1999-2000 (Winter)

Supporting the "Secret War": CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974

By William M. Leary


The largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by CIA up to this writing took place in the small Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos. For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill. Although the country eventually fell to the Communists, the CIA remained proud of its accomplishments in Laos. As Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms later observed: “This was a major operation for the Agency. . . . It took manpower; it took specially qualified manpower; it was dangerous; it was difficult.” The CIA, he contended, did “a superb job.”

Air America, an airline secretly owned by the CIA, was a vital component in the Agency’s operations in Laos. By the summer of 1970, the airline had some two dozen twin-engine transports, another two-dozen short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft, and some 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Laos. There were more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and air-freight specialists flying out of Laos and Thailand. During 1970, Air America airdropped or landed 46 million pounds of foodstuffs–mainly rice–in Laos. Helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month in the same year. Air America crews transported tens of thousands of troops and refugees, flew emergency medevac missions and rescued downed airmen throughout Laos, inserted and extracted road-watch teams, flew nighttime airdrop missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, monitored sensors along infiltration routes, conducted a highly successful photoreconnaissance program, and engaged in numerous clandestine missions using night-vision glasses and state-of-the-art electronic equipment. Without Air America’s presence, the CIA’s effort in Laos could not have been sustained.

A Distorted View

Air America’s public image has fared poorly. The 1990 movie Air America is largely responsible for this. It featured a cynical CIA officer who arranged for the airline to fly opium to the administrative capital of Vientiane for a corrupt Asian general–loosely modeled on Vang Pao, a military leader of the mountain-region-based Hmong ethnic group.

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