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Air America pilot book launch reunites him with plane after five decades

By Melinda Anne Roberts

GREEN BAY – Captain Neil Graham Hansen has lived an extraordinary life from when he began to fly at age 15 to his years as a pilot for Jimmy Hoffa to his infamous exploits as a CIA operative with Air America in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Hansen was first immortalized in the 1990 movie “Air America” starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.

Hansen said he served as an advisor to director Roger Spottiswoode, and that Gibson’s character was patterned after Hansen’s “antics” reported in the Christopher Robbins book of the same name.

Now Hansen has a book of his own.

“I was up at (EAA) AirVenture (in Oshkosh) three years ago and in the audience was Luann (Grosscup) and at the end of it she said you need to write this down and I said I had written down about 400 pages but didn’t know how to market that,” Hansen said.

So he and Grosscup partnered in the endeavor, got a literary agent, and co-authored “Flight: An Air America Pilot’s Story of Adventure, Descent and Redemption,” published earlier this year.

Hansen credits Grosscup with adding “a lot of color in there” and editing out the parts that were “a little too risqué.”

In the book preface, Hansen describes the journey he embarked on in 1964 as an Air America pilot “and its clandestine operations in Southeast Asia” as “my life’s adventure,” and “a dream come true.”

“Air America’s operations were unknown,” the preface reads.. “Its schedules were irregular. Its pilots were shadow people. It was a world of spooks, covert air ops and adventure.”

Hansen was is charge of the DO-28 program in Saigon from 1964-69.

As a CIA operative, Hansen said his Vietnam experience was different from that of his military cohorts.

“We were civilians,” he said. “We lived on the local economy. We ate the local food. And so had a different perspective of what was going on. The military had guarded barracks, and that sort of thing. We did not. It made for an interesting lifestyle.”

Hansen remembers a time he was shot down in Laos as one of his most harrowing experiences.

“The co-pilot, he was terrified and it was difficult getting him to bail out of the airplane,” he said. “The co-pilot had never done any parachute jumping.”

Finally another member of Hansen’s crew had to throw the co-pilot out or he would have gone down with the plane.

Hansen said the co-pilot “fell for a ways” struggling with the parachute rip cord.

“Also, I think, it ruined his underwear,” he said. “That was pretty much the end of his flying days. He decided that wasn’t the occupation for him.”

Then there is the story of how Hansen was reunited with his plane.

At a book launch at a military museum south of Oshkosh, Hansen and Grosscup met Green Bay pilot Daniel Fulwiler.
“He got a book and we went onward and upward from that point and he invited us up here to take a look,” Hansen said.

It turned out Fulwiler’s 1961 Dornier 28 was restored with the right wing and tail section of an aircraft flown by Hansen when he was based in Saigon.

After the plane was built, it was in the German Air Force for almost 20 years, said Fulwiler.

“The plane ended up in Africa after being rebuilt in the 1980s,” he said.

But Fulwiler said the guy who restored the plane misrigged the fuel selectors and crashed it.

“It ended up in a mid-air collision with a helicopter,” he said. “Then he bought 2002 Foxtrot, which is the Air America plane and took the two of them and rebuilt this airplane out of the two of them. So the right wing and the tail section are off the 2002 Foxtrot, the Air America plane that Neil flew.”

After that, a man in England bought two Dorniers and a couple of other planes from a kingdom in South Africa.

He brought them back to England and was going to make this his personal airplane, said Fulwiler.

However, it turned out the man from England is a fugitive, Fulwiler said.

“His wife is in prison here because he was importing arms from China and selling them to Iran,” Fulwiler said. “He actually had the Bell distributorship in southeast Asia during (the) Vietnam (War). So this guy’s been an arms trader all along. His wife came to the U.S. She was put in prison. They picked her up at the airport. And he’s on the lamb.”

In 1996, the six-passenger plane was sold by a California owner to Isle Royale Seaplanes in Shawano.

It was meant to be converted to a seaplane.

Instead, it sat in the Shawano hanger for 19 years, said Fulwiler.

He said he washed off the dust, installed new upholstery and carpeting, and checked out the mechanical equipment.

Since then he has logged in 150 hours in the Dornier 28, and just recently returned from a trip to Florida.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the April 1975 Fall of Saigon, Hansen met Fulwiler at his hanger at Austin Straubel International Airport to autograph the door of the Dornier 28 on April 19.

He signed it “In Memory of N2002F.”

The Lao, Hmong and American Veterans Memorial on the Michigan shoreline at Deland Park, in Sheboygan, is the only known memorial honoring Air America pilots.

Names of surviving members of the Hmong Special Gorilla Unit are also listed on the memorial.

Hansen’s name was added in 2018 as an honorary member, because of his significant participation in the unit’s operations.

Michigan born and raised and now a resident of Oshkosh, Hansen spends his time speaking on the mostly unknown history of Air America and promoting his book.

He will celebrate his 82nd birthday on April 23.

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