepared numerous Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations reports, commonly called CHECO, for operations in Laos. The LS-85 CHECO report stated the Ambassador to Laos decided who and when for evacuation. The priority of evacuees was allocated to the 13 TSQ/TACAN personnel; however, enough helicopters were to be provided to permit a total of 155 to be lifted out. The others, guerrillas, were to be extracted when the Local Area Defense Commander deemed appropriate. The Ambassador designated Five helicopters, three USAF, and two Air America required to accomplish the evacuation.

The initial planning was for two Air America helicopters to remain overnight (RON) at nearby Lima Site 20 Alternate; USAF helicopters would come from Thailand-based resources. Subsequently, some USAF messages expressed the desire for Air America helicopters to RON at LS-85, not LS-20 Alternate. However, nothing changed; there was fear that a helicopter presence at LS-85 would provoke an enemy to destroy these lucrative targets. The planned emergency lift capability would have vanished if the enemy had destroyed the aircraft assets. Weather also might have disrupted the rescue flight from LS-20 Alternate to LS-85.[14]

Air America did have jurisdiction and authority to perform the military activity in Laos; the CHECO report along with the top-secret directive from the U.S. State Department is prima facie proof for that claim.

In January 1968, two Russian-built AN-2 Colts bombed the site. An Air America helicopter was arriving with supplies and observed the attack. The helicopter pilot, Ted Moore, flew alongside one of the attacking aircraft. The flight mechanic, Glen Woods, shot the plane down using a survival rifle that most flight mechanics carried should they be forced down in hostile territory. It was the first time a helicopter ever downed a military fixed-wing aircraft. According to Moore, Woods also shot the second aircraft down. An eyewitness account is available on the Air America Association website here, under Air America Helicopter Ariel Combat.

In March 1968, a trained North Vietnamese unit attacked the site by scaling a cliff thought impossible. LS-85 fell to the attackers, and they killed several technicians. The senior customer at LS-20 Alternate dispatched two Bell helicopters to LS-85 to assist with the evacuation of any survivors. Captain Phil Goddard in one and Captain Ken Wood in the other. Goddard landed on the lower portion of the site and evacuated key CIA personnel. Wood could not land on top of the mountain and had to hover along the side. He was able to extract seven technicians. The last one in was M/Sgt. Richard Loy Etchberger. He bravely helped load the wounded into slings and fought off the advancing North Vietnamese troops. Rusty Irons, the flight mechanic, assisted evacuees into the helicopter.

Tragically, a chance enemy bullet through the helicopter's belly mortally wounded Etchberger before the aircraft departed.

The survivors were fortunate the pilot wasn't hit because he was vulnerable, and they would have crashed down the side of the mountain. The USAF awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to M/Sgt. Etchberger. Wood and Irons received nothing, and a false written report about the event stated they were merely passing by and were not part of a planned SAR extraction.[15]

In 1969 Richard Nixon vowed he would end the Vietnam war. Nixon escalated the fighting in Laos, thus forcing the North Vietnamese to divert assets to Laos and making it appear the South Vietnamese could handle their security against the North Vietnamese. Air America military activity increased as well. In 25 years, Air America suffered approximately 186 killed in action, with 35% occurring between 1969 and 1973.

By this time, Air America was hauling tons of ammunition, rice, and other foodstuffs, water, and fuel for aircraft in unmarked military issue C-123s, Caribou, C-130, C-46, UH-34D, and Ch-47C helicopters along with FAA- approved Bell helicopters and Pilatus Porters. The USAF had improved their rescue helicopters and techniques, but Air America was still relied upon to assist with search-and-rescue operations. Contrary to some reports, the State Department never rescinded the 1965 SAR directive, and Air America remained responsible for helping when needed.[16]

The battle for Skyline near LS-20 Alternate, fought by the Hmong, Thais, USAF, and Air America, was bloody and intense. The North Vietnamese army tried to make Skyline another Dien Bien Phu and failed. It was a victory of immense proportions but went unreported. America and the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong, and Thais won the battle but lost the war to the politicians.[17]

The war in Laos ended abruptly in 1974. There were no victory parties or accolades. It just stopped. Hanoi released the POWs in January 1973 with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, but no mention about POWS in Laos, including Air America employees.[18]

Air America employees scattered like leaves in a wind. Some went to work in Iran, Indonesia, and Taiwan, and some just went home to the United States. A few went to Vietnam, where another tragedy was about to unfold.

The work in Vietnam was more administrative than in Laos, which was more paramilitary, but hazards still existed. Ground fire hits were not as prevalent, but they still happened, and the safety of Air America crews required due diligence and vigilance. Milk runs were rare in Laos but frequent in Vietnam, but a milk run could change rapidly into a dangerous situation at a moment's notice. Navigation aids were available at various locations in South Vietnam, but that didn't help Air America because their aircraft did not have navigational equipment. As a result, fatal and tragic accidents occurred that had nothing to do with the war but were preventable with state-of-the-art navigation aids.

