Pelican’s Perch #62:
The Air America Years (Part I)


AVweb’s John Deakin has told us a little (in “Pelican’s Perch #14” and “PP #47“) about his time with The Company. In this month’s Pelican’s Perch, he tells ALL the secrets – how he got in by the skin of his teeth, finally learned how to execute the “radius of action from a moving base” from an old Chinese ground instructor, and more – and he won’t even have to kill you after he tells you!

Pelican's PerchI never, ever, volunteer that I once worked for this “airline,” once the super-secret air arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. To my everlasting amusement, that seems to create a mystery all of its own when someone does find out.

This usually happens in a friendly conversation with someone around the airport, or in a cockpit the first few times we share one. We’ll go through the usual litany of where we live, marriage (usually plural), and who we worked for, looking for something or someone in common (“Say, did you know old so-and-so?”). Then the stories can begin. I usually sigh inwardly when my prior employment comes up, as many seem to think it was unusual for an American to have worked for a Japanese airline. It seemed pretty normal, to me. As did working for AAM.

The JAL gig is usually good for passing a few enjoyable hours, as we explore the “cross-connections,” so common in aviation. I’ve met a fair number of “characters” in my time, and most pilots who have “been around” have, too. It is generally much more interesting to talk about others not present, because legends grow around the stories, great liberty can be taken, and they become much more entertaining than the original reality. I rarely tell stories about myself, because I try very hard not to embellish them, and so they are uninteresting by comparison. Whatever meager talent I may have with a keyboard is not apparent when I talk, so I’m generally pretty quiet, especially about myself. Again to my great amusement, that seems to add further mystery to the Air America years. While I found them interesting, and consider them the happiest years of my life, it astounds me that others might be interested. It was all so long ago, and so far away.

If someone finds out about Air America from me, it is almost always from the question, “How did you get the JAL job?” My standard answer is a slight evasion, “Oh, I was working for a company in Southeast Asia, and someone told me JAL was looking for pilots.” Almost invariably, the person will interrupt, and say, “Was that Air America?”

I should be used to that by now, but it still surprises me that people make that connection so quickly, from a time so long ago. I left AAM in 1968, and “The Company” went out of business in about 1975, so it’s now more than 25 years later! Even people in their 20s make the connection! Perhaps that’s from the utterly detestable movie “Air America” with Mel Gibson.

Was It Really Like That?

I usually enjoy Gibson in his better roles, but I think he hit the bottom of the barrel with “Air America.” While there were a few wonderful flying scenes, real Air America pilots universally despise that movie, for it portrayed us as pure mercenaries, crooks, con-men, and dope smugglers, with few redeeming features. I suppose we could be (and were) called mercenaries by some, but to a man, everyone was intensely patriotic, we felt our cause was just and good, and we felt strongly that we were on the right side of the battle to “stop communism.” I think we were all confused by the war in later years, as “politicians” (almost always an epithet in my lexicon) like LBJ and Robert McNamara began to micromanage things from shiny desks in Washington. I also happen to think we did help stop communism, that most despicable form of government. In many ways what the United States did in Southeast Asia helped bring down the Berlin Wall, blocked the spread of communism for many years in the area (although some countries did fall, finally), and finally revealed the former Soviet Union as a true “evil empire.”

I recall one newcomer, spending the night in an up-country hostel in Laos, proclaiming that he was there for the money, and if the other side paid more, he’d work for them.

There was a shocked silence, then one of the tougher dudes got up, walked over to the loudmouth, and smashed him straight in the face, knocking him cold. He was airlifted on the first flight to Vientiane, got medical treatment, and was shipped home with no further ado, and no sympathy whatsoever.

Few knew that, at one time, Air America was the largest airline in the world, except for Aeroflot. Of course, to make that statement, you have to realize a lot of Air America’s airplanes were small single-engine aircraft and helicopters, and Aeroflot “owned” almost all the airplanes in the Soviet Union, including cropdusters. Pan American crews would have been disgusted at the “largest airline” claim, but they always were pretty snooty.

I certainly knew nothing about all this when I was hired, and for some time thereafter. Air America was, in 1963, one of the better-kept secrets of the time, with no media coverage, and very, very few outside the military knew of its existence. I’d certainly never heard of it.

One Door Closes, Another Opens

I had just been fired from a job as a corporate pilot in Nashville, Tenn. I went into the office that day to quit, but the boss fired me first. But, that’s another story. It was one of those jobs that any pilot was better off not having. As is so often true, leaving it created the next opportunity.

