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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

Air America

One book which has endured everything from denials, to blatant attacks on the veracity of the book and the author, is Air America. This review is of the latest update of Christopher Robbins original 1979 expose 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 should also be remembered for his book “The Ravens”, which was reviewed some months ago, and this tome 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 shock for some people. That the CIA itself didn’t even know how many planes it had would also come as a surprise to many people - but not to those who flew for Air America - the world’s most clandestine airline!
The airline’s motto 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. They were well paid, but the money was certainly not the motivation. As Robbins writes, “For old combat fighters there is no psychic income whatsoever sitting at the controls of a modern jet.” However, by 1973 the pilots were striking for better conditions.
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.
It is a weighty paperback and the review copy, obtained from the Royal Garden Plaza Bookazine outlet cost 450 baht. 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 absolutely dreadful film of the same name. If you like real life who-dunnits, with pilots drinking wine while watching the Indo-China war, then this is the book for you.