“Just Fly This Sumbitch Myself”

Air America’s pilots liked danger—and a bit of fun.

Air America flew everything from the iconic Bell UH-1 (here, a Huey in descending hover in Vietnam, circa late 1960s) to Cessnas to the CH-54 Skycrane—more than 30 different aircraft in all. (Lt. Col. S. F. Watson, U.S. Army/NASM)
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Known as a “journalist’s journalist,” H.D.S. Greenway has reported wars from Indochina to the Balkans, Gaza, and Afghanistan—everywhere the United States has had combat troops in the last five decades. In his new book Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster), Greenway tells this story from his time in Laos:

Air America was a CIA contract airline that transported personnel between the cities and towns under government control, as well as bases and clandestine airfields in the hill country. Its pilots came from the same mold as those who flew Civil Air Transport (CAT) in China in the 1940s, or Flying Tigers against Mao’s forces during the Chinese civil war, or the Haiphong-based Americans who flew for the French during the Indochina war, dropping supplies over besieged Dien Bien Phu. Indeed some had flown in those earlier conflicts and, like opium addicts who can’t quit, were flying dangerously again in Laos. [....]

There was a pilot—I believe his name was Neil Hansen—who used to take his place among the passengers in the plane he was supposed to fly that day. He would wait until the passengers started looking at their watches and wondering when the plane was going to leave. Then he would start complaining in a loud voice that Air America never left on time and, goddamn it, he would “just fly this sumbitch” himself. Whereupon he would unbuckle his seat belt, march up to the cockpit, start the engines, and take off, leaving the passengers biting their nails.

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