BY KATHLEEN KRELLER - email@example.com
Bob Charters has lived most of his life with the secret knowledge
that he contributed to the Vietnam War.
Some 40 years later, Charters is still fighting - to stave off
advancing cancer and to get recognition for the largely untold and
misunderstood history of civilian pilots who flew covert CIA missions
in Laos and Vietnam.
What little exposure the secret airline has gotten has come from
books and the 1990 Mel Gibson movie "Air America," which is reviled
by the real pilots. Few have heard the first-hand stories of the
civilian pilots and the missions of Air America - a front corporation
for the CIA.
But earlier this month, the CIA released 10,000 pages of previously
classified documents that detail Air America's secret missions.
Many of those missions were harrowing - from rescuing downed pilots
under enemy fire to ferrying humanitarian supplies, ammunition and soldiers.
But unlike their military counterparts, Air America's pilots didn't
get medals or commendations.
"We were paid well," Charters said. "But the only thing we got were
the (typewriter) ribbons that printed out our checks."
These days, Charters tells his own story with 40 years of pent-up emotion.
"The Air America pilots, they aren't looking for publicity; they just
want it clarified that we served," Charters said.
His home and 68-year-old body are an homage to his time as an Air
America pilot. An Air America flag flies over his garage. During a
recent interview with the Idaho Statesman, he wore a hat and shirt
with the Air America logo (and suspenders with the Shriners logo).
BORN TO FLY
An Emmett farm boy, Charters was something of a troublemaker. He got
the flying bug as a boy when a local fruit farm owner took him up in
Charters graduated from Emmett High School and in 1959 made his way
into the Army National Guard. He became a first lieutenant and then a
pilot and flight instructor with the Texas Guard.
In the midst of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Charters heard
about the staggering $50,000 annual salary Air America pilots were
making in Southeast Asia.
He and other instructors signed up and went for training in
Washington, D.C. They were told to keep quiet.
"We knew we were going to do dangerous work, but we couldn't tell
anyone about it," Charters said. "Fear had no place in our hearts. We
thought we could live forever."
Charters found himself as an unarmed civilian helicopter pilot in
Vietnam in the middle of the 1968 Tet Offensive, a massive military
campaign by the Viet Cong in September 1968.
He quickly learned the terrain in order to ferry embassy officials,
soldiers, supplies and Vietnamese people. He relied on information
from the Green Berets about enemy locations to keep himself safe.
Air America's pilots were known for their bravery and for adhering to
the "pilot's creed," Charters said. That meant dropping whatever else
you were doing to pick up a downed pilot.
Charters won't discuss this in detail because Air America pilots
weren't supposed to endanger themselves and their aircraft. But he
admits he rescued shot-down military pilots in Vietnam.
"That's how the people were. We looked out for each other," Charters said.
He later transferred to Thailand and flew missions in Laos. He made
the change after a divorce to keep his son, Brandt, with him.
"It was more dangerous, though," Charters said. "In Laos, we were the
military. Laos did not have troops on the ground. It was the CIA and us."
A LIFE-CHANGING LOSS
It was in Laos in 1969 that Charters had his most heartbreaking
experience as an Air America pilot.
Charters and a co-pilot were ferrying soldiers and "anything else we
could haul" (read: ammunition) into combat. Before the mission,
Charters offered the main pilot's seat to co-pilot Bill Gibbs.
"All of the sudden the helicopter jerks, and Bill lurched forward. I
thought he had a heart attack," Charters said.
Charters took the stick and steered the chopper out of the area.
After landing, "I pulled the window out and I saw the blood run out
of his helmet," Charters said.
Gibbs had been shot in the head and soon died. Charters later
apologized to Gibbs' wife for swapping seats.
"She said, 'Bill loved flying with you because you switched seats,' "
Charters said as tears streamed down his cheeks. "Years later, I had
to explain to his daughter what happened."
Charters eventually had enough of the danger and headed home to Idaho
with his son. Over the years he worked as a commercial helicopter
pilot, a pilot in the Idaho National Guard, and a postal worker.
He's been married twice more. The third marriage, to Phyllis, has
lasted 25 years and brought with it step-children and grandchildren.
HONORED TO SERVE
Charters, who is now retired and fighting colon cancer that has
spread to his lungs, still relives his days as an adrenaline-soaked pilot.
During an interview last week, Charters shuffled into a back room in
his immaculate Nampa home and returned carrying an imposing black jewelry box.
He cracked the lid and gingerly pulled out a gold linked bracelet
that weighs more than a pound and has a tell-tale medallion - the
symbol for Air America's pilots and a bargaining chip to use with
The bracelet is part of Charters' collection of Vietnam-era
memorabilia, which includes photos, patches and pilot's licenses.
With the CIA's release of classified information and a recent
ceremony that publicly acknowledged Air America's secret missions,
Charters said it was time to come forward.
"I'm very honored to have worked for Air America and very proud,"
Kathleen Kreller: 377-6418