Dan Turner, a local pilot (and my predecessor on the Twin Beech), told me, “I hear there’s an outfit in Washington hiring pilots for overseas flying, all I have is a phone number from a friend, but I’m not interested, and I don’t know anything else about it.” So, I called the number.

It was answered with just the phone number, which I thought a little odd. I explained that I’d heard they might be looking for pilots, and I was looking for work.

The absolute first question was, “Do you have an ATR?”

“Yes, I do, and a B-25 type rating.”

(Technically, it was already properly called an “ATP” by 1963, but everyone still called it an “ATR,” a leftover from the CAA. The Zweng manual I used for study called it (improperly) an “ATPL.” My ATP was pretty new at that point, but I saw no profit in telling him that.)

“Ok, we’ll send you some tickets, come on up.” It was just about that simple.

In a few days, the tickets came, and off I went to Washington-by-the-Potomac, D.C. I don’t recall much about the office, or the people, except there didn’t seem to be any signs, or names, just a nondescript office building in the city. I do remember that they were a little shocked at my youth, but overly impressed by my ATP. I later found out they had a special requirement for ATP pilots, and very, very few of the AAM pilots had one.

But they didn’t seem able to get past my age (23), and finally told me, “Sorry, we can’t use you, we really need someone with an ATP and a DC-3 type rating.”

Ever the quick mouth, I shot back, “Will you hire me if I go get a DC-3 type rating?”

“Well, yeah, but we can only give you two weeks to do it.”

In retrospect, I think it was just a ploy to get rid of me, and I didn’t take the hint.

DC-3 Type Rating

I went back and started making phone calls to some of my friends in Miami’s “Corrosion Corner,” that airplane graveyard that once stretched for miles along 36th Street, more formally called (by the tower) “The Northwest Area.” It seemed like every shady operator in the world had an office, or flew from, or did their maintenance (such as it was) in and from that area, and it was a beehive of activity. In those days, “Bryson’s” was the local hangout, a dark, shabby bar on 36th Street and Curtiss Parkway. Pilots would put their card up on the bulletin board, or a 3″ x 5″ card with a few words on it, like “C-46 Pilot looking for work,” with a phone contact, or “See Sam.” That would be the bartender. There were some colorful characters who seemed to live there, to say the least.

I first became aware of it during the last year or two of Juan Batista’s rule over Cuba, and during the transition to Fidel Castro’s filthy regime. Batista was no prize, but there’s no question Cuba and the Cubans were better off with him running things. Had I been a little older, with a bit more “warbird” experience, I might well have been actively involved. I missed that little adventure, I guess.

Anyway, I finally found someone who owned an old junker of a Wright-powered DC-3, N16055. (That number belongs to a 1972 Cessna 150 today.) After some negotiation, he agreed to rent it to me for the checkride, if he approved of the examiner. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the rental fee, but I was in no position to bargain.

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So young, so slim …
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Cockpit of N16055 – The large ADF indicator can just be seen behind my right hand.

The next step was to find an examiner, as I somehow sensed the FAA wouldn’t even talk to me. There was a wonderful, legendary old pirate in Fort Lauderdale named Bill Conrad, who deserved to have a book written about him. At one time, he was reputed to have more type ratings than anyone else in the world, and much later, AOPA PILOT did a sidebar on him and another pilot whose name I cannot recall. I’d met Conrad, as he was the developer and STC holder of the “Conrad Ten-Two” upgrade kit for the Twin Beech I’d been flying. Conrad’s kit raised its gross weight to 10,200 pounds (from 8,750). While flying the Twin Beech, I had dropped by to get a minor upgrade to the airplane, which he had modified a few years before, and I remembered seeing his examiner’s certificate on his trophy wall. He was a designated examiner in dozens of airplanes, including the DC-3. I remember he had flown Connies a lot, but not the airline from which he had retired. Probably Eastern, from his location.

He was harsh, blunt, and brutally plain-spoken at the best of times, and was a tall, overpowering, intimidating personality. His first question was the one I feared the most, “How much DC-3 time do you have?”

I gulped, and stammered, and finally confessed I’d only flown one once, but I hastened to add that I had made the takeoff and landing (a favor by a couple of corporate pilots in Nashville, on a test hop.) He exploded over the telephone, made a few choice comments not repeatable here, and ended up with, “What the hell are you going to do with a type rating, and no experience?”

