"MATS: The Story of the Military Air Transportation Service"

by Stanley M Ulannoff


Anything, Anywhere, Anytime

I have directed prompt action to increase our airlift capacity. Obtaining additional airlift mobility, and obtaining it now, will better assure the ability of our conventional forces to respond, with discrimination and speed, to any problem at any spot on the globe at any moment's notice. In particular it will enable us to meet any deliberate effort to avoid or divert our forces by starting limited wars in widely scattered parts of the globe.

State of the Union Message January 30, 1961

The late President Kennedy's support of global airlift was a long-awaited move in the right direction. Even when he was campaigning for the presidency, the then Senator Kennedy claimed that "our ability to meet our commitments to more than 50 countries around the globe has been critically impaired by our failure to develop a jet airlift capacity."

Global airlift is a vital, effective instrument of United States foreign policy, and a necessary component of our modern weapons system and military force. In this "cold war" era, it enables our government to respond instantaneously to pressures, emergencies, and trouble wherever they might occur anywhere in the world.

A responsive, kindly arm of the traditional American goodwill and humanitarianism in die face of such natural disasters as floods, earthquakes, typhoons, and polio epidemics, the Military Air Transport Service of the U.S. Air Force has, throughout its short history of little more than a decade and a half, answered the "fire alarm" some thirty times for major reasons. In fact, on June 21, 1948, just three short weeks after the Department of Defense had dropped the wartime ATC (Air Transport Command) and NATS (Naval Air Transport Service) into the alphabet hopper and cranked out MATS, the new service was called upon to perform the greatest airlift job in history - the relief of Berlin. For fifteen months the famous Berlin Airlift delivered 2 1/2 million tons of food and fuel. "Operation Vittles," as it was officially called, was a resounding success, and the Russians removed their blockades and restrictions on surface transportation into the beleaguered city.

But, for the men of MATS, the "cold war" years and natural disasters that followed did not leave too much time for resting on their laurels. In quick succession MATS furnished humanitarian aid to: earthquake victims in India (1950) ; 4,000 Moslems whom they airlifted to Mecca (1952) ; victims of a typhoon on Wake Island (1952) ; the floodstricken population in the Netherlands (1953) ; polio patients in Argentina (1956) ; and in Japan (1960) ; wounded French soldiers evacuated from Dien Bien Phu, Indochina, across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to France (1954); more than 14,000 Hungarian refugees airlifted to the United States (1956-57) ; typhoon victims in Japan (1959) ; earthquake casualties in Morocco (1960) ; flood victims in Brazil (1960) ; and to earthquake-racked Chile with 1,754,000 pounds of food, clothing, medical supplies, including helicopters and two complete Army field hospitals (1960) ; the airlift to the United States of 1,093 dependent wives and children of U.S. military and civilian personnel from the Panama Canal Zone during the crisis there (1964); and more.

Militarily, the MATS strategic airlift was called upon to support: the United Nations forces in the Korean War (1950-53); Suez (1956); Lebanon (1958) ; Formosa (1958) ; the Congo (1960-64) ; and Cuba and India (1962-63) . In 1958, for "Operation Hardtack," MATS airlifted more than 14,000 tons of cargo and 13,000 personnel as well as providing 1,100 of its own technical personnel, in support of the nuclear bomb tests at Eniwetok. And that same year MATS airlifted Thor IRBM's and their equipment from the manufacturer in California to their launching sites in England.

Since the year 1957, MATS has supported our research operations in the Antarctic and at the South Pole. On the other side of the world MATS flew heavy construction equipment, builders, housing to Thule, Greenland, in 1951, saving a full year in the construction of that key base.

MATS aircraft also participate in peacetime maneuvers with the Army. During 1960, in "Operation Big Slam," they carried more than 21,000 troops and close to 11,000 tons of equipment to and from Puerto Rico in the largest peacetime airlift exercise in military history up to that time. It was later topped by "Big Lift," the massive airlift of an entire armored division from the United States to Germany in two and a half days.

It must be noted that all of these missions were accomplished in addition to the MATS regular scheduled airlift, supplying the Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, and other Air Force commands, the Army and Navy, and our Allies all over the world; supporting the missile program from factory to user; and supplying the Atlantic Missile Range from Cape Kennedy to Ascencion Island, more than 5,000 miles down the South Atlantic; transporting the President and other VIP's; the continuous Aeromedical Evacuation program; and the MATS Technical Services.

