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"They flew for the CIA, but not really"

Monday, May 7, 2007

They flew for the CIA, but not really
Former Air America crews are trying to gain recognition -- and federal
By Greg Miller
The Los Angeles (CA) Times

WASHINGTON - In 1961, Sam Jordan had just finished a six-year stint flying
helicopters in the Marine Corps when he saw a want ad for an upstart airline
called Air America.

"They said they wanted pilots," he recalled. "They didn't say anything about
where the flying would be."

Within months, Jordan was flying helicopters in Laos, carrying medical
equipment and other supplies to refugees in remote mountain villages. In
subsequent years, he flew airplanes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, scanning
for radio signals from the ground and dropping provisions from the sky.

He and other pilots developed code words for their cargo: "Soft rice" meant
food and "hard rice" meant arms.

In 14 years working for Air America, Jordan was never formally told who was
footing the bill for his often-harrowing flights. But he and the other Air
America pilots knew. They called their mystery client "the customer," Jordan

"And the CIA was always the customer."

Few Americans know it, but Air America is embedded in some of the most
iconic images of the Vietnam War. In the famous photo of the evacuation of
the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the helicopters lifting stranded diplomats off
the rooftop belonged not to the military but to Air America.

The company was shut down after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and the U.S.
government subsequently acknowledged that Air America was a wholly owned
subsidiary of the CIA.

But more than 30 years later, the government is still grappling with where
that leaves Air America's former employees. They worked for Air America, but
does that mean they worked for the CIA?

Jordan and hundreds of other Air America pilots, mechanics, executives and
workers have spent the last two decades battling to win recognition as CIA
employees - or at least federal employees - a designation that would entitle
them to pensions and other benefits.

The CIA has fought the effort, arguing that Air America employees were hired
to take part in important missions but were never officially brought into
the agency.

The distinction is important to the agency, where contractors now outnumber
the official workforce. Officials fear that granting CIA status to Air
America retirees would open the gates to thousands of similar claims.

Until recently, the Air America effort had seemed futile. A lawsuit filed in
the 1980s was tossed out, and efforts to enlist help from members of
Congress never got off the ground. But recent developments in Washington
have given Air America workers new hope.

When Democrats won control of Congress in the fall, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
became Senate majority leader. Reid's state is home to some of the most
vocal Air America retirees, and he has used his position to push legislation
that would require the nation's top spy officials to take another look at
the Air America case.

Though the legislation has yet to pass, the director of national
intelligence - a position created after the Sept. 11 attacks to oversee all
16 U.S. spy agencies - has launched a review of whether Air America
employees should win their claim and how much it would cost the government
if they did.

A legendary role

It's hard to imagine that any other group of CIA contractors would get such
consideration. But Air America occupies a legendary position in the annals
of U.S. espionage.

For nearly three decades, Air America and its CIA sibling, Civil Air
Transport, served as the circulatory system for clandestine U.S. operations
in Southeast Asia. They moved supplies, weapons and spies across the
treacherous terrain of China, Vietnam and Laos.

The CIA's air fleet was as large as those of major commercial airlines at
the time. At their peak in the mid-1960s, the CIA "proprietaries" employed
more than 15,000 people - most of them foreign nationals - and operated
about 200 planes.

Pilots often had to fly without navigation systems, elude enemy fire, and
land on tiny airstrips cut into the sides of mountains. At the same time, as
part of its cover, the CIA operated a successful commercial airline,
offering regular passenger service on flights to Bangkok, Tokyo and other

For 10 years, Air America supplied a secret army in Laos that pinned down
tens of thousands of communist guerrillas who otherwise would have joined
the fighting in Vietnam. And by the time Air America was dismantled, more
than 230 of its pilots and crew members had been killed.

A plaque honoring Air America hangs in the main corridor at CIA
headquarters. During the dedication ceremony, Jim Glerum, who had been one
of the top CIA officers in Laos in the 1970s, gave a speech in which he got
to the heart of the debate.