I was a little shaken, but he hadn’t said no, so I poured out my story about being fired, and why, and this new job I might get, if only I had the rating, and how time was running out. I finished up with something like, “I was hoping you’d give me some training, and when I’m ready, a checkride.”

“How old are you?” How I hated that question, in those days! It seemed I was too young to do anything I wanted!

“I’m 23, but I’ve got the ATP, and a B-25 type rating,” I said, hopefully. This project was proving harder to do than I thought, and I could see that “overseas flying job” going down the tubes.

The gruff, crusty old coot must have had a soft spot, somewhere, because his next words were, “All right, come on over here, and we’ll see.”

Quick Training

In my hometown, Sarasota, Fla., one of my airport-bum friends (and mentor, though I’d never heard of that word) was a fellow named Dick Prim. He was the corporate pilot for Tropicana, had lots of DC-3 time (R4D, in the Navy), but no type rating, so he decided he’d tag along and get his rating, too. We borrowed a 250 Comanche (N6384P, still active in Harwich, Mass.), and away we went, on 9/6/63. Dick went out partying with some of his buddies in Fort Lauderdale that night, but I holed up in the hotel and studied the manual for the DC-3, the first one I’d seen. By midnight, I had every page committed to memory. I used to be really good at that.

Early the next morning, Conrad sat us both down in his office, and started the oral. He’d ask Dick a question, then ask me if I agreed with the answer, then he’d start with me. Dick hadn’t seen a manual in 20 years, and had probably figured it was going to be just a “good ole boy” rating. There were a lot of those, in those days. He was also a bit hung over, so he didn’t do very well on the oral. I had every answer, every pressure, all the limits, just had that manual wired, so my answers were quick and accurate, one of the best orals I’ve ever done. It’s called “motivation,” and it’s a powerful tool!

Conrad was not happy with Dick, and as I recall, he sternly told him to “study the damned manual, while I go fly with the kid, here.” With difficulty, I held my tongue at the “kid.”

My logbook shows 2.1 hours on that ride, and I’ve never had a tougher one (or a better training flight). Steep turns were at sixty degrees, instead of the usual 45, and there were some hooded recoveries from unusual attitudes that no transport was ever intended to see. The airplane had a huge ADF indicator, perhaps six or eight inches in diameter, mounted almost horizontally in front of the pedestal, with a manually adjustable dial. ADF approaches were big in those days, and the VOR system was still new (like GPS, today). Conrad grumbled that he couldn’t give me an LF Range approach, as there were none left in Florida by then. He gave me some complex clearance to intercept a bearing off an NDB, fly it outbound until crossing another bearing (using only one ADF, of course), and hold. I had to adjust the holding pattern for wind, and had to arrive over the NDB at a specific “expect approach” time. All this came in one stream, spitting it out, and I was expected to remember it all. Writing down a clearance was for wussies, and I’m so glad it didn’t try it with Conrad. I remember quickly rotating the dial to my heading, which would have made it easier to figure the intercept, but he literally snarled, “Oh no you don’t, you do it the old way,” and he spun the dial back to zero, then failed an engine for the remainder of the flight.

Mercifully, my buddy back in the office sweating over the DC-3 manual had been my original instrument instructor, and being ex-Navy, had drilled me on unusual attitudes, and ADF/LF Ranges for hours on one of the last ones in use, at Tampa. I think that intercept, hold, approach, and missed approach may have been what got me the DC-3 rating, but Conrad didn’t tell me if I had passed or failed. We landed, then he went flying with Dick, while I sweated in the office, waiting to hear my fate, with a job in the balance.

When they got back, Conrad sat us both down, and just chewed ass for awhile, merciless. Dick had done a nice job on the checkride, and had answered a few more oral questions correctly, so Conrad finally told him he’d passed. Then he looked at me, and I was dying, knowing he was going to bust me. “Deakin, you did really well on the oral, and okay on the checkride, too. I shouldn’t give you the rating with so little time, but no one is going to let you act as PIC until you get some, so I’m going to give it to you.” I’m not sure, but I think there was a twinkle in his eye as he handed me the precious slip of paper, with “Douglas DC-3” on it (they spelled ’em out in those days; now it’s just a simple “DC-3”). Bill had started young too, and I guess he remembered what it was like.

My next act was to call that number in Washington, with one day to spare on my two-week deadline. A few days later, tickets arrived, Northwest Airlines from Miami or Tampa (I forget) to Tokyo, overnight, and then some airline named “Civil Air Transport” to Taipei, apparently the headquarters of this company with no name. Name, who cares about a name, it was overseas flying!

