The CIA’s Foray Into Commercial Aviation

In the late 1940s, China was in the grip of civil war between the Nationalist government and Maoist insurgents. In 1946, the legendary retired commanding general of the US Fourteenth Air Force Claire Chennault founded an airline company to transport relief supplies and other cargo around China. Called Civil Air Transport (CAT), the airline became heavily involved in supporting the Nationalists.

CAT flew supply flights, deployed troops, and evacuated people from Communist-controlled territory. With many of its pilots being WWII combat veterans, the airline had a reputation for flying its C-46s and C-47s in hazardous conditions and getting the job done in the face of serious odds.

In 1949, CAT began to fly missions for the CIA during the same month that Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. CIA leaders thought that CAT could support the agency’s mission to support anti-Communist forces remaining on the mainland.

However, the defeat of the Nationalists on the mainland and the retreat of the Nationalist government to Taiwan left the airline near bankruptcy. In the early 1950s, the CIA gave a $100,000 subsidy to the airline despite some division within the agency. Even with continued CIA aid, CAT continued to decline.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, the CIA acquired CAT outright through a Washington area banker. The company reorganized as CAT Incorporated, was ostensibly a private enterprise, but was in fact the new aviation arm of the CIA.

This partnership lasted through the Korean War, the early days of Vietnam, and beyond. CAT was reorganized as Air America in 1958 and flew supply and covert mission flights and performed search and rescue during the war in Indochina. The CIA disbanded the airline in 1976.

The acquisition of CAT was the first of several proprietary relationships with the CIA in the field of aviation.