Neil Hansen racked up an astounding 9,000 combat hours in the skies over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War era. But he wasn’t a military pilot.
For more than a decade, Mr. Hansen flew for Air America, the shadowy passenger and cargo airline owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Now 83, he and his surviving colleagues would like the official recognition — and the retirement benefits given to others who fought in the war — they have been denied for decades.
“I flew the last plane out of Cambodia,” Mr. Hansen said during an interview with The Washington Times.
A bill now working its way through Congress, called the Air America Act of 2021, is offering some hope for Air America veterans. If signed into law, the bill would make them eligible for federal benefits and their work will be formally acknowledged by the CIA.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, Wisconsin Republican, introduced the bipartisan bill in the House with 55 original co-sponsors.
“It is not right to continue to ignore Air Americans,” he said. “These patriots risked their lives, many of them giving their life, fighting communism in the same way members of the Air Force did.”
Looking for a job
In 1964, Mr. Hansen was a pilot working for labor boss Jimmy Hoffa but had to look for another job after the Teamsters president was convicted of bribery and sent to prison. He answered a want ad in the paper about a company that was looking for pilots who wanted to fly in Southeast Asia. It was a lawyer for the Teamsters who told him Air America was a CIA cover operation.
Although they were CIA employees, the Air America crews were initially issued Department of Defense identification cards. But those were quickly snatched back when they arrived in Saigon. It was made clear that they were not members of the U.S. military in any way, shape or form.
“We were actually employees of the agency,” he said. “We were not in barracks or a secure compound. We had to live on the local economy and eat the local food. All of our medical personnel were Chinese, and most of the airplanes were Chinese registry.”
Air America pilots had to be flexible. The CIA contracted them out to the French to fly resupply missions during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which effectively ended France’s colonial role in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Hansen often flew covert resupply missions for CIA personnel operating deep in the jungle alongside local Hmong and Montagnard villagers. He preferred to come in low while approaching a hot drop zone, then pull up at the last moment. But even then, the enemy’s “Triple A,” otherwise known as Anti-Aircraft Artillery, could reach out and ruin your whole day.
In 1972, he recalled, he was piloting a C-123 transport plane in southern Laos near the Vietnamese border. The crew’s mission was to resupply fire bases set up along a stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Viet Cong resupply route into South Vietnam. Mr. Hansen’s airplane was carrying a load of claymore mines and hand grenades.
Mr. Hansen got down to treetop level, dropped his load and began pulling up.
“That’s when they nailed me and I lost my aileron,” he said, referring to a section of the wing. The plane “was shuddering like hell.”
The crew managed to bail out and landed on an old Japanese airstrip from World War II. Their rescue chopper put down well away from the crew when it came to pick them up.
“The pilot said, ‘You guys are in a minefield,’” Mr. Hansen said. “You can’t drink enough after that.”
If the scene seems familiar, it might be because the screenwriter for Mel Gibson’s 1990’s movie “Air America” liberally borrowed some of Mr. Hansen’s stories. It brought his operation public notoriety, but Mr. Hansen wasn’t an unabashed fan.
“It was ‘Hollywooded up.’ There were a lot of things in [the movie] that weren’t there. But that’s to be expected,” he said. “A lot of the guys weren’t happy with [the movie] because they didn’t use them in the film. But they’re not Hollywood actors.”
One of the most iconic photographs of the Vietnam War era is the “last chopper out” shot of a helicopter lifting off from a building as a line of desperate people try to scramble aboard while South Vietnam collapses. Although most people believe it was a military helicopter landing at the U.S. Embassy, the picture actually records an Air America chopper landing atop a building used by CIA personnel.
After the war, the Air America crews were let go with little more than a handshake and a discounted flight ticket back to the U.S.
“Coming back to the States was an awful thing. There’s nobody you can relate to and nobody could realize what we had been doing there,” Mr. Hansen said. “We were left abandoned after the end of the war.”
Air America lost 240 crew members during the Vietnam War era. The lack of recognition from the U.S. government that employed them is particularly galling to Mr. Hansen and his fellow Air America pilots. Their names are not featured on the memorial wall of CIA personnel who lost their lives on a covert mission.
“The agency didn’t want to admit that they were there,” Mr. Hansen said. “They were reluctant to admit anything.”
Because they weren’t in the military, the Air America crews weren’t eligible for any Defense Department benefits after the war. They weren’t considered federal employees because government personnel officials used their cover story — private workers employed by a civilian company — to determine their status. That meant a civil-service-type pension also was out of the picture.
Mr. Hansen did a short hitch in the military prior to joining Air America, so he was eligible for some veterans benefits.
“Some of the people who weren’t in the military didn’t have anything,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, has introduced a companion version of the bill in the Senate, which has attracted a bipartisan group of 27 senators.
“The brave men and women employed by Air America who conducted covert operations during the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War were critical to U.S. efforts,” Mr. Rubio said.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, said he hoped the bill would provide “long overdue recognition” to the surviving Air America crews.
“Air Americans were instrumental to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, courageously supporting troops, rescuing downed American pilots and sustaining casualties in the service of their country,” Mr. Warner said. “It is time they be honored with the recognition they deserve and the grateful thanks of a nation.”