Military Air Transport Service

Military Air Transport Service (MATS) was a command of the U.S. Air Force from 1948-65, which superseded the Army Air Force's Air Transport Command, its direct predecessor shortly after the Air Force became an independent service branch in 1947. MATS was succeeded by Military Airlift Command (MAC) in January 1966, and by Air Mobility Command (AMC) in June 1992, each of which broadened its mission.

Broad overview

The Military Air Transport Service was activated in June 1948 under Major General Laurence S. Kuter, in order to harness interservice efforts more efficiently. It was an amalgamation of Navy and Army air transport commands, now placed under the control of the newly created U.S. Air Force (USAF). Previously, the Army Air Forces' needs were looked after by the Air Transport Command, the World War II-era United States Army Air Forces) command focused on transportation of troops and supplies.

MATS was deactivated on January 1, 1966. It was succeeded by the Military Airlift Command (MAC); the restructuring was triggered by the demands of the expanding Vietnam War.

History of the MATS

The Air Transport Command

The Air Transport Command was established in June 1942 in response to a letter sent by the Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, Mr. Larry Pogue, to the White House advocating the establishment of a civilian air transportation service to operate airline contracts for the military. Pogue advocated a new organization answering directly to the White House. In response, General "Hap" Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) established an Air Transport Command under U.S. Army control and direction, primarily composed of pilots and aircraft contracted from U.S. civilian airlines.

The new Air Transport Command was initially only a semi-military organization, with most of its leadership coming from the ranks of airline executives who accepted direct USAAF commissions, usually as colonels or majors. Until 1944, ATC also drew heavily on the airlines for manpower, using experienced civil airline pilots, radio operators, and other aircrew personnel from the airlines to crew transports that had been purchased by the Army from civilian sources. ATC's original mission was ferrying airplanes to overseas destinations, a mission that had been originally performed by the Army Ferry Command that preceded it and from which ATC headquarters military personnel were drawn. As the war progressed, ATC's air transport division became more and more involved in transporting military personnel and cargo overseas.

In the beginning of ATC operations, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain was the primary transport plane in use. At first, the C-47 was often fitted with long-range tanks for long flights, but as larger multi-engine aircraft became available, the C-47 was redeployed for use on shorter routes.

In 1942, the Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express, a transport version of the B-24 Liberator bomber, was adopted for service with the ATC. The C-87 had a much longer range and higher service ceiling, making it a better choice for over-water transport flights, but its hurried conversion from a dedicated bomber design resulted in inevitable compromises that affected its reliability in service.

As the war developed, air routes were established from the East Coast to the UK, Africa and India; some routes had been set up before the war when Ferry Command used combat pilots and aircrews on temporary duty from the Combat Command. Due to bad weather over the North Atlantic in winter and the close proximity to hostile territory, the South Atlantic Route from Florida to Brazil then across to Africa was perhaps the most active. Transports bound for India also used the South Atlantic Route. A route across the Pacific to Hawaii then across the South Pacific to Australia provided access to US forces in the Southwest Pacific.

In 1942, at the personal request of General 'Hap' Arnold, Colonel Cyrus R. Smith was made ATC's executive officer, thereafter assuming the positions of Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander. During his tenure as Chief of Staff, Colonel Smith was largely responsible for ATC's considerable expansion in operations. In the same year, Col. Smith proposed that ATC assume responsibility for the Hump airlift operation, as he believed that ATC would do a better job of transporting cargo to China. However, due to a lack of navigation aids, personnel, suitable airfields and maintenance facilities, and above all, sufficient muli-engine transport aircraft suited to the difficult flight conditions, tonnage levels flown to China over the Hump did not appreciably increase until late 1943. ATC's Ferrying Division was responsible for the movement of replacement of combat aircraft to overseas bases, and thousands of bombers, transports and fighters flown by combat crews on their way overseas were under ATC control during the movements. Ferrying of combat aircraft was a major ATC mission to the end of the war.

As the war progressed, ATC received improved aircraft types for transport duty, including the Curtis C-46 Commando and the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, a militarized transport version of the DC-4. The C-54 in particular took over the C-87's duties in long-distance, over-water transport flights. In the China-India theater, the C-54, with three times the load capacity of the C-47, significantly increased cargo tonnage levels flown to China, causing ATC to phase out earlier C-47 and C-46 aircraft.

ATC transports were used primarily to deliver high value cargo and important personnel to overseas destinations. For example, ATC C-87s delivered new engines to Libya to replace those worn out on the B-24s used on the famous low-level mission against Ploesti. An emergency shipment of artillery fuzes helped win the battle of Tobruk. When the first B-29s were sent to China, advance party personnel and additional combat crew personnel proceeded the bombers aboard ATC C-87s. On return flights, C-87s and C-54s brought back combat crews who had finished their combat tours and were returning to the States. At the end of the war, ATC C-54s transported 11th Airborne Division personnel from Okinawa to Japan.

By the end of the war, Air Transport Command had developed into a huge military airline that literally encompassed the world. Routes had been established to places that had seen few white men before the war, and where airplanes had been unheard of. Airline personnel who had never left the United States before the war had become veterans of long over-water flights to the remotest regions of earth.

