Southern Air Transport, the air cargo company that carried arms to the Iranians and aid to the contras, does more than supply guerrillas.
In a pinch -- or in a movie -- it can also supply gorillas.
The Miami-based airline, once owned by the Central Intelligence Agency and now privately held, plans to mount a $250,000 advertising campaign highlighting its less-covert side.
"It is in our mind that our name is out there, and people are associating it with -- well, often our name comes to mind and they are not sure what they associate it with," said William Kress, Southern's administrator for corporate communications and advertising.
"The nature of our aircraft lends itself to carrying odd-sized and out-sized cargo to remote regions for deliveries," said Kress. The company operates a fleet of 17 Lockheed L100s (the civilian version of the C130), as well as 10 Boeing 707s, Kress said.
"It's out-of-the-ordinary-type cargoes shipped to out-of-the-ordinary-type destinations," said Kress. That is the story the company's new advertising agency will tell in a series of print advertisements expected to begin in the fall.
The cargoes have included livestock, zoo animals, Flipper the dolphin, disaster relief supplies, airplane engines and even other aircraft, said Kress.
For instance, the company recently delivered a helicopter to Papua, New Guineau. The helicopter had been in the United States for an overhaul and was needed without delay by British Petroleum, which was using it at an oil drilling site.
Television and movie production companies use the airline for ferrying supplies and equipment to shooting sites, too, said Kress. That association led to a brief "fly-on" appearance in "King Kong Lives" -- a movie in which a Southern Air Transport aircraft delivers Lady Kong from Borneo. (There was no real gorilla aboard, just "600 pounds of fur and rubber," said Kress.)
"But we have and do transport livestock animals," he said. "We transported greyhounds from Boston to Venezuela. We've carried horses and cattle between the Hawaiian Islands. We used to fly Flipper around when 'Flipper' was a television show. Actually, there were about 13 Flippers," Kress said. "And we transported a planeload of pigeons to the Dominican Republic."
About half of the company's revenue comes from government contracts, however, and its recent prominence has had to do with its role in the administration's attempt to free American hostages. The company was hired by the National Security Council to ship 90 tons of U.S. arms to Tel Aviv for eventual shipment to Iran.
The company was founded as a private concern 40 years ago, and was purchased by the CIA in 1960 and owned by the agency until 1973, according to Kress.
The CIA's control of the airline during the war in Southeast Asia only emerged when the airline was being sold to its management. The principal owner is Miami attorney James Bastian.
One of its largest private customers in the post-CIA-ownership years was the Iranian air force, and many of its flights in recent years have taken it into areas that are sensitive from a U.S. foreign policy standpoint, including Cuba, Angola and Ilopango, a major shipping point for supplies for the contras.
Last year, Bastian circulated an internal bulletin noting that the company was no longer owned by the CIA and asserting that he knows of no service performed by the company for the CIA currently.
Kress said that the company, which last year had revenue of $68 million, hopes to attract new customers through its advertising campaign, which will be carried in general business publications as well as in the trade journals where the airline has done most of its advertising in the past.
The advertising campaign, planned long before the Iran-contra hearings, is a natural development for a company that has grown in size as Southern Air has, said company spokesman Jack Thayle.
The old advertisements were black and white and carried the tag line: " 'More cargo space when you need it' -- which tells the story but is rather bland," said Kress.