Here’s the opening for those who missed it or don’t remember:
Up until this very moment, Captain Kandace Eversmann had a soft spot for Air America. Even though she and the movie had been born in the same year, 1990, it was the first movie about airplanes she remembered.
Dad, a computer programmer, chose the Thursday night movies (a lot of espionage and thrillers) and Mom, a small-plane certified flight instructor, chose the Sunday night ones (a lot of flying). The best nights of her life were when the three of them curled up on the couch together with cookies or a slice of pie and watched a movie together.
Even now as a captain in the US Air Force, movie night served as her litmus test for boyfriends—a gauntlet very few survived.
Air America, a romp through the CIA’s illegal flight operations in Laos during the Vietnam War, was the identifiable starting point of the journey that had made her an Air Force pilot.
And at this very moment, she hated that movie.
The opening had followed a big silver Fairchild C-123K Provider, twin-engine cargo plane across the sky. It zoomed low over the credits, barely above the treetops, making parachute deliveries of pigs, rice, and weapons.
Then, on its return to base, the Provider overflew a Laotian farmer strolling through his fields. He shouldered his prehistoric single-shot shotgun and fired once at the passing silver beast now high above. As he looked away and resumed his walk, the plane spilled out a smoke trail—ultimately crashing at the airport in a lethal ball of fire.
She remembered smiling, intrigued at the offhand power of the farmer.
One tiny shot, one giant plane. No way. It was too bizarre.
The strange thing is, if it wasn’t for that more-than-a-little-crazed Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. romp, most folks wouldn’t even know about Air America. What even fewer people know is what it became…or the fact that it inspired one of my most successful book series.
Winding Back the Clock
It started as a relief support mission for 1946 war-ravaged China. It was soon pressed into supporting Chiang Kai-shek. By 1950, he’d lost and retreated to Taiwan, cutting off the airline’s only client.
The CIA bought out the troubled airline. By 1959, when it became Air America, it was deeply involved in CIA operations throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (the latter two being places that US forces “never were”).
By 1970, they had over 25 transports, 30 helos, and several large jets (727s & 747s). Additionally, they frequently borrowed aircraft from the Air Force and Army. In them, their 300 pilots transported: supplies, troops, Nixon during his 1969 trip to Vietnam, and also evacuating civilians at the end of the war. On the other side of the coin, Air America also transported: spies, guns and other weapons to anyone who would supposedly help, black ops troops, propaganda leaflet drops, assassination teams, and a massive amount of drugs to finance operations and appease local warlords.
And this is where the movie ends, but the story continues.
Per Wikipedia, as you’d expect, the CIA pulled a Mission Impossible on their pilots and crews. Because they hadn’t been flying for the Air Force or Army, they deserved no pension, no death benefits, no medical coverage, not even recommendations (they weren’t allowed to admit where they’d been flying all those years because the US was never there).
Just one more reason that the CIA is a villain in so many of my tales from: a Delta Force mission aboard a cruise ship (DF #3 Wild Justice), to the current Miranda Chase series.
Unable to keep the post-war airline solvent in Thailand, the CIA sold the planes to an Oregon company named Evergreen International Airlines. (By the way, if you’re ever in McMinnville, Oregon, Evergreen is still one of the finest aviation museums in the world. Living nearby for most of a decade it was a real pleasure.)
The sale price of an estimated $20-25 million, doesn’t begin to cover the vast array of acquired aircraft. Why so low? Because the CIA still needed an air transport arm. In fact, there are many strange “almost facts” that floated around the airline during the next 40 years before its 2013 bankruptcy.
Here’s my favorite example:
Evergreen converted a 747 to be the largest ever wildfire firefighting plane. A lot of fire planes can carry a few hundred gallons of water or retardant. An Air Tractor AT-802 (one of the most common) carries eight hundred gallons. The big boys? Twenty-five hundred is major. This delivered 19,600 gallons per load!
Here’s where the story splits and gets fun:
only one was ever converted (there’s a lot of articles that mention this single aircraft)
for a brief time on their website, it said that 12 had been converted and were actively operational (I was following them closely at the time, and that notice went away pretty quickly. False information? Or too much information? So I began poking around to see if it might be the latter.)
A pilot in a position to know some things responded to my question by asking me to consider, “How many planes the CIA/Evergreen do you think might be flying over Colombian coca fields filed with RoundUp and other defoliants?” My thoughts on that just might have been used a few times in Delta Force #2 Heart Strike.
When Evergreen finally did go down, their 747s were parked in the one of those desert storages. There were a dozen of them there (I checked the satellite cameras, not one. Just sayin’.
Ever wonder how I came up with the idea for Mount Hood Aviation (MHA) in my Firehawks series?
As a part of their acquisitions, Evergreen suddenly owned a great number of helicopters, and they put them (at least some of them) to very good use. For years, Evergreen Helicopters was considered one of the premier firefighting operations.
That’s when I asked myself, “How could the CIA use firefighters as a front for operations?” I didn’t like a lot of those answers. So, instead I asked, “How could our military use firefighters as a front for cooperative operations?”
I liked that answer much better, and the entire Firehawks world was born.