The Naval Air Transport Service

The Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) was conceived by Captain C.H. Schildhauer with the mission of rapidly transporting vital cargo, specialist personnel and mail to the Fleet and ground forces, especially in advanced areas of operation.

On December 12, 1941 NATS was established under the Chief of Naval Operations by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Initially squadrons were established at Norfolk, Virginia, Olathe, Kansas and Oakland, California. By the end of the war 26,000 men and 540 aircraft provided services worldwide.

In June 1948 the mission and operational control of NATS squadrons were consolidated into the Military Air Transport Service; NATS was disestablished on 1 July.

The Military Air Transport Service

With the end of the war, the Air Transport Command found itself in limbo. Senior USAAF authorities considered ATC to be a wartime necessity that was no longer needed, and expected its civilian personnel, including former airline pilots, to return to their peacetime occupations. Senior ATC officers, on the other hand, thought that ATC should be developed into a national government operated airline, an idea that was soundly opposed by the airline industry. While the war had firmly established the necessity of a troop carrier mission, most military officers believed the role performed by ATC should be provided by contract carriers.

When the U.S. Air Force was established as a separate service in 1947, the Air Transport Command was not established as one of its missions. The ATC commander and his staff took it upon themselves to convince the new civilian leadership of the newly created Department of Defense (DOD) (and Secretaries of the Army and Air Force) that ATC had a mission. They seized upon testimony by former Troop Carrier Command commander General Paul Williams that the Air Force should have a long-range troop deployment capability, and began advocating that ATC transports could be used to deploy troops. Williams had been pressing for the development of a long-range troop carrier airplane when he made his statement.

The DOD believed it should have its own air transport service and decided that ATC should become the Military Air Transport Service, supported by the new USAF, even though not listed as a formal military mission. When the ATC commander wrote a mission statement for the proposed new command he inserted "deployment of troops" as a mission, although the change had never been formally requested, the Secretary of the Air Force either allowed it to remain or overlooked it when signing the mission statement.

MATS was established on June 1, 1948, less than a month before the commencement of the Berlin Airlift -- "OPERATION VITTLES" where at peak operations, planes were landing and departing every ninety seconds or so shuttling in thousands of tons of supplies, food, and fuel each day - but they were not MATS airplanes. The Soviet Union had blocked all surface transportation in the western part of Berlin. Railroads tracks were destroyed, barges were stopped on the rivers, and highways and roads blocked. The only avenue left was through the air. On June 26, 1948, the airlift began. Troop carrier transports from around the globe began making their way to Germany, where they were assigned to United States Air Forces, Europe. Squadrons transferred from as far away as Hawaii and Japan, and included two of the U.S. Navy's air transport squadrons assigned to MATS. MATS itself was not "in charge" of the airlift, although several MATS staff officers were sent to Germany to serve in the Airlift Task Force in an administrative role. Lt. General William H. Tunner was placed in overall command of airlift operations, reporting to the commander of United States Air Forces, Europe. The airlift itself was a USAFE operation and all airplanes assigned to it were assigned to one of five troop carrier groups that were sent to Europe to operate the airlift. MATS played a supporting role, including ferrying C-54s to and from the airlift bases and maintenance depots in the United States and the MATS C-54 training school trained pilots for temporary duty in the airlift. MATS transports delivered crucial aircraft parts to the airlift bases in Europe. This operation would continue for some 15 months until the Soviets lifted the blockade. MATS would provide numerous humanitarian airlifts of global proportions. The U.S. Navy was an integral part of MATS, providing five transport squadrons to the joint service effort, but they operated under USAFE while they were part of the airlift. The organization's next major test was the bootstrap supply operations supporting the United Nations troops under General Douglas MacArthur in the country of South Korea which was nearly overrun by the time UN forces were mobilized. The MATS role was purely logistical, and operated from the U.S. to Japan. Theater transport forces assigned to the Far East Air Forces Combat Cargo Command, which became 315th Air Division, operated supply routes into Japan and provided troop carrier services for UN forces.

Military Air Transport Service Within MATS there were other technical services such as:

In the early days of MATS, there were three divisions, Atlantic, Pacific, and Continental. A later reoganization called for just 2 divisions -- Eastern Transport Air Force (EASTAF) and the Western Transport Air Force (WESTAF). To accomplish the global mission required, MATS has used many different aircraft. The C-47 "Gooney Bird", C-46 Curtis Commando, the principle big-cargo capable C-54 Skymasters, and later, C-135 Stratolifter, C-141 Starlifter, C-130 Hercules, C-133 Cargomaster, C-124 Globemaster II, C-118 Liftmaster, C-121 Constellation, C-74 Globemaster, C-97 Stratofreighter, and the C-131 Samaritan just to name a few. Each of the individual technical MATS services had its own specific aircraft to carry out their mission.

On January 1, 1966 MATS was deactivated and the Military Airlift Command (MAC) was activated as a new command with military missions that had previously been denied to MATS.



  • Stanley M. Ulanoff, MATS: The Story of the Military Air Transport Service, 1964, The Moffa Press, Inc.
  • Office of Air Force History, The United States Army Air Forces in World War II, edited by Craven and Cate
  • James Lee, Operation Lifeline - History and Development of the Naval Air Transport Service, 1947, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company

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