In 1946, Claire Chennault, the retired commanding general of the US Fourteenth Air Force and former leader of the “Flying Tigers” of World War II fame, founded an airline company to haul relief supplies and other cargo around China. That airline was called Civil Air Transport (or CAT for short).
At that time, China was suffering from the aftereffects of the war and also was ravaged by civil war between the Nationalist government and Communist insurgents under Mao Zedong. By early 1948, CAT was heavily involved in supporting the Nationalists’ efforts to prevail against the Communist offensive. This support involved supply fights, troop deployment, and, increasingly, evacuations from Communist-captured territory.
CAT developed a reputation for being able to fly its C-46s and C-47s in hazardous conditions, and its pilots—many of them combat veterans—were renowned for getting the job done no matter what the odds. CAT began to fly missions for the CIA in October 1949, the same month that Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. CIA leaders saw possibilities for contracting with CAT to support the Agency’s operations to supply anti-Communist forces remaining on the mainland. The defeat of the Nationalists on the mainland in December 1949 and the retreat of the Nationalist government to Taiwan, however, left CAT near bankruptcy.
In the early 1950s, CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, the Agency’s covert action arm at the time, quickly extended a subsidy of $100,000 to the airline. Opinion within the Agency was divided over the wisdom of buying a failing airline, but CAT’s operational value ensured continued subsidy payments for several months. Even so, CAT declined—more personnel were let go, and its fleet of 19 C-46s was reduced to six.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 spurred CIA to acquire CAT outright. On August 23, 1950, the Agency acquired the airlines’ assets through a “cut-out” (a Washington area banker) and the company was reorganized as CAT Incorporated, ostensibly a private enterprise, but actually CIA’s new aviation arm.
Thus began an operational partnership that lasted through the Korean War, the early days of the US involvement in Vietnam, and beyond. CIA’s acquisition of CAT was the first of several such proprietary relationships in the aviation field.
In 1958, CAT was reorganized as Air America and provided CIA with supply and covert mission support flights, as well as search and rescue capabilities, during the war in Indochina. The legacy of CAT came to an end when Air America was disbanded in 1976.