Episode 146: Air America: History’s Largest Drug Mule

Air America This episode is brought to you by El Yucateco

On this Sofa King Podcast, we look at the CIA’s illegal and covert airline that they ran for over thirty years called Air America. Yes, it’s the same one as the Mel Gibson movie, but it’s a lot different than what the film shows. Starting in August of 1950, the CIA bought an actual airline called Civil Air Transport (CAT) and began using the flights as a way to smuggle spies and equipment into communist China and gather aerial surveillance photographs. By 1960, when the tension in the Vietnam War was mounting, they expanded it and christened the operation Air America.

Air America’s primary mission was to help to provide food, weapons, and training to a group of people in Laos called Hmong tribesman. Their leader, Vang Pao, was a friend to the agency, so they kept him well-funded. Why did the Hmong matter? Well, they were neighbors to Vietnam, and they fought in a “Shadow War” in Laos whose purpose was to cut all supply lines that connected the Viet Cong and NVA to Chinese and Soviet goods.

Air America was an interesting chapter in the CIA’s history. First, it broke international war laws laid out in the Geneva Accords of 1954—laws that prevented the US from flying into or over Laos which had declared neutrality. So, with a private airline that nobody knew the CIA owned, they could fly all sorts of things into this barred country.

And fly they did. At their height, they flew some 30,000 missions a month and had the largest commercial aircraft fleet in the entire world! The pilots were military-trained and incredibly brave, flying through combat zones with civilian equipment and no back up, and they died significantly more than military pilots fighting in Vietnam did.

Of course since the CIA was involved, it all took a dark turn. The Hmong’s main source of income was selling heroin they refined from their poppy fields. So, the CIA let the heroin fly out on their planes, typically said to go to Manuel Noriega in the Philippines and then spread out from there.

We have a hard time weighing in on this one. Was Air America just another illegal CIA operation that the US people shouldn’t have allowed, or did they actually help to protect American soldiers in Vietnam by supporting the Hmong? Listen, Laugh, Learn.

Our Sponsors