The Liberty Gazette
July 12, 2016Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: The metal airframe’s vibrations resonate as its twin propellers club the air. From behind the multi-paned windshield the pilots peer through clouds and dense smoke of burned fields, searching for a small village hung on a mountainside. Fighting to keep the heavily laden old transport plane flying, they remain clear of spire-like rock formations jutting up from thick foliage below. In the back, a man moves pallets of stacked bags and a crate with a pig inside closer to the open door. The crew struggles with the shifting cargo as the plane becomes tail-heavy.
Rounding a ridge they see their target. The pilot gives the signal to drop the load. With all his strength, the man in back begins shoving pallets out the back door, sometimes following them through it only to be slammed against the airplane as he dangles from his safety line. Clawing and crawling back inside, he finally dumps the pig. Some of the pallets have parachutes, others do not. Hopefully the pig has a nice leisurely ride.
As the pig flies so does the big silver bird. Rolling steeply away from the mountain it leaps skyward due to pounds shed, disappearing into the gloomy brown-grey pall, mission accomplished and heading for home.
At the end of WWII, from the remains of General Claire Chennault’s famed Flying Tigers, which defended China before we entered the war, emerged Air America.
Air America became the world’s largest private airline, but was eventually owned by the CIA, making it a public asset. The dedication of its crew members - who served without protections - guaranteed that U.S. service men and women were able to accomplish missions the military could not without political upheaval.
For our government, its plausible deniability. Yet, these crew members served alongside our armed forces, and many died in their service. Flying large transports and helicopters they provided lifelines of food and supplies to natives and allies, similar to what was done during the Berlin Airlift, except that there the rules of engagement were respected. Not so during the secret war in Laos as Air America rescued downed U.S. pilots who bailed out of aircraft damaged on raids over North Vietnam, often doing so under heavy fire.
My introduction came in 1985, through British writer Christopher Robbins’ book, “Air America”. It took me three months to fully digest the book’s contents covering a secret thirty-year history. Hollywood did a hatchet job with their 1990 movie. Though most of the flight scenes lauded were by the pilots, the plot was slanted and poorly developed, wholly failing to capture the essence of the airline or its people.
The airline’s motto was “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Professionally.” Air America brought supplies to dozens of mountain villages, transported civilian and military personnel throughout the war zones of Southeast Asia, and yes, dropped ammunition to guerrilla fighters. Known for being the first in and last out, one of the last iconic images taken during the Vietnam War shows an Air America Huey helicopter on a rooftop in Saigon picking up evacuees as the city fell to communist North Vietnam.
The Air America archives are stored at the McDermott Library at University of Texas-Dallas, including a plaque listing the 242 crew members who lost their lives in service. The remaining members still do battle, now to establish their status as Veterans. To deny them this honor is just wrong.