Air America – Run By The CIA, This Controversial Covert Airline Was Used Extensively During The Vietnam War

American Soldiers in Vietnam.
American Soldiers in Vietnam.

The United States has lots of airlines: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, etc. One airline most people have not heard of is Air America. It has a rich history. Air America was not the usual type of airline. It was a covert operation run by the CIA. It delivered items, goods, people, whatever was necessary to places the United States military could not go to for varying reasons, whether because of a treaty, or something else.


The airline has a complicated beginning. It got underway in 1950, with a company named Airdale, which was created by the CIA. Airdale then formed another company, CAT, Inc. They then purchased a 40% interest in another company, Civil Air Transport. This company was owned by Chinese investors who retained a 60% interest.

Later in the 1950s, Airdale changed its name to The Pacific Corporation, and also changed CAT, Inc. to Air America.

Planes and Services

Air America provided many services for the CIA, one of which was delivering cargo to areas including Vietnam and China. The airline operated bases in various countries like Japan and Taiwan, allowing it to fly to these areas with ease.


Its headquarters were in Washington, D.C., and its maintenance facility in Arizona. The airline operated various types of planes such as the C-130, DHC-4 Caribou, Curtiss-C46 Commando and the Douglas DC-6. They also used helicopters including the Bell 47, Bell 204B, Bell 205, Hughes 500D and the Sikorsky H-34. Often, these aircraft were marked as civilian transporters allowing them to enter zones they would not normally be able to do.

Work in Vietnam

The airline supported the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. At the start of the war, it provided support to several units, but this eventually blossomed into much more.

By 1962, the airline was moving and extracting troops and personnel from the war zone as well as providing support for several foreign governments involved in the war. It also transported refugees and took photos that would be used to further intelligence information.

Public Domain
A hat that an Air America pilot would have worn.

One of the more interesting uses for the airline was its ability to hunt for downed U.S. pilots over an ocean. They were not certified for military purposes by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline grew quickly during this time, amassing more than 80 aircraft. It had more than 300 specialists, mechanics, etc. based in Southeast Asia alone, who were able to service the aircraft. This worked very well regarding operations for the airline, as it was delivering tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo a year and also transporting many people.

Air America U-10D Helio Courier aircraft in Laos on a covert mountaintop landing strip (LS) "Lima site"
Air America U-10D Helio Courier aircraft in Laos on a covert mountaintop landing strip (LS) “Lima site”

It also carried a different type of freight. Vietnam saw widespread use of chemical agents like Agent Orange. These chemicals severely destroyed farmlands in the area, among other things. To help rectify these issues, the airline brought in supplies.  Cows, chickens, seeds for plants, etc. together with food drops which often contained rice. They became known as  “rice drops.”

As the war ended, the airline continued to operate playing a key role in Operation Frequent Wind. This was the evacuation out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese began overrunning the city in 1975. The airline used its helicopters, evacuating both American citizens and South Vietnamese civilians.

Public Domain
Air America Pilatus PC-6

Drug Running Allegations

In an interesting twist, the CIA has been accused of using the airline for smuggling heroin out of northern Laos. They claim they were working to help a group of people in Laos, who were fighting against rebels. The group depended on the heroin for their livelihoods. At one point, the rebel forces captured the area these people used for their planes carrying the drugs. Air America came to their rescue.

Critics argue the CIA and the Federal Government may have profited from the drug smuggling, so turned a blind eye to what the Laos military were doing with the drugs.

Public Domain
Air America plane on a dirt landing strip.

The story has never been proven, so it remains an allegation. It was seen as interesting enough for Hollywood to make a movie about it in 1990. This film is titled “Air America” and is a comedy movie.

End of Airline and Spinoff

The airline ended abruptly, following the war. There was an attempt to keep it at least operating in some areas. However, there was not enough business to keep it running, and in June 1976, it shut down completely.

Everyone was laid off with no recognition for their work, and no financial assistance. The families of those killed received virtually nothing. For those injured, they faced a long and lengthy battle for insurance to cover their treatment costs. The issue was that CIA officials claimed the airline did not exist.

Although the airline was shut down by the government, a spinoff did occur. This time, it was not a secret organization. It was used for its claimed use: passenger travel. It began operations in the 1980s and served several destinations including Baltimore, Los Angeles, and London.

Lincoln Riddle

Lincoln Riddle is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE