Air America revisited


One book that has been truly a best seller is Air America.  On the Bookazine shelves again, it is the sixth reprint of Christopher Robbins original 1979 exposé of Air America, the CIA’s secret airline and published by Asia Books in Bangkok (ISBN 9-7897-4830-3).

In the introduction Robbins freely admits that after publication of the original book he met with quite some resistance and opposition by some Air America personnel, but over the years, their attitude towards him had changed and the current edition has much added to it by some of his earlier detractors.

Robbins is also to be remembered for his book “The Ravens”, which was reviewed some years ago, and this book is in a similar vein.  That the CIA-owned Air America was at one stage the largest airline in the world will probably come as a surprise for some people.  That the CIA itself didn’t even know how many planes it had, would also come as a greater shock to many people – but not to those who flew for Air America – the world’s most clandestine airline!

The airline’s mission statement was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime – Professionally”, and the “anything” ranged from opium, guns, ammunition, spies and even pet gibbons.  The pilots themselves were drawn from many sections of America, not just the armed forces, but to a man they all appeared to share the same sense of bravado and devil take the hindermost attitude.  Barnstormers from a previous era.  They were well paid, but the money was certainly not the motivation.  Robbins writes, “For old combat fighters there is no psychic income whatsoever sitting at the controls of a modern jet.”

The gradual involvement of the CIA in aviation was via the “back door” through the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration – Air Transport (known colloquially as “CAT”) airline of General Chennault, ostensibly to deny its assets to the Communist Chinese and then became “legal” in 1949 when they formed the Civil Air Transport, thus keeping the same initials.

Author Robbins additionally unearthed the amazing network of airlines also owned in whole or in part by the CIA, with the planes able to be loaned out to the other “wings” of the Agency.  An interesting vignette occurs when Air America began to make too much money, and in theory would have to return the profits to the Federal Treasury, all of which could produce some embarrassing questions in the house.  The answer to this was for the airlines to reinvest their profits back into themselves, rather than declare it – which in turn led to the rapid enlargement of the undercover fleet.  And when we say “profit” we are talking about 30 million dollars in the mid 60’s.

It is a weighty paperback and the review copy (B. 545) was obtained from the Bookazine outlet in The Avenue.  In the center are some black and white prints of some of the planes and pilots.

Like Robbins’ other book, this one gallops along at a great pace.  I followed it to the end with total absorption, and even the addendum regarding the film of the same name.