In 1964, Continental Airlines received one of the first Military Air Transport System (MATS) contracts to fly troops and cargo between the United States and Southeast Asia. Continental was able to add four Boeing 707-320s to its fleet just to service these lucrative contracts. It was one of many "traditional" US carriers indirectly taking part in the Vietnam War.1
Later that year, in an effort to gain a larger share of the money to be made in the Laotian market, Continental threatened to approach the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and complain that the government-owned Air America, Inc. was receiving government contracts without "real" competition. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was concerned that Continental would bring to light its ownership of Air America, Inc.2
In response, Ray Cline, a CIA Deputy Director met Robert F. Six, then president of Continental Airlines for cocktails in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC. Cline had a unique proposition for Bob Six, asking him to start a small airline in Southeast. After a lunch at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia deal was struck. The CIA would agree to Continental receiving more U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contracts if Continental would allow the CIA to use Continental as a back-up in Southeast Asia.
In April, 1965 Continental Air Services, Inc. was incorporated as a Nevada corporation and wholly-owned subsidiary of Continental Airlines. Robert Rousselot, ex-Civil Air Transport (CAT) Vice-President of Operations, was its first president.3 The new airline was without aircraft, a small detail that was rectified in September of 1965 with the purchase of Bird & Sons aviation division.
William H. Bird had been operating an aviation division of his construction company Bird & Son in Laos since 1960. In September, Bird sold that division to Robert F. Six and Continental Airlines for approximately 4.2 million dollars. Continental received 22 aircraft and 350 employees. CASI had purchased an operating airline with not only established contracts but with a guaranteed future contract base. Robert "Dutch" Brongersma, a general manager with Bird & Son and another ex-CAT hand became CASIs general manager.
CASIs headquarters was in Udorn, Thailand with operations bases at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Vientiane, Laos, Singapore, Bangkok and Udorn, Thailand and Saigon, Vietnam. CASIs original purpose was to operate aircraft and ground facilities to support projects involving construction, oil exploration and engineering companies as well as contracts with USAID and other government agencies.4
In Laos, the airline flew mission for USAID, USOM, the US Embassy and the "Customer" (the CIA). From Phnom Penh the airline flew commercial freight and passengers throughout Southeast Asia. The Singapore operations were mainly in support of major oil companies. The Bangkok and Udorn flights were almost exclusively for the Customer. CASIs Vietnam-based operations directly supported a consortium of construction companies known as RMK-BRJ (Raymond International, Morrison-Knudsen, Brown and Root, and J.A. Jones) with some Customer operations.
Creation of this airline was a profitable business for Six and for Continental. Through the closing of CASIs business in 1975, CASI billed over 24 million dollars to USAID alone. This does not include private contracts with other agencies, airlines, and the construction and oil companies.5
CASI flew a combination of charter, special and a few scheduled flights throughout Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. One of its most famous was the "50-Kip" flight or "CASI milk-run", a regular CASI DC-3 flight from Udorn to Bangkok in Thailand then to Vientiane, Savannakhet and Paske in Laos returning to Udorn. At one point CASI even owned a building near Wattay Airport in Vientiane. This building known as the "CASI Compound" contained staff quarters, a club and some offices. CASI also developed contracts to provide both aircraft and pilots to fly Air Commando forward air controllers (FACs) in Laos.6 One unusual and highly successful mission for CASI pilots known as Project BRUSH CARGO (PFT-05) involved flying specially equipped DC-3s over northern Laos to intercept enemy radio signals.
After a foray into larger aircraft such as the Lockheed 382B, the civilian version of the C-130, in mid-1966 CASI chose to focus its fleet on small fixed-wing aircraft.7 CASIs inventory included Douglas DC-3s/C-47s, Curtiss C-46s, Pilatus Porters, Turbo Porters, Dornier Do28s, Beech Barons, Beech Twin Bonanzas and Twin Otters8.
Although there was some variance in the color schemes, most CASI 382Bs,DC-3s and C-47s had white upper fuselages with silver/grey lowers. Often a blue-black or dual orange stripes ran the length of the fuselage. The tail rudder was marked with a larger blue-black stripe with the smaller dual orange stripes beneath it. A small Continental eagle insignia was often found over the rear registration number (or near the nose of the L-100s).
The smaller aircraft tended towards white or natural metal with the dual orange fuselage stripe. The Do-28s nd Porters would also have a blue/dual orange stripe on the rudder while the Barons would only have the dual orange stripe. Occasionally, the dragon tail insignia from Air Vietnam would appear on the rudder of the DC-3s and Barons as well as the nose of the Do-28s.
One photo of a CASI Porter, taken in 1975, shows a gold tail rudder with the then current orange and gold stripes of Continentals fleet. This particular aircraft has a U.S. registration number in orange. During the closing-down of CASI, many of the aircraft were transferred from Lao registrations (XW series registered to Air Continental) to U.S. registrations (N series). It can be assumed that they received similar paint treatment as they were integrated into Continentals fleet for eventual disposal.
