Airline swaps gun-running for good works: Southern Air Transport was run by the CIA and started the Iran-Contra scandal. But now, its staff assure Robert Block, its main job is saving Somalis

TOM IS a big pilot with a big I've-flown-it-all-and-seen-it-all-before pilot's smile. He lives in Florida and enjoys swimming alongside the alligators on the river near his home. He used to fly 'cargo' to CIA-backed rebels in Nicaragua; now he flies food to Somalia. Tom works for Southern Air Transport - once the CIA's very own airline, now the main relief carrier operating in the Horn of Africa.

Based in Miami, Florida, Southern Air Transport, or SAT as it is more commonly called, owns the world's largest commercial fleet of L-100 Hercules cargo planes. It is what is known in the business as a 'risk carrier', charging premium rates to fly to hot spots other airlines would not dream of going near. It was owned by the CIA from 1960 until 1973, when it was sold privately. Since March it has been an integral part of the Somalia aid operation.

According to the Southern Air spokeswoman, Judi Schneeman, SAT planes have completed 3,000 flights to Somalia from bases in Kenya, airlifting more than pounds 45m worth of supplies on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Unicef, Care, the Lutheran World Federation and the US government.

Pilots such as Tom and company officials such as Ms Schneeman are proud of the SAT record in Somalia. But no matter how much it denies any present links with the CIA, Southern Air cannot shake off its past.

A week before the first US troops landed on the beach near Mogadishu to start operation 'Restore Hope', Americans who were not aid workers started appearing in Somalia, ferried in on SAT's planes. This prompted one aid worker to comment, jokingly: 'I see the CIA has arrived.'

Most companies that work for the CIA are 'paper' companies, shells set up for a quick arms trade or an untraceable money transfer. But some are legitimate concerns for which CIA links are just an incidental part of business. Southern Air is one such company.

SAT was founded in 1949 as a small operation hauling cargo to the Bahamas. The CIA, looking to obtain airlines that could do covert work under a legitimate cover, purchased SAT in 1960 for dollars 300,000 and expanded the business into the Far East and Latin America.

Between 1984 and 1986 the airline delivered 'humanitarian' aid to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras under a government contract. But it was also part of a covert network that supplied arms to the Contras at a time when the US Congress had banned such aid. SAT's role would have remained secret but for an occupational hazard. In October 1986 a transport plane traced to SAT was downed over Nicaragua and the sole survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, told his captors that the mission was backed by the CIA.

Mr Hasenfus's story eventually led to the unravelling of an even bigger scandal that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Again Southern Air was a key player on the Middle East side of the affair. In 1986 SAT planes, with their special 'oversize cargo capabilities', transferred 90 tons of TOW anti-tank missiles from Texas to Israel from where they were delivered to Iran as part of the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages exchange.

James Bastian, who bought Southern Air in 1979 and who was himself once a lawyer for the CIA, pours scorn on press reports that suggest his Agency ties still exist.

So is SAT helping the CIA in Somalia? According to one experienced British relief official, the CIA has always been willing to use aid operations as a cover to get access to remote areas otherwise off limits. There are also plenty of reasons why the CIA would want to renew its ties with Southern Air now. SAT planes are flying over sensitive border areas between Somalia and Kenya, whose President, Daniel arap Moi, is rumoured to be providing aid to one of the toughest warring factions in southern Somalia.

Then there is southern Sudan, where rebels are fighting the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum. Relations between Khartoum and Tehran are causing concern in the West and in Egypt, which is having its own problems with fundamentalists whom Cairo says are backed by Sudan.

Tom, however, says the old days are over and that Southern Air's work in Somalia is all above-board. He said he flies food to Somalia at least twice a day when on duty. Once he touches down it is up to the relief agencies and their Somali staff to unload and distribute the goods. 'It has been a pretty smooth operation overall,' he said. 'Nothing like Central America.'

Still, one has to wonder if the airline's description of itself in a recent press release was not meant to be ironic. 'We pride ourselves on being more than a cargo airline,' it boasts. 'From the common to the extraordinary, Southern Air Transport is 'The Uncommon Carrier'.'

Suggested Topics
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

C# Developer

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client is lo...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor