Will These Federal Employees Get a Pension?

A bill would provide federal retirement benefits to former employees of Air America, a covert organization operating during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War.

Most Americans have probably not heard of Air America. At first glance, it sounds like it might be related to the commercial company, American Airlines. They are not related.

Air America was a government-owned corporation. It was not like other government-owned corporations that operate in full view of the public.

This organization conducted covert operations during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War. Their employees worked under the direct policy guidance of the White House, Department of Defense, and the Department of State while under the management of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

A considerable effort was made to make Air America appear to be a private company. Its work was entirely for the federal government. When the company was dismantled and the assets sold, the U.S. Treasury received the profit.
Air America employed several hundred U.S. citizens, mainly flight crew members, and approximately 286 were killed in the line of duty while conducting covert operations in designated war zones. The last helicopter mission that rescued personnel from the rooftops in Saigon in 1975 was planned and executed by Air America and the United States Marine Corps.

Air America Employees and Federal Retirement

According to a history of the Air America organization:

The U. S. government owned the company, and the employees worked directly for the enterprise. The government never revealed the real owner to the employees. Some were told the CIA owned the company, and a scant few worked directly for the CIA, but the CIA is part of the U.S. government and doesn’t own anything. Therefore, the government couldn’t enroll the employees into the civil service retirement program because that too would reveal the real owner, and couldn’t issue personal service agreements because technically the workers were not contracted employees. As a result, the employees of SAT Pacific, CAT Inc., and Asiatic Aeronautical and Civil Air Transport — all seemingly separate companies but actually one and the same – were, being neither fish nor fowl, left dangling and officially unrecognized.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have introduced the Air America Act of 2020 (S. 4380). This bill would allow Air America employees to be eligible for federal retirement benefits. 

“The brave men and women employed by Air America who conducted covert operations during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War were critical to U.S. efforts,” according to Senator Rubio. “I’m proud to partner with Senator Warner, and our colleagues, to ensure that these Americans receive the long-overdue honor and recognition they deserve.”

The bill also recognizes that affiliated airlines, including the Civil Air Transport (CAT) Incorporated, Air Asia Company Ltd and the Pacific Division of Southern Air Transport were part of the same system as the Air America organization and were also involved in covert operations over Laos and Vietnam.

An iconic photo taken at the very end of the Vietnam war shows a helicopter on a building in Saigon being crammed with people trying to evacuate before the city fell under the control of the North Vietnamese army. The pilot of that helicopter was Bob Caron, an employee of Air America and who now lives in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Caron recently told a reporter that he did not give any consideration to being part of the federal retirement program. “We never gave it a thought,” Caron said. “We were told to fly.”

With regard to a federal pension, Caron said “I haven’t give it much thought, to tell you the truth.” He also said that it’s not the money that matters, but “the principle of the thing.”

If passed into law, the bill is expected to provide $43 million in benefit payments over the next 10 years to 508 Air America employees and their dependents.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47