Air America crews "were not CIA employees in the technical/legal sense of
that word," said Glerum, who went on to serve as head of personnel at the
agency. "Yet we routinely asked them to undertake missions that we could not
conduct ourselves, and to accept hardship and hazards we have only rarely
asked our own people to face."

Air America traces its origin to 1946, when U.S. Army Gen. Claire Chennault
signed a contract with the Chinese government to create a new airline. When
the communist revolution forced the nationalist government to flee to
Taiwan, Chennault's airline became a key supply link to loyalist villages on
the mainland.

It was the start of a clandestine anti-communist campaign spearheaded by the
CIA that would carry on for the next quarter-century.

There are about 500 former Air America and Civil Air Transport employees
living in the United States, ranging in age from the 50s into the 90s. They
keep in touch through a website, a newsletter and occasional reunions,
including one in Dallas in October that drew about 40 former pilots and crew

For most of them, the effort to win CIA status is not a consuming cause.
After 20 years of trying, few expect to see any money. And most acknowledge
the tenuous nature of their claim. They never had any official connection to
the agency - never signed an employment contract, never got sworn in at
agency headquarters, never even got a government paycheck.

Nevertheless, those leading the effort point to government regulations
dating to the 1930s that they say support their contention that working for
a government-owned corporation makes you a federal employee. They also
consider it an issue of fairness, arguing that they deserve special
consideration from Congress because of what they did for their country.

There is no reliable estimate of what it would cost the government to
retroactively grant the former workers retirement benefits. And expectations
vary among those pressing the claim.

Jordan, 75, figures he would stand to collect about $1,000 a month. "I don't
think it would be very much," he said. "I'm not going to jump off a cliff if
I don't get it."

Hazardous duty

Others think their stakes are greater. 

Roy Watts, 83, who was one of the first Air America pilots, said he thought
he would be entitled to as much as half a million dollars in back retirement
and disability pay.

In 1954, Watts took part in perhaps the most storied moment in Air America
history, when he and two dozen other pilots made hundreds of desperate
deliveries to French forces pinned down by North Vietnamese troops in Dien
Bien Phu. Despite 682 airdrops of artillery and other supplies, the
communists crushed the French in a battle that marked the end of colonial

Watts and six other surviving pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor
for their flights.

In a 1987 ruling, a federal appeals court said Watts hadn't met several
basic requirements of being a federal employee: He had never signed a
contract with the government, was never given an oath of office, and
therefore was never "appointed" to the civil service.

The CIA has relied on such rulings in its efforts to persuade lawmakers to
drop their pursuit of Air America legislation. But in some ways, it has been
an awkward fight for the agency, which doesn't want to be seen as callous.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency honored the pilots and crew
members. "The courts, however, have ruled that they were not federal
employees and thus are not eligible for federal retirement benefits," he

CIA officials also emphasize that Air America did not shortchange employees
on the pay and benefits they were promised when they went to work for the

During Air America's heyday, the pay wasn't bad. Pilots typically got $1,200
or more each month, tax free. And if the benefits weren't
federal-government-caliber, the company did offer retirement accounts. Most
employees contributed a small percentage of their paychecks and cashed out
when they quit.

By the early 1970s, the CIA's secret air empire wasn't so secret anymore.
Amid growing scrutiny from Congress and the media, CIA Director Richard
Helms decided to shut it down.

As Saigon fell, Jordan and other pilots ferried as many planes as they could
out of Vietnam. 

The aircraft, airfields and other property were subsequently sold off,
leaving $25 million for the CIA to return to the U.S. Treasury. 

The pilots and other crew members were summoned to the company's offices in
Hong Kong.

"They gave us what we had coming and an airline ticket and that was it, that
was the end," said Jordan, who is almost ambivalent about the prospect of
getting a boost in retirement pay 30 years later.

"It would be nice, of course," he said. "It would make my old age a little
more comfortable. But I'll survive."


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