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Air America

May 06, 2016 My Friend Fred


We will now throw caution to the wind and talk specifically about Air America as the final chapter of the current My Friend Fred trilogy. It was certainly the airline of which Fred and I had the greatest level of knowledge in Laos in the old days, if not frequent flier miles, but no one was seeking free trips for their destinations. Just to be clear, Air America was formed by the U.S. as a phantom corporation for the Central Intelligence Agency. As a civilian airline, it could go places that otherwise would have violated the Geneva Treaty Accords. At its peak, it was the largest airline in the world.

Although Air America had an active presence in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, it was the force in Laos where we were involved at the time. There was a hodgepodge of aircraft in Laos, generally STOL (short takeoff and landing) due to the absence of normal runways once you got to the "hot zones." Where there were runways, Esso -- the employer of Fred and the author -- had contract Lao personnel who would actually fuel the planes under the watchful eye of the U.S. Naval Inspector's frequent quality control inspections. I never understood the Navy connection in a landlocked country.

In any event, wherever we had fuel, we were the only game in town for Air America, Continental Air Services, the Hmong guerrilla fighters, Royal Air Lao, and various non-descript Corsican-backed Lao private DC-3 aircraft. Apart from the last group, we received U.S. Department of Defense coupons (DD-250's) to get paid. I always thought that was the weakness of our cover. In locations where we did not provide the fuel into planes, either banded drums, drums on pallets or large bladders were dropped or pushed out of the tail sections of C-123 aircraft.

In terms of a commute to work, our personal aircraft of choice was the Pilatus Porter to take us places quickly, quietly and away when we thought it was time to leave.

To deliver Hmong troops and supplies to locations lacking runways, the Helio Courier was ideal.

In tight spots such as Hmong fire support bases, helicopters were the chosen transportation mode.

Lastly, the C-123 was deployed for larger cargo and fuel drops, though the Air America planes in Laos had no markings.

In 1970, Air America delivered 21,000 tons of food in Laos, known as "rice drops." On top of the "rice drops" there were thousands of flights dropping ammunition and weapons, known as "hard rice." Moreover, there were no Air America charges for checked luggage though there was no lost luggage insurance as well. Of the banded fuel drum drops, only one in four wound up in the hands of the good guys, one in four to the bad guys and the remainder broke on ground contact. However, if you needed fuel to evacuate out on a helicopter, one in four represented good odds.

In terms of illicit cargo, a great deal was made of Air America transporting opium on behalf of the Hmong leader, Vang Pao, the highlight of the farcical movie by the same name. Clearly, the Corsicans flew a lot of DC-3 aircraft loaded with opium amongst the passengers which added a certain fragrance to sometimes fatal commercial flights. Although there may have been the odd opium cargo needed to generate hard currency for the Hmong forces on an Air America aircraft, the airline was not directly involved. However, in a time of war, unusual things happen.

Now as to unusual happenings, Fred and I met in Saigon for an Air America relocation party to undefined and subsequently undisclosed locations before the last flights out in April, 1975. It was clear to us that the Vietnam gig was over for every one of us though the U.S. Ambassador was unable to grasp what had been evident for a long time. The party reflected gallows humor at its best. The Air America air traffic controller told a very sensitive story about a pilot radioing his co-ordinates as his plane was going down so "friendlies" could find him before the bad guys. He had difficulty getting the coordinates out as his pilot buddies kept breaking in asking such questions as his locker combination and the number of his girlfriend working in the Tu Do bar. Nonetheless, he made it home. There are many other such tales but they must await another venue.

So where is the elephant connection in this blog? Strangely, I always thought the war in Laos was a "just" war if there is such a thing, as opposed to a war of unification in Vietnam and a U.S. invasion of Cambodia. That is not to say that anyone had clean hands. However, by its very nature the war in Laos on the ground was fought in a guerrilla manner by the Hmong people with air supply support from the U.S. via Air America.

The U.S. Air Force bombed the Plain of Jars in Laos into oblivion but there were no large accumulations of ground forces, few land mines and bad things that destroy the flora and fauna in the mountainous regions such as Agent Orange. As a result, today Laos has some 2,000 elephants largely in the wild whereas elephants were virtually eliminated in Vietnam and Cambodia.

 

Siam Cement of Thailand exports massive amounts of cement in bags to Cambodia as the country rebuilds itself following the devastating years of Khmer Rouge suppression. Each bag has an elephant image on it representing the iconic historic symbol of Thailand.

In Cambodia, these discarded cement bags are crafted into tote, duffle, and cosmetic bags as well as coin purses by Cambodian craftsmen. The Elephant Story purchases them and returns the proceeds to elephant conservation. The irony of it is most of the elephants being helped came to Thailand from Cambodia to escape the war there.