Initially CASI pilots in Vietnam wore a khaki uniform consisting of two-pocket shirts tucked into trousers. These were locally made and were not an "issue" item. Black epaulettes with gold stripes were worn along with standard gold bullion Continental airlines wings. The earliest CASI wings had an embroidered CAS in the center portion while the wings from the early 1970's to the end were standard Continental Airlines wings with a brass-colored metal "sliced globe" in the center portion. The wings were updated as Continental's were updated. A black baseball cap with a gold flat-wire "Continental" insignia was the main "issue" headgear. These caps generally have no label indicating origin. The khaki uniforms were phased out in late 1971 or early 1972. The "new" uniforms consisted of dark brown "Levi" double-knit trousers and a white or light khaki shirt-jacket combination.
Period photos of the earliest CASI personnel indicate that a black peaked, "bus-driver" cap was also issued. This had a gold bullion Continental eagle insignia, occasionally with one or two stars between the insignias wreath(depending upon the rank of its owner) on a screw-back removable disk. These stars have not been observed on the baseball caps. Period photos indicate a gold chinstrap with gold side buttons was also worn. It is presumed the side buttons would have the Continental eagle but no surviving examples have been found to verify this.
In Laos, CASI pilots wore only the khaki uniform. Sometimes a locally-produced, four-pocket, safari jacket would be seen. Generally, insignia was not worn in Laos. It is alleged (but no evidence has been found) that some CASI pilots did obtain sterling silver wings with "CAS" on the front shield surmounted by a parachute. These wings are similar in design to Air Americas and were supposedly made locally in Laos, by one Vientiane jeweler. No surviving examples have been examined and, as is common, reproductions of these wings abound (some aged quite effectively).
During the Tet Offensive of January 29th, 1968 one CASI pilot known to the author captured a Vietcong sapper on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut airport. In recognition of his bravery, the pilot was awarded a gold medal by Robert Six, then president of Continental. The award has "Continental Air Services" and the CASI/Air Vietnam dragon roundel on one side along with the words "Semper Cum Superbia" ("Always with pride"). On the other is a dedication "In appreciation of meritorious service during the period of the Saigon Siege over the TET HOLIDAY in 1968." (emphasis and capitalization from the original) and bearing the signature and printed name of Robert F. Six. An extraordinary award for a civilian. This award was given on the recommendation of CASI's Director of Operations for Southeast Asia who also received an identical award for exemplary service during the Tet Offensive. The were the only two awards "issued" by CASI.
Air Vietnam and CASI engaged in a joint venture agreement under which CASI would share Air Vietnams certificate in order to fly passenger and air cargo routes with Air Vietnam. This was primarily to enable CASI to operate in Vietnam. At Tan Son Nhut near Saigon and at other locations CASI shared flight line, maintenance and hanger space with Air Vietnam. The dragon roundel insignia from Air Vietnam appears on many CASI aircraft operating from Saigon as well as on the gold medal for meritorious service.
At least one CASI pilot, Emmett Kay was captured by Pathet Lao troops at a Lima Site near LS32 in North-Central Laos. He ran out of fuel and force-landed his Porter on a plateau to the east of LS32. His passengers were a Hmong guerrilla team, some of whom escaped capture.9 Kay was kept prisoner in various caves in Laos. After being held in captivity for sixteen and one-half months he was released as part of a prisoner exchange on September 18, 1974.10 Several CASI personnel are listed as MIA and as many as fourteen CASI pilots and crew were killed during the war.11
CASI operated through the end of the war and a CASI C-46 made the last refugee flight out of Long Tieng, Laos on May 14, 1975.12 CASI was dissolved by Continental with the remainder of its aircraft being sold or having their registrations cancelled through June of 1977. Unlike Air America, CASI has not yet received official recognition from the U.S. Government for its service and sacrifice during the Vietnam War period.
For information on the insignia of Continental Air Services, Inc. and its aircraft markings please see the previous page.
- Geza Szurovy, Classic American Airliners (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 2000).
- Frederic Lert, Wings of the CIA, (Paris: Histoire & Collections, 1998).
- Christopher Robbins, Air America: The Story of the CIAs Secret Airlines (New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1979).
- Martin Best, The CIAs Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975, Martin Best - Air-America.Org. 2002.
- Robbins, Air America, page 56.
- Robbins, Air America, pp. 322-323.
- Kenneth Conboy, War in Laos (Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc.) 1994.
- Best, The CIAs Airlines.
- Strouse, Les, email to author.
- Robbins, Air America, pp. 225-230.
- Authors interviews with CASI Operations Personnel, 2002-2003.
- Conboy , War in Laos, page 64.
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