Off to Taiwan

On the flight to Tokyo, I asked to visit the cockpit, spent the whole flight there, and ended up staying for the landing. I was so excited, and wanted to watch the instruments so badly during the approach and landing, I didn’t even fasten my seat belt, and sat up high on the arm of the jumpseat in the B-707, my first flight on a jet. Times sure were simpler, then.

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Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in 1963. Runway 04 still under construction.

A Civil Air Transport (CAT) person met me with instructions and vouchers for an overnight stay in the old Prince Hotel, in Tokyo, and to show up the following night for the late CAT flight to Taipei. Tokyo was still poor from WWII, the streets were dirty, the air was polluted, and I was fascinated by the three-wheeled trucks, so common after the war. Each had a nosewheel, and two “main” wheels) piled high with huge loads. They must have been terribly unstable.

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The Golden Worm

At the airport that night, I boarded the most gorgeous airplane in the world. A highly-polished, brand-new Convair 880 with a huge red and gold Chinese dragon all over the nose, nicknamed, “The Golden Dragon.” I would later learn that it was colloquially known as “The Golden Worm,” but one did not say that around the Chinese. The interior matched the exterior, and the girls! Oh, my aching heart, they were drop-dead gorgeous, wearing those tight Chinese dresses called “Cheongsams,” with the slit in the side clear to the hip. I promptly developed an instant weakness for Oriental women.

I spent a little time in the cockpit on that flight as well, talked to the crew, and found out for the first time that this airplane was part of “The Company” that I was to work for. That was interesting, and I had instant visions of flying this airplane, one day. They told me I’d be working for an outfit named Air America, a subsidiary of Air Asia, itself a subsidiary of “The Pacific Corporation,” which also owned Civil Air Transport in Taipei, and Southern Air Transport in Japan. These were all new names that just went by in a blur for this incredibly ignorant kid. They mentioned that I would have about three weeks of “indoctrination” in Taipei, some ground school, and a test for the Chinese pilot’s license I was to get. I would probably be assigned to Vientiane, Laos, probably as a co-pilot on the C-47. I’d been told in Washington that my assignment would be in Southeast Asia, but I had only a fuzzy idea where that was. Laos? I never asked, but I wondered to myself, “what, or where is Laos? Is that in Southeast Asia? How big is “Southeast Asia?” Maybe Laos is one of those tiny countries near Tibet, or something? Never heard of it, but it sounded exciting, it didn’t matter, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to reveal my ignorance, so I didn’t ask many questions. There seemed to be some secrecy involved, or perhaps they just assumed I knew more than I was telling. What a dummy I was!

Taipei Grand Hotel

As ordered, I checked into something of a fleabag hotel in Taipei. Not for the likes of us was “The Grand,” perched on the hillside overlooking the city of Taipei. I suspect this was more in keeping with “The Company” wanting to maintaining a low profile than it was in “going cheap.”

There is also the story of one Ben C., when he was a new hire. He got so taken with all the spookiness that he checked into the hotel under a phony name. Only trouble was, he didn’t tell anyone, not even the company, so it was a week or two before they managed to find him.

Eventually, Ben worked up to flying some milk runs for CAT (which was ostensibly a public airline), and if you saw him and said, “Hi, Ben, where are you going today,” he’d lower his voice, look around furtively, and say, “Well, the flight plan says Tai Chung.” Then he’d sit back with a smug grin. It was left to the imagination as to where the flight was really going, which was Tai Chung. Some really got into the secrecy bit.

Chinese Ground School

Ground school was taught by one Y.C. Leung, a very soft-spoken, kindly old Chinese man (he was probably 35 or 40, which looked “old” to a 23-year-old!). He went over the basics, right from plotting a course, to navigation, and radio navigation. I spent some hours in a genuine Link Trainer, even then becoming very rare. Most of that was pretty easy, but I remember very clearly tensing up when he began teaching the old classic “Radius of action from a moving base,” the technique for finding the aircraft carrier you took off from. I’d never been able to grasp the concept from reading alone, and no one had ever been able to explain it to me. I had simply skipped it on the ATP writtens (there were five of them, then), the year before. I figured I’d dope it out if I ever had to find an aircraft carrier, but I thought that was probably not in my future. I knew by this time that Y.C. was a master at explaining something, then asking questions to explore understanding, and I knew I was in trouble, because I couldn’t just skip it, this time. I started to sweat, and tried to read up on it again.

