Objects from Civil Air Transport, a CIA front airline company from the 1950's

CIA Front Airline from the 1950s, Design Objects of Civil Air Transport (CAT)

In August 1950, the CIA secretly purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that started in China. CAT would continue to fly commercial routes throughout Asia, acting as a privately owned commercial airline. Under the guise of CAT Incorporated, it provided airplanes and crews for secret intelligence operations. Naturally, with any substantial covert gaslighting operation, graphic designers were needed to really seal the deal. Seemingly an entire brand identity was developed (at least the typeface, dragon logo, and colors seem consistent) specifically for this fake CIA airline and these are some of the artifacts that were produced.

“This is one of the famous Oriental symbols of CAT (Civil Air Transport) – the five-toed dragon. In olden days only the emperor could wear this symbol; those of lesser rank wore dragons with fewer toes. We like to think that all of our passengers on CAT’s colorful Mandarin Jet – truly a flying Oriental Palace – receive hospitality and cordiality befitting an emperor and his lady.” — Photo and caption source: ciagov Flickr account

During the Chinese Civil War, under contract with the Chinese government and later the CIA, CAT flew supplies and ammunition into China to assist Kuomintang forces on the Chinese mainland.

“Given as a souvenir to guests on CAT’s Mandarin Jet, this notepad includes a calendar from 1967.” — Photo source: ciagov Flickr account

At the time the families of the pilots were told, in order to keep the CIA’s covert actions in China secret, that they had crashed into the Sea of Japan on a routine flight to Tokyo.

CAT travelers allegedly received flight bags as complementary gifts — Photo and caption source: ciagov Flickr account

Air America happened later on (after I suppose things with CAT went downhill or became no longer useful). Running after or parallel to the original operation, it is not to be confused with Radio Americas, another CIA front operation in the form of a tropical radio station that would materialize years later and a few thousand miles away.

Sponsored Content
“This Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly bottle contained medicinal wine (intended for a strong and healthy heart) that was served on some CAT flights.” — Photo and caption source: ciagov Flickr account

The artifacts and designed objects are pretty well-rounded as far as applications and branding goes. The wicker basket for instance is a pretty odd material design choice but it is quite elegant in execution and doesn’t really seem that unbelievable.

Limited edition Civil Air Transport (CAT) baskets were promotional handouts for CAT travelers, each likely packed with schedule 1 substances, as a privileged inside joke. — Photo source: ciagov Flickr account

This Civil Air Transport (CAT) lighter is from the Hong Kong-to-Bangkok inaugural flight of Civil Air Transport on July 20, 1957.

A very cool CIA lighter — Photo source: ciagov Flickr account

One of the cooler and more useful/practical items might be the CAT-branded zippo lighter, steel-pressed and engraved from some likely-very-real company called Penguin.

Check out the whole series of photographs here.