Air transport has always been looked upon as being quick and efficient but expensive. It was good to ship by air when speed was essential, price was no object, and the case was an emergency one with human life at stake, as for example the earthquake in Chile and the Berlin blockade. Actually, logic and logistics have shown this concept of high cost to be "all wet." In fact, airlifting drastically reduces the excessive amount of inventory and stockpiling formerly required. It also cuts down on warehousing, packaging, and handling. A typical example of this took place when the Air Force began shipping replacement J-57 jet engines, by air. Direct point-to-point shipment reduced requirements by some 2,000 engines, resulting in a saving of $337,000,000.

Similarly, in 1955, the U.S. Air Force in Europe experienced savings of half a billion dollars by conducting its service operations by air, and had a 14 per cent increase in efficiency to boot. The Navy, too, found that it could increase weapon effectiveness and efficiency by airlift, including direct deliveries to the fleet at sea. By the same token, airlifting the 200,000 soldiers that the Army moves overseas every year, at an average saving of two weeks' travel time per man as compared to rail and ship, would be the equivalent of adding 8,000 full-time soldiers to the Army. In most cases, moreover, the troops would be at their destinations in one day. This is certainly a far cry from World War H when the men spent many days in processing at the ports of embarkation and ports of debarkation, not counting the time at sea in crowded, uncomfortable quarters.

Not only does MATS save money for its "customers" - the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and other branches of the federal government - it is the only major military command that consistently returns a profit to the United States. This is an amazing fact when we consider the many billions of dollars spent on training the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Tactical Air Command (TAC), the Air Defense Command (ADC), the Army, and the Navy. Of course, no one expects SAC to wipe out a city with its missiles or bombers in order to train and test its effectiveness. SAC can only simulate these missions and do its bombing and missile launching on bombing ranges. Nor can we deny the need for this training, for the obvious return on that investment is the security of our nation. But MATS, in the performance of its training which is also vital to the national security, actually does the job it would have to do in the event of war. It carries needed personnel, equipment, and supplies to the far corners of the earth, and brings home the sick and wounded.

MATS flies no scheduled passenger routes in continental United States - the only gap in its worldwide schedule. However, this is as it should be. The American commercial lines amply cover the United States proper, while the MATS mission is a global one, over the oceans and worldwide in scope. So, within the United States, MATS flies regular routes only for the air evacuation of hospital patients, functions which the airlines do not normally perform. In fact, they are more than pleased when MATS airlifts a civilian polio patient in an iron lung, something that they might otherwise have been requested to do. And, of course, the airlines are not geared to handle such outsize cargo as missiles and other heavy military equipment.

In the event of a national emergency, MATS does contract with U.S. civil air carriers for a "packaged" reserve airlift of more than 300 four-engine aircraft. This is the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, more commonly known as CRAF. The drawback in this arrangement is that MATS aircraft are triple-threat, capable of carrying cargo and passengers, and capable of being converted for air evacuation of sick and wounded. Some commercial aircraft have limitations in range and are not suitable for outsize cargo nor are equipped for air evacuation.

In the words of Lt. Gen. William Tunner, its former commander, "MATS is the two bands of traffic over the Atlantic and the Pacific." But in truth, it is more than that. MATS is not only our nation's global airlift force, its technical services also provide weather information to the Army and Air Force; furnish a fast-acting worldwide rescue service; do the mapping and photography for the USAF; and until the beginning of June, 1961, provided the Air Force with a global communications system. Americans can rest assured that MATS aircraft, at the drop of a hat, will fly medicine, doctors, food, coal, missiles, aircraft, troops, or what have you, to any troubled spot in the world. Strangely enough, MATS also has had the unique distinction of having under its command the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Iceland Defense Force.

Despite all of this flying, MATS' safety record has traditionally remained high compared with other major flying commands of the Air Force. This safety record also bears favorable comparison with the commercial airlines.

The pages that follow tell the dramatic story of the Military Air Transport Service, a global airlift force in being, traveling the routes it would on any D-Day, ready and able to reshuffle and redeploy its aircraft in any emergency, a global team living up to the motto of delivering "anything, anywhere, anytime." Here is MATS' background and history and day-to-day operations; its varied services (weather, rescue, mapping, and photography) ; and its place in the world today. It is the story of a dedicated group of flying men, with a proud and hectic history, who, with the coming of their long-awaited jets, feel in all modesty that they are only now becoming a true global airlift force.

Chapter 1

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