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Vintage travel poster for the Philippines on CAT's The Mandarin Jet featuring a man blowing a tambuli. The Mandarin Jet was for most of its existence a Convair 880 the airline acquired in 1960; in 1968 it was replaced by a Boeing 727.

Civil Air Transport was founded as the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration by General Claire Lee Chennault and Whiting Willauer, who together in 1946 started airlifting humanitarian supplies into China. Chennault, best known as the commander of the Flying Tigers during World War II, supported Chiang Kai-Shek, used his fleet to support the Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War, and helped evacuate them to Taiwan after their defeat.

By 1949, the Taiwan-based CAT was nearly bankrupt. Chennault made his case to the State Department that CAT would be valuable in containing communist expansion in East and Southeast Asia. The CIA encouraged the acquisition but the State Department was hesitant, not wanting direct ownership of a Chinese company, eventually agreeing to the CIA's plan for indirect ownership. The State Department incorporated the Delaware holding company Airdale, Inc. (later the Pacific Corporation) and established a subsidiary named CAT, Inc., which purchased a 40% share of Chennaul's Civil Air Transport. CAT, Inc. also set up a new company, Asiatic Aeronautical Company, Ltd., which owned and leased all CAT, Inc.- and Civil Air Transport-operated aircraft. In 1959, Asiatic Aeronautical Company, Ltd. had its name changed to Air Asia Company, Ltd, and CAT, Inc. to Air America. Maintaining "CAT" for its commercial operations and as the flag carrier of the Republic of China (Taiwan), the airline offered international routes, with all of the trappings of Jet Age travel, from Taipei to Okinawa, Osaka, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Hong Kong, and Bangkok in addition to a few domestic destinations. Meanwhile, covert operations were launched to stem the rise of communism.

After a 1968 crash in Taiwan, CAT surrendered its international passenger routes to China Airlines. Air America ceased operations in 1976, a year after aiding in the evacuation of Saigon under Operation Frequent Wind.

McGowan, Sam. Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: Tactical Airlift in the Us Army Air Forces and Us Air Force from World War Ii to Vietnam. United Kingdom: AuthorHouse, 2012.
Leary, William M.. Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia. United Kingdom: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Cates, Allen. Honor Denied: The Truth About Air America and the CIA. United Kingdom: iUniverse, 2011.