It looms up out of the cactus and tumbleweed like a vast tombstone: a sprawling airplane hangar, 60,000 sq. ft., large enough to house a 747, edging up to the shimmering tarmac of a remote airfield in the Arizona desert, 90 miles southeast of Phoenix. On a wall within is a 4 ft.-by-3 ft. plaque that reads "George Arntzen Doole (1909-1985). Founder, Chief Executive Officer, Board of Directors of Air America Inc., Air Asia Company Limited, Civil Air Transport Company Limited." The plaque is the only memorial to a man who created and ran what was once one of the largest airlines in the free world. The airline was known by half a dozen different names, sometimes just as the "Shy Airline," and it flew where few tourists wanted to go. Passengers were often obliged to exit by parachute.
George Doole died as he had lived, in anonymity. When he passed away on March 9, 1985, in Washington at the age of 75, there was no formal obituary in the Washington Post or the New York Times, no memorial service, no flowers. He was quietly buried at a private funeral in Liberty, Ill. "No one ever knew where he came from," says Russell Adams, a retired Pan Am vice president who occasionally dined with Doole at the International Club in Washington. "No one knew he was dying. No one even knew he was sick." Doole preferred it that way. When he entered Washington Hospital Center last year, he told his sisters back in Illinois that he was suffering from a hernia. In fact, he had terminal cancer.
A portly, tastefully dressed man, Doole was at once reserved, even shy, yet highly sociable. The lifelong bachelor often squired wealthy widows to embassy dances in the capital. "George Doole? Oh, he was a perfect gentleman," recalls one consort, Irene Evans. At the Chevy Chase Club, a Wasp bastion in a well-to-do Maryland suburb, Doole sometimes liked to while away afternoons playing bridge and backgammon. He usually won. "George? Well, he was quite a boy," chuckles a fellow clubman, retired Rear Admiral Raymond Hunter.
But just what did he do? "I rather thought he was in investments," says Margaret Wimsatt, who often invited Doole to share Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner with her family. "He was a bit mysterious. I remember at a party at the Chinese embassy, he spent an awful lot of time talking to the Taiwanese ambassador. I asked him why, and he just said, 'We had a lot to talk about.' He would sort of peer at you through those thick black-rimmed glasses." Once, she recalled, she mentioned the name Richard Helms, former director of the CIA. "Do you know him from the Chevy Chase Club?" inquired Wimsatt. "Oh, I know him better than that," said Doole.
Doole lived in one of the most elegant apartment buildings in Washington, the Westchester, but he never invited any guests there, and he refused to give the management a key. Actually, there was little to see inside. Just a bed, some maps and rows of locked filing cabinets.