by Lang Reid
Air America revisited
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
exposť 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
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
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
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
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.
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