This movie although extremely American in words, has one scene that remarkably explains the way people in other countries dream about America. A general is intoxicate with the dream of going to the USA.
To be called a travel movie, two cultures must intermix, and all the problems that arise when two cultures meet must be depicted in the film.
In late 1969, Billy Covington (Downey) works as a helicopter traffic pilot for a Los Angeles radio station, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration suspends his pilot's license after breaking several safety regulations on the job. His piloting skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a mysterious government agent, who tells Billy that he can get his license back if he accepts a job in Laos, working for a "strictly civilian" company called Air America; the stranger insists that "there is no war in Laos, you can take that to the bank". He must keep the job a secret, since the air mission in Laos is "Top Secret" and the fact that American soldiers are stationed in Laos is a cover-up.
Billy, unemployed and unable to find work, takes the job and flies to Laos. He gets introduced to Air America's unorthodox pilots and planes, being taken under the wing of fellow Air America pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson), who is an arms merchant who uses official flights to buy black-market weapons for his private cache. His dream, which he refers to as his "retirement plan", is to make a sale big enough so that he can afford to quit his job at Air America.
The next day, Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos on a "fact finding mission" to determine if Washington, D.C. rumors are true about Air America's drug smuggling business. Major Lemond and Rob Diehl, CIA leaders of Air America, have a cover-up in place. Senator Davenport is shown around refugee camps, shrines and temples, and major cities in a careful deception to keep him out of the loop. At the same time, Billy and Jack Neely are shot down in their C-123 cargo plane while airdropping livestock into rural villages. Air America stages a large rescue effort, which turns out to be nothing but a cover for the transport of opium; when General Soong's Pilatus PC-6 plane arrives at the crash site, his soldiers load the plane with bags of opium, but leave Billy and Jack behind, stranding them in hostile territory. As Communist forces move in, Gene and another pilot arrive. Billy's crew evacuates in the other plane while he boards Gene's helicopter.
In the ensuing escape, Billy and Gene's helicopter takes fire and crashes, stranding them in the jungles of Laos, where they are ultimately captured by a rural tribe. Gene lets his business instincts shine through when he notices that the tribe is using obsolete and unreliable guns, managing to convince the tribe to spare their lives in exchange for better weapons. Allowed to go free, Billy and Gene retreat to Gene's house, where Billy is surprised to discover that Gene has a wife and children. Already disillusioned with America's actions in Laos, Billy is convinced by Gene to quit his job with Air America — but before he leaves, Billy wants to get even with General Soong for betraying him when he crashed.
Meanwhile, Senator Davenport is becoming upset when he is not being shown the operations of Air America, and he demands to know who is smuggling heroin. Soon after returning to Air America the pilots are informed that Jack was killed during his search for Billy and Gene, and Gene is offended when he later learns that the Senator has been led to believe that Jack is the culprit behind the drug trafficking. In retaliation for this misinformation, and for Soong's earlier betrayal, Billy purchases grenades on the black market and uses them to blow up the heroin factory. Unfortunately, the guards see him running away, and General Soong and Major Lemond use him as their fall guy.
The next day, Gene finds a buyer for his arsenal, allowing him to leave gunrunning, quit Air America, and take his family out of the country. Meanwhile, Billy accepts one more flight before he actually quits; he and co-pilot Babo are assigned to transport flour to a refugee camp. When Babo and Billy are instructed to land at an airstrip for "routine inspection", Babo reveals that such a sudden inspection is actually a non-routine situation. Billy immediately suspects a set-up, and a search through their cargo reveals several kilos of heroin hidden in flour sacks. He refuses to land and tries to fly away, only to find his fuel gauge has been tampered with and he is nearly out of gas. Babo and Billy crash-land on the same airstrip where Billy crashed a few days earlier, and use the wreckage of the previous crash to hide the smaller plane.
Gene, who is on his way to make his final, and largest, weapons delivery, makes a detour to rescue Babo and Billy. Despite Gene's desire to make his delivery so he can be free of Air America, Billy convinces him to respond to a distress call from the refugee camp, which has been caught in the crossfire between General Soong's men and a band of local rebels. Gene's plane is the closest, so they stop at the camp to pick up the United States Agency for International Development in charge of the camp (played by Nancy Travis). However, the aid refuses to leave without the refugees, and there is not enough room on the plane for both cargo and passengers. After some initial resistance, Gene reluctantly sacrifices his retirement plan by dumping his cargo to make room for the refugees, and uses the explosion of his weapons cache to cover their escape. After rescuing the refugees and taking off, Billy tells Gene that he is going to help him earn back the money he lost from dumping the cargo by selling the C-123 they are flying since it "officially" is not owned by anyone.
Still in the air, Diehl and Lemond attempt to convince the Senator that Billy's refusal to concede to inspection proves that he is the culprit behind the drug smuggling. The Senator, however, sees through their lies and threatens to reveal their operation to Washington. Lemond argues that such an action would be political suicide on the Senator's part because, as Lemond insists, "the President loves my ***". However, closing titles reveal that Diehl and Lemond were indeed exposed, and would later go on to lead checkered careers in Washington politics.
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