I thought I’d nerd out a bit about this month’s short story, Survive Until the Final Scene.
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).
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.