An Air America helicopter lifts a US soldier in a Vietnam War era scene. Portrait: Joe Kline/Air America website (www.air-america.org)

JAKARTA – Two heavyweight US senators are backing new legislation aimed at winning long-sought federal retirement benefits for hundreds of employees of Air America, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) airline that conducted covert operations during the Korean and Indochina wars.

In doing so, they may finally end the decades-long charade of secrecy the CIA built up around a shadowy fleet of 80 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, operating out of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, that has sometimes bordered on the ludicrous.

Co-sponsored by acting Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) and vice-chairman Mark Warner (Democrat-Virginia) and backed by Democrat minority leader Chuck Schumer and 15 other senators, the Air America Act provides new hope for the hundreds of aging survivors.

“I think this is the best and the only shot we have,” says Israel Freedman, 83, a helicopter pilot who has lived near the Thai beach resort of Pattaya for the past 35 years after racking up 7,600 hours flying for Air America in the rugged mountains of northern Laos.

“I’m more enthusiastic than I have ever been before because Rubio has really done the research,” he says. “When Air America was dissolved, a lot of left-over money went into the US government retirement fund. If we weren’t government employees, why was that?”

Previous legislative actions to compensate Air America employees were attached as amendments to appropriation bills, but they slipped through the cracks during congressional deliberations because CIA lawyers always found ways to falsely invalidate compensation claims.

Rubio’s new stand-alone legislation is based on declassified CIA documents that definitively show the Air Americans were, in fact, government employees throughout the years they were risking their lives in conditions where the flying was as dangerous as the communist groundfire.  

An Air America helicopter at the LS-85 secret site in northeastern Laos. Image: Gary Gentz/Air America website

In fact, the most interesting section of the bill acknowledges that Air America was owned by the US government under the policy guidance of the White House, the Department of Defense and the Department of State and managed by the CIA from its inception in January 1950 until its disbandment in December 1976.

The bill also recognizes for the first time affiliated airlines, including the equally secretive Civil Air Transport (CAT) Incorporated, Air Asia Company Ltd and the Pacific Division of Southern Air Transport, all of which were also involved in covert operations over Laos and Vietnam.

Now being considered by the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, the bill is expected to provide US$43 million in benefit payments over the next 10 years to 508 Air America employees and their dependents, a handful of whom still live in Asia.

Legal maneuvering aside, previous efforts foundered on jurisdictional infighting among Senate committees and the lingering secrecy that has continued to cloak the airline despite a stream of books and freedom of information disclosures that have dragged it out of the shadows. 

The cause was originally championed by Democrat senator and former majority leader Harry Reid, but with him gone from Congress the struggle has been taken up by Rubio and his bipartisan group in an unprecedented way.  

At least 286 Air America crewmen were killed in the line of duty while flying bombing missions against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces, resupplying besieged mountaintop outposts and rescuing as many as 100 downed US pilots, including three officers who later became admirals.

Freedman, a former air force transport pilot, is believed to have been the first Air American to rescue a US fighter pilot in Laos, snatching him from a tiny jungle clearing near Tchepone, a major intersection on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in March 1965. 

But just as the CIA walked away from thousands of allied ethnic Hmong tribesmen who formed its irregular army for more than a decade, so it dragged its feet helping the fliers who had provided the agency with invaluable air support in some of the world’s most difficult terrain.

Lawyer Maureen Ebersole, who like her late father works voluntarily for the Air America Association, says genuine efforts by CIA counsel to help the airline staff collapsed in 1976 when a new generation took over at the agency’s Langley headquarters.

Seeking to cover up the secretive arrangement that allowed civilian combatants to do an end-run around Laotian neutrality, guaranteed under the 1954 Geneva Accords, the CIA took to lying.

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

In an eye-opening letter to the secretary of the US Air Force, the CIA claimed the airline employees were engaged in unauthorized military activity, had been overpaid and did not deserve anything more than what they had already received.

Then in July 2011, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) sent a long-delayed 29-page opinion on the subject to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Ebersole says “misinformed Congress (on the status of the employees) and has taken yet another decade to  set the record straight.”

“After they started lying, they simply circled the wagons,” the San Francisco-based lawyer told Asia Times. “In the end, half of them at Langley didn’t know what was true and what was a lie. This was going on so long it was ridiculous.”

The dam of secrecy finally broke free in 2017 when a lawsuit filed by a group of journalists, known collectively as Muck Rock, finally pressured the CIA into putting 13 million pages of its CREST archival system onto the agency’s official website.

But even then archive searchers had to spend hours physically scouring through the actual documents stored in four buildings in Maryland until another lawsuit compelled the agency to make the files available in digitized form.

“CIA efforts to sell a narrative based on the secrecy requirements of a bygone era, or the face-saving falsehoods they subsequently put forward, do not fly with senators who have long tenure on the intelligence committee,” says Ebersole. 

What the dwindling band of Air Americans found particularly upsetting was that benefits had already been awarded to other CIA-funded proprietary organizations, including Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.

Air America archives show that after undertaking the last chaotic evacuation flights from Saigon in April 1975, the final 30 Air America crewmen were released unceremoniously in Hong Kong, where they were given air tickets and told to go home.

Perhaps the ultimate irony was the final iconic shot of the war showed an Air American helicopter perched on the roof of an apartment building, which had served as a CIA safe house, while a line of Vietnamese struggled to climb aboard.

The Air America facilitated evacuation of a CIA apartment building in Saigon, April 1975. Image: Getty/AFP Forum

Given the secrecy and politics surrounding the airline, there were no accolades or health assistance, even for those who suffered long-term disabilities. Families of those killed in action never received death benefits. Few at the time even knew who actually owned Air America.

Air America’s value was no better illustrated than during a 1968 communist sapper attack on a US radar site perched atop Phou Pha Thi, a 1,900-meter limestone massif in northern Laos which was being used to direct the bombing campaign over North Vietnam.

With HH-3E Jolly Green Giant choppers late in arriving from the Thai base at Nakhon Phanom, it was left to Air America to make repeated efforts to rescue some of the 19 American radar technicians before so-called Lima Site 85 was overrun. As it was, just six survived.

Only two months before, in one of the more bizarre incidents of the war, an Air America Bell-205 fought off a raid by three ancient North Vietnamese A-2 biplanes on Phou Pha Thi using rockets and air-dropping 122mm mortar bombs.

Because the helicopter was actually faster, pilot Terry Moore flew alongside one of the slow-moving planes, while crewman Glen Woods strapped himself to the doorpost and opened fire with an AK-47 rifle, eventually bringing it down.

Another of the A-2s, heavily damaged by groundfire, crashed onto a nearby hillside. An official Vietnamese Air Force account of the raid, which came to light after the war, said the third aircraft failed to make it home as well.

It is stories like these that Ebersole uses to remind herself, and young congressional staffers with little knowledge of the Vietnam conflict, that their tedious bureaucratic work shouldn’t let them forget the courageous exploits of the old men they are helping.

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