Air America accomplished their work through contracts with USAID, CORDS, and, in 1973, the International Commission of Control and Supervision. Once again, the U.S. Government was contracting itself and paying itself back. ICCS was a spin-off from the International Commission established in 1953. Their job was to control and supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords agreement that separated North and South Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. Supposedly, ICCS had power, but the truth is they didn't. However, America was a superpower, and a complaint by the ICCS about America had a more significant impact publicly than a claim about North Vietnam.[19]

America was sensitive about adverse publicity and tried to adhere to the Geneva Accords but faced the reality that North Vietnam didn't and wouldn't and didn't care what anyone thought about it. Thus, America continued with a covert and clandestine policy of publicly presenting Air America as a free enterprise operating in Vietnam under various contracts. The contracts provided a method to separate the work and bill the different customers. Just as in Laos, an aircraft or helicopter working on a USAID contract might be working for the CIA or a Special Forces unit in the Delta or II Corps area.[20]

Air America stayed or went wherever the president and the National Security Council told them and didn't have the autonomy of a free enterprise. When all the free enterprise companies left Vietnam at the direction of their boards of directors, Air America remained by direct order of the president through the various chains of command that included the Department of State and Defense.

Military activity lessened after the 1973 Peace Accords were signed but increased substantially soon after the signing. America planned on abiding by the Paris Peace Accords, but North Vietnam had other plans. Congress wanted out of the Vietnam War and scrapped the agreements made at the Paris Peace talks. America won the war in 1972 militarily but lost it politically because of Congress and inaccurate reporting by an antiwar press.[21]

Under the agreement, America could not use American troops in South Vietnam longer than sixty days, which meant it wouldn't happen because it takes longer than that to provide logistical assistance to a sizable contingent. Some American military advisors remained and performed heroic duty in the northern portion of South Vietnam with South Vietnamese Marines in a battle known as the "Easter Offensive of 1972." [22]

American troops were no longer present for the most part. The fighting was between the North and South Vietnamese without U.S. assistance. South Vietnam was supposedly able to defend itself against North Vietnam after American troops departed, but province after province fell to the North Vietnamese invaders. Just as in Laos, Air America became involved in evacuations of terrified people running from the encroaching North Vietnamese. The evacuations were chaotic and dangerous and required extreme patience and professionalism on the Air America crews.

By 1975 it was evident to most people that South Vietnam would fall to the North Vietnamese. For some reason, the Ambassador held on to hope that the inevitable was not going to happen, but in April, it did, and it was both tragic and disheartening. Air America personnel tried to prepare pickup points for crucial personnel to evacuate and secure fueling stations.

Air America had plans A and B, but the Ambassador had only hope and no plan. The Ambassador would not cooperate with Air America because he thought such preparation would excite the population and signal defeat to the North Vietnamese. Improvisation became the new standard and Air America flight crews excelled. Operation Frequent Wind came with a vengeance, and video clips showed picture after picture of Air America helicopters performing heroic duty hour after hour. Still, the news media ignored the blue and silver birds.

Fixed-wing crews battled screaming hordes of people trying to escape and, with broken hearts, forced to push women and children away because doing otherwise would mean overloading that would make the aircraft incapable of flying.

The runway in Saigon became inoperable, and the fixed-wing aircraft crews made their last flight out to Bangkok and other airports in Thailand depressed and weary.

Only the helicopters remained, and fuel now was a significant problem. Air America made calculations to determine how long they could stay and how long it took to fly to American ships offshore. No one bothered to tell the Navy crews on vessels in the South China sea who Air America was, which made matters worse, and they treated them as if they were evacuees in stolen aircraft. The Navy met arriving helicopters with evacuees with cocked weapons; pilots watched as their cabin doors were quickly removed and told to ditch their helicopters in the water, an emergency and life-threatening procedure. Some complied and others did not, and those that didn't quickly took off and flew to other ships to refuel.

The Navy fished Captain Dave Kendall out of the water after ditching his helicopter. He was dripping wet and went below to change into bib overalls and a redshirt that he wore when off duty. Dave went back on top and scrambled on board a helicopter piloted by Larry Stadulis to continue making evacuations all day. Kendall and Stadulis may have operated the last helicopter out of Vietnam and landed aboard the USS Blue Ridge in the dark and on fumes.[23]

The Navy dropped the saved Air America helicopters in the Philippines. They dropped the Air America crews unceremoniously in Hong Kong. An Air America representative greeted the crewmembers, gave them tickets to their homes of record, and told them to go home. Just as in Laos, the Air America experience in Vietnam was over abruptly. Again, there were no victory parties, no accolades, and no fanfare. Mind you, Air America was a U.S. Government-owned corporation, and the employees were government employees, but their treatment suggested otherwise.