And in September’s Ides of Matt story, it was an excuse to revisit those “humble” origins even if MHA didn’t come into play.
The “Holes Under Seattle” that I describe in my upcoming novel At the Clearest Sensation (Shadowforce: Psi #4) are all real.
There really are watermains 6′ high. A lacework of steam pipes heat almost 200 buildings in Seattle’s core. (The University of Washington has a similarly extensive, if not quite as massive, system for the small city (almost 50k) that is it’s campus.) There are train tunnels underneath the city. And even an abandoned story or two of the old city now known as the Seattle Underground.
The Seattle Underground
I used to work in a Seattle theater, one of the ones that eventually helped launch the fringe movement (though it went under before it could benefit from that). A trapdoor under our stage lead to the Underground, a convenient place to lose old sets. 1. we couldn’t afford the dump fees, and 2. we were so marginal that we’d go down to salvage the odd bits when something broke on a current show.
Of course, being in the Underground, that gave us access to the rest. Well, except for little bits that had been walled off and repurposed, like Merchants Cafe (which is in the story and we used to go for dinner after closing the show each night–arriving through their front door, rather than the trap door in the floor). The famed Seattle Underground Tour shows some parts of the old city (they avoided the room that was our theater’s set “storage” for some reason).
There is one room worthy of note down there. It was set up by the tour and is a spacious enough area to stop and lecture a group. (I also attended an Anne Rice book launch there once.) Old pictures and artifacts have been screwed to the wall. The tour guides have given the tour so many times that they don’t have to look. “Behind you is a photo of the horse and buggy that drowned in a mudhole on the original 1st Avenue very near this spot.” Etc.
One day we dropped in with a couple of screw guns between tours and rearranged all of the images and displays. We didn’t take anything–nerds, not nasty. And yes, for Broadway show fans, I might have gotten the idea from Bobby of Chorus Line, “I broke into people’s houses. I never stole anything. I just rearranged their furniture.” The confusion was splendid and rippled through the tour guides hanging at the local bars for a couple days, though we never said it was us.
There are a series of newer holes under Seattle. They actually trace their origin to a monorail for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. This fair was a huge deal, the first one after WWII, and they managed to preempt New York’s goal of being the first to bring them back.
A whole section of the city’s residents were evicted and the area razed (read as slums that the city fathers were sick of, so, “please leave…now!”), and the Seattle Center built in its place (including the Space Needle). Ten million people would visit this then tiny city of Seattle that summer.
World’s Fairs were to “show off the future.” As a part of that, they installed a monorail that ran above ground from the heart of Seattle (hotels and shopping) over the mile to the fairgrounds.
The developer wanted a showcase for his product, and offered to sell the city an entire monorail system at cost. The city didn’t want such nonsense cluttering up their skies, making Seattle a world-class traffic disaster ever since. (It can now take fifteen minutes to drive that same mile…and that’s on a good day when there’s no game or rush-hour traffic.)
Now, at HUGE cost, they are boring bus and light rail tunnels under the city that offer far less connectivity and convenience. However, they’re out of options in this geographically confined city placed on a steep hillside above a harbor far too deep to fill in (or even anchor in–it’s one of the deepest in the world).
However, there is one hole under Seattle that is particularly amazing.
The Alaskan Way Viaduct was built in the 1950s. Sort of a monorail for cars. It was a two-tiered, 2-4 laned, high-speed, twisty-assed bit of freeway that was the only relief from the disaster of I-5 once Seattle began to grow.
It shrouded one of the most beautiful waterfronts in any city under a semi-permanent gloom. Most of the area directly underneath was bathed in a constant roar from above, as well as a shower of dirt and litter. It was mostly cheap parking and homeless villages, and remained that way for the next fifty-plus years. (This from the same people who didn’t want a sleek, quietly electric monorail system.)
Then They Made A “BIG” Hole
The old Viaduct was never meant for the traffic load of eventually carrying 100,000 cars/day. There’d been no understanding of being built to survive an earthquake–and Seattle is definitely in an earthquake zone. Not a lot of little quakes there. But like LA and San Francisco, all three cities are expecting a “Big One.” So, Seattle drivers along the Viaduct often talk about holding their breath for the whole length of that 2.2 miles run. A small quake in 2001 proved that it was going to come down and come down bad if something wasn’t done.
Many ideas were proposed. My favorite was to move it offshore into a floating tunnel. Now that would have been a cool bit of technology.
Instead, they went underground. Deep underground. Two hundred feet below sea-level kind of underground.
Eight years later, it opened. Rather than trying to explain all of the wonders of the world’s largest (57.5′ diameter) tunnel boring machine named Bertha, I’ll point you to a couple of awesome videos.
A Decent Quick Overview (ignore the PR voice if you can)
I LOVE This One
Not because it’s exciting, but because it shows all of the underground planning and takes us on a ride through the virtually modeled space.
An Overview…right after it broke (for 2 years)
A Splendidly Tedious Look At How Bertha Works (too tedious?)
A Cool Little Destruction Time Lapse
They had to take it down with businesses 20′ to one side and cars 20′ to the other. Slick.