The Complex

The contract airlines that quietly move U.S. troops and spies around the globe

This week's crash of a civilian cargo jet at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan highlights the fact that the U.S. military relies on a private air force to move enormous amounts of supplies and numbers of people around the globe.  

The jet that crashed at Bagram (shown above) was a Boeing 747-400 that had been converted from a passenger jet into a freighter for Florida-based National Airlines, one of the many little-known civilian carriers that keep the U.S. military and intelligence agencies supplied around the globe. The plane was said to be transporting five MRAP armored vehicles (which are incredibly heavy) from Afghanistan to Dubai -- a route the airline had been flying for about a month prior to the crash.

Here are just a few more of the many private airlines that serve the U.S. government on a regular basis:

Spend any time at BWI Airport and you'll see MD-11s sitting on the ramp, painted in the livery of World Airlines, a contractor that flies U.S. troops to Europe and the Middle East. They usually operate out of a terminal reserved for the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command -- the organization that operates more than a thousand cargo and tanker aircraft such a C-5 Galaxies, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotankers, and KC-10 Extenders. Despite all these planes dedicated to moving troops and materiel, the service still contracts with dozens of private airlines.

Frequently sharing ramp space at BWI with World Airlines is North American Airlines, the company that provided a Boeing 767 for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The charter-jet provider operates five 767s that are frequently used to ferry U.S. soldiers around the world.

The Washington state-based Evergreen Aviation is supposedly one of the successors to the CIA's legendary Air America -- famous for hauling everything from chickens to drugs (allegedly) throughout Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. (In 1968, an Air America UH-1 Huey chopper actually shot down a Soviet-made An-2 Cub cargo plane flown by the North Vietnamese air force.) The company has done everything from supporting CIA missions to operating one of the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world: the Evergreen Supertanker, an old 747 passenger jet that was converted to carry more than 20,000 gallons of fire suppressant.  


Tepper Aviation is a company that operates a fleet of ghost-white Lockheed L-100s (the civilian version of the C-130 Hercules), allegedly conducting missions for the CIA all over the globe, possibly including prisoner transport. As would be expected, Tepper has no website. However, if you search Google Maps for the small airport in Crestview, Fla., where Tepper is reportedly based, you'll find a large facility on the southeast corner of the runway with a U.S. Air Force C-130 parked nearby and a hangar with the logo of defense giant L-3 Communications painted on the roof. (Click here to see apparent pics of the flight deck of one of tepper's planes while it was stopped in Japan with some "diplomatic" cargo aboard.) 

Then there's Kalitta Air. Founded by drag-racing legend Conrad "Conie" Kalitta, the firm hauls supplies and people around the world for the military with its fleet of 747s.

And who can forget Presidential Airways. This former Blackwater subsidiary is famous for a 2004 incident in which a CASA 212 ferrying U.S. troops from Bagram to Farah, Afghanistan crashed into a canyon wall after the pilot became disoriented, killing three soldiers and three civilian crew. This incident brought attention to the fact that small carriers were hauling U.S. troops around battlefields even though the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Marines have thousands of planes and helicopters designated for such tasks. Despite increases in the number of military tactical airlifter missions in the Middle East since then, the U.S. military still relies on contractors to support the massive task of keeping its troops supplied via air in Afghanistan.

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