WASHINGTON — When Neil Hansen was hired in 1964 as a pilot for a company called Air America, he could not tell anyone what he was doing.

What You Need To Know

  • Air America was a passenger and cargo airline that was covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976 and used to assist in missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
  • Because they operated under a cover, retired airmen involved were ineligible for federal benefits.

  • More than 130 lawmakers support a bill that would recognize their service and grant them eligibility.

“Air America was part of a conglomerate of entities that the [CIA] owned to a Delaware holding corporation so they had plausible deniability,” said Hansen. “There was no doubt the bad guys knew who we were but [the CIA] wanted to keep it secret from the American public.”

Hansen assisted in U.S. intelligence in Southeast Asia during his tenure. He and other pilots did covert work during the Cold War. Today, the CIA has several artifacts memorializing the contributions of these airmen in its headquarters.

A photo of retired Air America pilot and Wisconsin resident Neil Hansen | Courtesy photo

“Although the US Air Force did not continue to publish further statistics on Air America rescues and the CIA never tracked such data, anecdotal information suggests that Air America air crews saved scores and scores of American military airmen,” the CIA noted under a painting donated by the Air American Association Board. “Often at great personal risk, they did so for their fellow flyers and for their country.”

Hansen was originally based in Japan but was transferred to Laos during the Laotian Civil War.

“We were supporting Hmong people,” he said. “They were very valiant and brave warriors.”

During a mission, his aircraft was shot down. He and his entire crew survived. That event was portrayed in “Air America,” a movie that was released in 1990 starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. Hansen consulted on the film and he says that was the first time the group was publicly recognized.

“A lot of guys didn't appreciate it, but it got the name Air America out to the public,” said Hansen. “And that was perhaps the most beneficial thing we could’ve ever had.”

Now in his 80s and retired in Wisconsin, Hansen and his former colleagues may finally be recognized broadly for their secretive work.

“A lot of people died there,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah. “It’s important we publicize what they did was a tremendously brave thing. And it's important now to get those Americans who are still live their appropriate retirement benefits.”

Congressman Grothman introduced the bill, the Air America Act, in February that would grant pilots involved eligibility for federal retirement benefits. It currently has more than 100 cosponsors. In May, it unanimously passed the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“I was able to work with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York who was the chairman of the committee,” said Grothman. “It's good to work in a bipartisan fashion.”

The next step for the bill vote on the House floor. For Hansen, this gesture goes a long way in introducing the world to these hidden heroes.

“I think there finally will be a legacy,” said Hansen. "I think it will provide a little honorable recognition, particularly the families that have lost family members. They've got something to be proud of.”