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Monday, June 1, 2009

Rotorcraft Report: Air America’s Heroes

COMMERCIAL | SAR

The hidden heroism of Air America, the CIA-funded civilian airline that rescued downed U.S. pilots during the Vietnam War, was finally spotlighted on April 18 when the CIA and the University of Texas at Dallas held a one-day symposium called "Air America: Upholding the Airmen’s Bond." The bond is the refusal of airmen to leave their downed compatriots behind enemy lines to await capture, possible torture and death. That’s a bond that Air America pilots and crews upheld, despite the fact that their harrowing rescues were hushed up by the CIA and U.S. government of the time.

Marius Burke was a helicopter pilot for Air America. As a chief pilot based in Udorn, Thailand, Burke flew the Bell 47, 204B, 205, UH1H, Hughes 500, H-34, S-58T, and CH-47C Chinook. He ran the evacuation of Da Nang when it fell to the North Vietnamese and flew the last civilian aircraft out of Saigon on April 29, 1975. Burke told Rotor & Wing that revealing the truth of Air America will help civilians understand the patriotism of the pilots who flew rescue missions; often in unarmed, unarmored, single-pilot helicopters with no air support. "What we did was so secret for so many years, that as a result it became so misunderstood," he said. "There were lots of rumors that went around about what we did, how we did it and how we got paid. Most of that was completely erroneous."

Asked about what Air America was really like, Burke paints a portrait of dedicated patriots who flew in desperate conditions with little support and very low pay. In fact, Air America pilots were paid $5 an hour, and that was only paid when they were flying. The time spent sitting around their radio stations and jungle landing strips was pro bono.

"We went in because we knew what the enemy would do to our pilots if they were caught," Burke said. "So we did everything we could to get to them." In doing so, timing was everything, "If you could get to a pilot within 30 minutes of being shot down, you stood a good chance of getting to him," he said. "After that, the enemy usually had him surrounded on the ground."

Burke applauds the CIA’s ongoing declassification and release of materials about Air America. As part of this effort, about 10,000 copies of declassified documents are being given to UT’s McDermott Library’s existing Civil Air Transport/Air America archives. Reflecting back on his work in the jungle, Burke observed, "We didn’t get everyone out. But we did get the majority, and that was a good thing."

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