A Brief History of Civil Air Transport/Air America
Civil Air Transport (CAT) was a unique airline formed after World War II in China by General Claire L. Chennault and Whiting Willauer. The history of CAT is marked by adventure and international intrigue. Using surplus aircraft from the war, in 1946 CAT began to airlift supplies and food into war-ravaged China. During the Chinese Civil War, under contract with the Chinese Nationalist government and later the Central Intelligence Agency, CAT flew supplies and ammunition into China to assist the Chinese Nationalist forces on the Chinese mainland. With the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949, CAT helped to evacuate thousands of Chinese by air to the island of Taiwan.
In 1950 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) bought the airline to use in clandestine missions to fight communism in Asia. CAT continued to fly scheduled passenger flights while simultaneously using other aircraft in its fleet to fly covert missions. During the Korean War, CAT airlifted thousands of tons of war materials to supply United States military operations. In 1954 CAT aircrews airdropped supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina. Throughout the 1950s CAT flew this fascinating combination of scheduled commercial flights and clandestine missions.
With the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia, CAT’s mission changed. In 1959 CAT was renamed Air America. Under the new corporate name, (though CAT continued to fly scheduled passenger flights out of Taiwan), Air America flew all other type of air operations in Laos and South Vietnam. Operating in mountainous terrain, Air America crews flew with skill and courage in supplying the anti-communist forces in Southeast Asia. Air America flew a variety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters because of the region’s unforgiving topography. Missions included airdropping thousands of tons of food, evacuating civilians, rescuing downed U.S. aircrews, and emergency medical evacuations. In 1975, Air America helicopter crews helped to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese from South Vietnam during the fall of the country. In 1976, Air America’s twenty-six year tenure as the CIA’s airline came to a close. The CAT/Air America experience is unparalleled in commercial aviation history. More than two hundred and forty civilian CAT and Air America employees gave their lives in Asia from 1946 to 1975.
The CAT/Air America Archive: The Future
The history of CAT/Air America must be preserved for future generations. The historic events in which CAT and Air America employees played a role are key to understanding the history of the United States in the post-1945 period. Since 1987 the History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas has collected and preserved documents that explain the CAT/Air America story. Materials safeguarded in the Archive have been used by historians and researchers to write books and produce documentaries on the CAT/Air America experience. The archival staff at the History of Aviation Collection encourages the donation of any CAT and Air America related materials: correspondence, diaries, logbooks, documents, photographs, film and the like to the CAT/Air America Archive.
Over the years, members of the Air America Association and the CAT Association have been generous in their financial support of the Archive. Currently the CAT/Air America Archive supports several endeavors: the CAT Oral History Project and the CAT/Air America Photograph and Film Project.