I had studied the problem for years, long before going for the ATP, and it had me totally buffaloed. No one at the local airport understood it, either. Y.C. led us through it, explaining as he went, and to my astonishment, the light came on for me! I could have kissed him. To this day, I can still sit down and puzzle it out from scratch, although it takes awhile to bring it back. That was the first formal ground school I’d ever had, and it was very helpful in many ways, filling in some gaps for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better one. The written for the Chinese ATP went well, I guess, I don’t really remember it very well. During this process, we visited the headquarters building for “briefings.” From the very start, the need for confidentiality, discretion and downright secrecy was stressed, and stressed hard. We were not to talk to reporters at all, we were not to disclose that we worked for Air America, as there were “politically sensitive” things involved. What those things were, I couldn’t even begin to guess. I was a really good security risk, because I knew nothing.

You know, if someone had asked me to define communism, I couldn’t have. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard the word, except for a faint recollection of some fellow named McCarthy, and that he’d had something to do with it. Folks, we are talking “major dumb,” here! I just wanted to fly.

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The “Round-the-Island” CAT C-46

One day during “indoctrination,” we caught the “Round the Island” C-46, also operated by CAT, also with the huge “Golden Dragon” on it, also with a couple of svelte Chinese girls serving up hot scented towels and drinks. Oh, my, I was going to enjoy this job!

I was a little startled at the very serious government law in Taiwan that the window shades had to be closed for all takeoffs and landings, with “no peeking!” It was made abundantly clear that any violation of this law would result in immediate arrest. Taiwan was, in those days, a total police state, so your old habeus corpus would probably rot to the bones before you got out. Briefings had given me a bit of the history of Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist troops getting chased out of Red China in 1949, and the history of American pilots fighting on the Nationalist side, starting with the old CNAC.

Some of the pilots I’d be working with were “Old China Hands,” a few of whom had come from those days! I’d already met a few of them! Felix Smith was, I think, “Number One,” and quickly became one of my favorites. He has now written a wonderful book about those years.

Being senior (though with no union), most of the pilots of the “Golden Worm” were “Old China Hands,” and for the first time, I began to realize the significance, and the history, of my new employer.

Working for The Company

The story was told of a huge maintenance barge that moved down-river on the Mainland as the tides of war shifted. City after city fell to the communists, led by Mao Tse Tung. In 1949, the last cities fell, and the barge was moved across the Formosa Strait to Tainan, Taiwan, where it grew into the maintenance facility we were about to visit.

It was nothing short of mind-boggling, and no briefing could prepare me for it. It was, and remained for many years, the largest maintenance facility in the world, and it was all top-secret. That facility was fully capable of rebuilding a whole airplane, from scratch, and often did. Helio Couriers would come in from Laos as a small pile of mangled and bloody wreckage, and leave as shiny new airplanes, some with the original data plate, and others with none at all. Most of the “business” seemed to be U.S. Military airplanes, in for overhaul, modification, or maintenance. It was a beehive of activity in 1963, and it grew exponentially during the following decade, with Vietnam (another new name, to me).

A USAF F-100 was in the shop, and I stupidly blurted, “What’s that doing here?” I got only a look in return, and realized that was none of my business. I was never much of a talker, but I was learning to keep my mouth even more shut, and my eyes and ears open. Somewhere along the way, I was told, “We do a lot of government contract work, and we don’t talk about it.”

Throughout all this, I kept hearing, “The Company,” usually in hushed tones, with furtive looks around before uttering those words. I thought it simply meant the company (Air America) that I thought I was working for, but as the weeks went by, I realized there was more to the name, and it was really not quite clear just what “The Company” meant. I finally had to ask, probably two months after I hit Laos.

“What the hell is this ‘Company’ everyone keeps talking about?”

The guy I was flying with looked at me in shock. “You don’t know?”

I went through what I’d been told, “Well, I know Air Asia owns Air America, and the Pacific Corporation owns ’em all, but sometimes when you guys say, ‘The Company,’ it’s obvious it means something else.”

He looked around furtively (we were alone in a C-47, sitting in the cockpit), and said in a very low voice, “You stupid ass, it’s the CIA. Didn’t you know you’re working for the CIA, and they own all those companies, and this one, and many others? Who in hell did you think you were working for?”

I was absolutely dumbfounded, with emphasis on “dumb.” I think everyone knew it, but me!

Continued in Part II