Air America was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) "proprietary," one of the many civilian airlines operating in Southeast Asia. A proprietary is an entity that appears to be a normal, legitimate enterprise but actually is operated and controlled by the CIA. To maintain its facade as an independent company, Air America engaged in activities common to air carriers, especially cargo transportation. In Southeast Asia, even during the war, businesses continued to operate normally, and so civilian air transport was a necessary and profitable venture. Approximately 75 percent of Air America's flights were not related to the war or to the CIA's involvement in the war, so Air America employees may even not have been aware of its connection to the agency; however, the company primarily was used by the CIA for its several war-related activities.
The pilots and crews that were involved in the clandestine activities of Air America were often military veterans, many of whom had served previous tours of duty in Southeast Asia. While some of the CIA-related Air America flights were routine, such as commonplace transportation of personnel, materiel, and payrolls, often the flights were extremely dangerous. They often involved trips to remote areas dominated by the enemy, and for security reasons, they were usually flown at night and under cover of clouds or fog. Also, they were not confined to Vietnam, since the CIA operated extensively in Cambodia and Laos throughout the war. Most of the flights did not involve combat action by the Air America planes, although the aircraft available to Air America did include combat-capable types.