Within one year, the U.S. Government dissolved Air America. The Government sold Air Asia Company Ltd. to E-Systems and returned the profit to the U.S. Treasury. The employees, who had tenure with a government-owned corporation, were denied benefits. In writing to the Secretary of the USAF, the CIA stated that Air America employees conducted military activity without authority and jurisdiction, were overpaid, and deserved nothing more than what they had received as employees working with the company. The USAF Judge Advocate General described Air America employees as "unprivileged belligerents," a kinder description of unlawful combatants or mercenaries who conducted military activity as volunteers without authority and jurisdiction.

The war in Southeast Asia lasted for 25 years, and Air America employees departed depressed. There was no ending and no peace. The Air America Association established a legacy with a virtual museum located on their website. Air America employees donated documents to the McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas, and Texas Tech University to the Virtual Vietnam Archive. The Association designed an ornate 400-pound bronze memorial plaque and donated it to the University of Texas at Dallas, where it is displayed honoring those who died while with Air America. Scholars and historians can go to either archive where the truth about Air America is located.

To date, Air America employees are not recognized as veterans or federal employees and do not have benefits customarily provided to like employees. It is a sad commentary to those who served so valiantly, but deep down inside, not one employee would give up the experience.

Saving a life is euphoric, and the fruits of Air America's labor are readily apparent and observed across America, where Lao and Vietnamese immigrants have come to a freedom-loving country to become educated doctors, attorneys, politicians, and businesspeople. Most are conservative, and because they lived in a communist world, they appreciate what America offers and are proud Americans. The Pacific Rim has experienced peace for over 30 years. Air Americans can take pride in these accomplishments because the refugees represent the people they saved for a better world. Why did they risk their lives for unknown Asians no one knew or cared about? Because it was the right thing to do, that's why.

A true story adds an asterisk to the claim Air America did more than conduct war and follow the CIA lead. A tragic auto accident killed Dave Kendall after he and his family returned to the United States. His wife, Ruth, was visiting her sister in Glen Ellyn, IL, sometime later, and they dined at a Vietnamese restaurant. The owner told them she was proud of her business and her children, who were college-educated in America. She went on to tell Ruth she was from Saigon. Ruth said her husband worked for Air America in Vietnam. The owner told Ruth Air America evacuated her along with her children on the last day. She remembered it vividly because the pilot wore bib overhauls and a redshirt instead of a uniform. Ruth gasped, and tears filled her eyes. "That was my husband!" she stammered. Ruth's sister rushed home and brought back a photograph of Dave in his often-worn outfit. The restaurant owner recognized Dave, along with his overhauls and she, too, broke down in tears. She told Ruth she had waited 25 years to thank the pilot who saved her and her seven children. Knowing Dave was gone and could not accept the accolades was more than Ruth could handle, and all three were laughing and crying simultaneously and making a commotion. A patron listening to the exchange and seeing the tears called a reporter from The Glen Ellyn News, and he wrote the story. [24]

Allen Cates

© November 5, 2021

[1] Louis Panzer, who represented David Hickler, Base Manager AAM Vientiane, Laos. Located in Air America Notebooks from the William M. Leary Papers, Eugene McDermott Library, the University of Texas at Dallas.;;




[5] The Greatest Airlift: The Story of Combat Cargo Hardcover – 1954 by Annis G. Thompson








[12] Classified Secret: Controlling Airstrikes in the Clandestine War in Laos, By Jan Churchill. Available on Amazon

[13] Meeting Steve Canyon: and Flying with the CIA in Laos; By Karl L. Polifka; The Lair of the Raven; By Craig W. Duehring

FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES 1964-1968, Volume XXVIII. LAOS. Released by U. S. Department of State, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1998. DEPARTMENT OF STATE PUBLICATION 10523, OFFICE OF THE HISTORIAN, BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS




[18] Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975. Trans. by Merle Pribbenow. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002. Staaveren, Jacob, Vongsavanh, Brig. Gen. Soutchay, RLG Military Operations, and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle. Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1980. War in Laos, 1954–1975. Kenneth J. Conboy. Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994. Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. Breaux, Jarred James, The Laotian Civil War: The Intransigence of General Phoumi Nosavan and American Intervention in the Fall of 1960. Morrisville, North Carolina: Lulu, 2008. Conboy, Kenneth with James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 1995.

[19] Brosnan, V. (2010, January 29). The International Control Commission for Vietnam; the diplomatic and military context (T). Retrieved from (Original work published 1975) Section II





[24] Ruth Kendall Hornbeak, TN. The Glen Ellyn News Glen Ellyn, IL