Air America was an American airline secretly controlled by the CIA that supplied and supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
In 1957 the parent company of Air America's forerunner, Civil Air Transport (CAT), changed its name from Airdale Corporation to The Pacific Corporation. CAT attempted to change its name to Air America at the same time, but objections from Air France and American Airlines delayed the name change for two years. From 1959 to 1962 the airline provided direct and indirect support to Operations Ambidextrous, Hotfoot, and White Star, which trained the regular Laos armed forces.
From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Secret Army, transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided valuable intelligence on enemy activities. Its civilian-marked craft were frequently used, under the control of the 7/13th Air Force, to run search and rescue missions for US pilots downed in Indochina. Air America pilots were the only known private US corporation employees to operate non-FAA certified military aircraft in a combat role, although many of them were actually military personnel who had been transferred to the airline.
Air America's slogan was Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally. This was not an exaggeration as Air America aircraft flew the many types of cargo to countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It operated from bases in these countries and also from bases in Thailand and as far away as Taiwan and Japan. It also on occasion flew top-secret missions into Myanmar and China.
Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, drug enforcement officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon all over South East Asia. Its non-human passengers were even more bizarre on occasion; part of the CIA's support operations in Laos, for instance, involved logistical support for local tribes fighting the North-Vietnamese forces and the Pathet Lao, their local opponents. The war created a disruption in the local food chain, so thousands of tons of food had to be flown in, including live chickens, pigs, and cattle. On top of the food drops (known as 'rice drops') came the logistical demands for the war itself, and Air America pilots flew thousands of flights transporting and airdropping ammunition and weapons, to 'friendly' forces.
Flying for Air America was hazardous and the pay was better than for both normal civilian and military aviation. An AA pilot could earn as much in a week as another pilot would in a month, and the pay combined with the promise of adventure attracted many pilots. But the work was dangerous; even without conflict, pilots had to deal with poorly charted mountainous terrain, few radio beacons for navigation, bad weather, and often overloaded planes. Helicopter pilots had to deal with high altitude flights into mountains in tropical heat, which diminished the lift the rotors could give, and it took a great deal of 'unconventional' flying to get the job done. The conflict itself created an even more dangerous environment, and AA pilots flew missions that no military pilot would dare, coming under fire almost on a daily basis. Many AA pilots were shot down, sometimes many times over the course of the war.
Air America has also been accused of transporting opium and heroin. Veterans deny that this was done knowingly. The airline was the first to use drug sniffing dogs and a drug security force at their main operating airports.
By the summer of 1970, the airline had some two dozen twin-engine transports, another two dozen short-take off-and-landing aircraft, and 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. There were more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and airfreight specialists based in Laos and Thailand. During 1970, Air America delivered 46 million pounds (20,000 t) of food in Laos. Helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month in the same year. When North Vietnamese forces overran South Vietnam in 1975, Air America helicopters evacuated the embassy in Saigon. The photo that most people relate as the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, showing a white helicopter taking people off of the CIA apartment bulding, was actually an Air America aircraft. First in and last out in many cases.