So you're fighting a major clandestine war in an attempt to prevent the spread of global communism, and you need a way of re-supplying your operations throughout your chosen theatre of operations.
Enter Air America
Spawned by the CIA's need to provide air transport capabilities to support the anti-Communist operations in South East Asia. Air America was seemingly a civilian air company, but was, in fact, wholly owned by the CIA, and operated by daring, and skilled ex-G.I.'s and helicopter pilots, whose attitude was summed up by their motto Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.
In the Beginning
In August 1950, the Agency secretly purchased all of the assets of Civil Air Transport company which was based in Shanghai, and operated missions ferrying supplies and people around China during its civil war. The CIA moved the company to Taiwan and, whilst maintaining the pretence of being a private charter air company, used its planes and personnel for a variety of covert missions. Initially known as CAT, it operated during the Korean War and was responsible for dropping agents and their supplies over China, a job which it carried out until the end of the conflict in 1953.
Air America saw further action from April 1953 to October 1954, aiding the French efforts to retain control of their colony in Vietnam. The US Government had no desire to see Vietnam become an independent state, as it feared that it would end up supporting Communism, but could not been seen to be openly supporting the French in their efforts to hold on to the colony. The only choice was to turn the CIA and CAT. They duly stepped into the breach, giving the government a degree of deniability, and provided transport for French soldiers and supplies, alongside French military air transport planes.
Starting out in Laos
The remainder of the 1950's saw the ongoing U.S. supply of economic aid to the Laotian people expand from merely supplying rice to supplying hard rice - ammunition. According the popular 'domino theory', the fall of one Communist state could cause an uprising in its neighbours, Laos was seen as the lynchpin of the entire South East Asian region. If it fell the US feared that Thailand and others would be soon to follow. These fears saw the introduction of Air America into the aid program in 1955 to boost the number of flights being made, and the food they flew in helped to sway popular opinion against the 'red menace'. Despite this assistance, the political situation in Laos grew uncertain, and in 1959, the US government decided to start Operation Hotfoot. This operation saw American special forces sent into Laos to supply and train Kong Le's right-wing FAR guerrillas, in an attempt to destabilise the Soviet supported Pathet Lao forces of General Phoumi Nosavan.
Newly outfitted with Helio fixed wing STOL aircraft, Air America carried on supplying the FAR guerrillas despite the rapidly escalating civil war. The US Government were concerned that the Pathet Lao were still too much of a threat, but due to their reluctance to commit open military support to the FAR guerrilla forces, the CIA were ordered to arm and train over 10,000 Hmong tribesmen. Air America expanded further in order to connect the scattered outposts that were separated by mountainous terrain, via a chain of specially constructed airstrips, known as Victor Sites.
There and Back Again
Despite the ongoing clandestine war, diplomatic channels were still in operation, and in 1962 an agreement was reached by President Kennedy and Prime Minister Khrushchev stating that all foreign troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. This pull-out led to a huge reduction in Air America's operations, with fewer than 600hrs of flights taking place per month, down from a high of 2500hrs per month in the previous year. This agreement, whilst honoured by the Soviets and Americans, was seemingly lost on the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), who ignored the cease-fire and continued their expansion into Laotian territories, attacking the Hmong tribesmen, who until recently were supported by the Americans. Their repeated pleas led to the rescheduling of Air Americas operations, with the caveat that all military equipment was only to be used for defensive purposes.
NVA incursions increased throughout 1963, and the CIA responded in kind, increasing the number of armed Hmong to 20,000. Soon afterwards the combined strength of the NVA and the Pathet Lao brought down the shaky coalition government and a full scale war broke out. Whilst pondering on a course of action, President Kennedy ordered reconnaissance flights to be undertaken, and it was not long before the first US airman was shot down. As the military lacked a search-and-rescue capability in Laos, Air America undertook the responsibility of getting the downed pilots out, despite their lack of training and equipment for the task.
1965 saw a shift in emphasis in the war, with the CIA taking a more open approach to what was going on in Laos, and with the Vietnamese conflict in full swing, more and more reports of Air America and their actions found their way into the US press, but congress decided to keep to the current plan noting that "It was a much cheaper and better way to fight a war in Southeast Asia than to commit American troops.". Management of the war in Laos was effectively shifted onto the US Ambassador of the time, William Sullivan. Throughout his tenure the war took the exact opposite of the conflict in Vietnam, with the Communist forces and their fixed supply lines making gains in the dry season, and the Hmong fighters, due to the mobility afforded to them by Air America, fought guerrilla-style in the monsoon season to gain parts this territory back.
Each year up to 1970, Air America airdropped or landed 25 million kilos of food in Laos, as well as transporting troops, munitions, and medevac cases into and out of Laos, monitoring roads and flying photographic reconnaissance missions. By this time Air America was the largest commercial airline company in the world in terms of the number of aircraft it operated, but the forces it supplied in Laos were losing ground, despite recruiting a number of Thai volunteer units. The fighting increased in its intensity throughout 1971 and '72, despite numerous B52 bombing runs, and by autumn 1970, NVA strength in Laos had reached 67,000 men, and but the CIA beleived that no descisive move would be made, as the NVA were waiting for South Vietnam to fall, and hoping that this would drop Laos into their laps.
With the expansion of the US led military action in Vietnam, Air America was called upon to provide re-supply and medevac facilites in the country. Whilst they played a far smaller role in the area than the conventional military, they still served there, though their importance was less, as the US had no worries about being seen to openly support the South Vietnamese cause.
In 1975, Air America helicopter crews helped to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese from South Vietnam during the fall of the country. One of the most famous images from the entire conflict, showing the evacuation of the last people from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon was actually a mission run by Air America, and the helicopter in the photograph is one of the theirs.
With rising casualties, and increasing hostility to the Vietnam War at home, Air America came under pressure to 're-appraise' its objectives in the spring of 1972. Soon afterwards the CIA were ordered to divest itself of Air America, and only keep it running until the end of the numerous conflicts in South East Asia. This came sooner than expected with the Paris agreement on Vietnam allowing for the withdrawal of US troops being signed in 1973, and the cease-fire in Laos being signed a month afterwards, ending an operation that had run for more than 13 years, and supplied the Hmong forces who fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill in Laos.
Inevitably sullied by its association with the CIA, The image of Air America was further damaged by the 1990 film, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr, which dealt with a supposedly 'true' story alleging that CIA shipped opium for in exchange for troops for the ongoing conflict.
The company finally closed its doors on 30 June 1976, after bringing over $20 million dollars into the US Treasury, despite the loss of over 200 Air America personnel and at least 36 aircraft.
The actions of Air America and its pilots were finally recognised in May 1988, when a plaque was unveiled at CIA Headquarters. It read "The aircrew, maintenance, and other professional aviation skills they applied on our behalf were extraordinary. But above all, they brought a dedication to our mission and the highest standards of personal courage in the conduct of that mission."