“Take down the service flag, Mother,” the newly graduated pilots used to chant. “Your son is in the ATC.”
That was in the early days of World War II, when all new pilots hoped for assignments to fighter or bomber units. Being picked for the Air Transport Command was considered the next best thing to being returned to civilian life. According to the song, such status didn’t even warrant one of those small, blue-starred flags that families hung in their windows to indicate they had someone in service.
When ATC was formed in the summer of 1942, its main job was to ferry aircraft from the factories to the using combat units. By war’s end, however, its mission had expanded into an extensive airlift operation that took ATC crews into the combat zones and cost them numerous casualties. The nasty bit of doggerel about the service flag no longer applied, and airlifters finally gained recognition as combat flyers as well.
Forty-six years and two name changes later, Military Airlift Command is unmistakably a front-line combat force. In recent years, it has taken on not only in-country tactical airlift but the up-front missions of special operations and combat rescue.
But many people overlook those recently acquired close-support roles and persist in seeing MAC primarily as an oversized airline whose crews just happen to wear military uniforms and spend much of their time delivering VIPs to summit conferences. That image is one that MAC commanders take pains to dispel.
Col. John C. Tait, Commander of the 60th Military Airlift Wing (MAW) at Travis AFB, Calif., bristles at the airline analogy. The 60th MAW is the only MAC wing flying both the C-141 and the C-5. It is the largest such airlift organization in the Air Force, serves the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Alaska to Antarctica, and flies wherever else in the world it is needed. It launches as many as a dozen flights a day on regular channel routes throughout the region. It flies global special air missions, resupplies Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica, and responds to calls for humanitarian airlift wherever they occur.
As the host unit at Travis, it handles more cargo and passengers than pass through any other military terminal in the United States. On a given day, its operations board reads like a timetable for Northwest or TWA. On the face of it, the 60th MAW does fit the image of the commercial carrier in military dress.
Colonel Tait argues that his wing’s main reason for being, however, is to move combat troops to where the action is and to keep them supplied while they are there. What the 60th and the rest of the MAC wings do in the meantime is in preparation for that mission. The extensive peacetime airlift operations are a by-product of the ongoing training of air crews and support personnel. The fact that they haul people and goods over global routes is almost incidental and presents a practical alternative to flying the massive carriers empty.
Even in peacetime, the wartime mission is never far beneath the surface at Travis. Routine cargo, neatly strapped to pallets, moves through the sprawling terminal of the 60th Aerial Port Squadron for today’s overseas customers. Not far away, however, soldiers in combat fatigues stand twenty-four-hour guard over a collection of small vehicles, artillery pieces, and ammunition.
Within hours, this prepositioned equipment, along with a 600-man battalion of light infantry, could be aboard C-141s and en route to some distant trouble spot, as it did recently to Honduras on notice of no more than a few short hours. A thousand sorties later, the Army’s entire 7th Infantry Division (Light) could be in position with a total of more than 10,000 combat-ready troops.
The 7th, the first of five lightly equipped, highly mobile divisions planned by the Army, is based at Fort Ord, Calif., a few hours’ convoy drive south of Travis. The close liaison between Army and Air Force leaders, like the prepositioned war supplies, is a constant reminder that MAC’s first job is to be ready to move the troops to wherever there’s trouble.
In the Beginning
To be sure, that was not always the case. Today’s global airlift system traces its ancestry to an aerial delivery service set up months before the United States entered World War II. In May 1941, the then-Army Air Corps formed Ferrying Command to fly American-built aircraft to departure points in the United States and Canada under the Lend-Lease agreement with Britain.
Six months after Pearl Harbor, Ferrying Command became Air Transport Command. ATC continued to ferry planes to the using combat units, but it soon became the airlift agent for the entire War Department. It opened global air routes and developed chains of bases stretching from South America to Africa and Europe and hop-scotching the islands of the Pacific. Combat crews by the tens of thousands were shepherded across the Atlantic and Pacific under ATC’s auspices.
At the war’s end, the long-range airlift capabilities of both the Army and the Navy were merged into the Military Air Transport Service. For a time, MATS did behave pretty much like a commercial airline. It hauled not only cargo but most military passengers. MATS transports were only slightly more austere than civilian airliners. Many had plush seats, WAF flight attendants, and their own monogrammed dinnerware. MATS dietitians even had the questionable distinction of developing the frozen flight lunches that evolved into the infamous “TV dinners” of the period.
By the early 1960s, however, MATS’s days as a military airline had become numbered. The commercial carriers, protesting that they were missing out on a profitable source of revenue, lobbied Congress to force the services to contract out most of their passenger airlift. As a result, many of the troops flown to the Vietnam War went via commercial airlines.
MATS also gained an additional wartime airlift capability in the deal, however, since the contract airlines were required to dedicate some of their planes to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Under the arrangement, the selected CRAF planes, already partially modified for the military role, are earmarked to augment USAF’s airlift forces in an emergency or national crisis.
The change in MATS was the result of more than a political move by the airlines, however. The 1960s were a time of brushfire wars and small, scattered crises. The services found they needed the means to get troops and equipment to distant trouble spots in a hurry. At the time, the commercial airlines had few aircraft that could carry heavy cargo and battle-ready soldiers. The logical solution was to equip MATS with new carriers designed specifically for what would become known as strategic airlift.
In 1966, by act of Congress, MATS became Military Airlift Command, gaining the same status as the Air Force’s other combat commands. Eleven years later, President Jimmy Carter approved MAC’s elevation to the status of a specified command of the Department of Defense. In effect, this made it the airlift agent for all services with a chain of command through the Joint Chiefs and Defense Secretary directly to the President.
In 1974, MAC gained an even more visible combat mission when Tactical Air Command turned over all C-130 airlift operations in the continental United States. A year later, MAC took on worldwide C-130 airlift, meaning that it not only would move troops to the overseas theaters but within them as well. On March 1, 1983, MAC also took over TAC’s Special Operations Forces and placed them under the Twenty-third Air Force, along with the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service.
In just over forty years, MAC had evolved from a noncombatant ferry service into a multimission combat command. In the fall of 1983, just months after formation of the Twenty-third Air Force, the United States launched Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, and MAC tapped virtually all its US wings for some kind of contribution.
MAC transports carried Army Rangers, airborne troops, and combat equipment to the island. They returned with freed medical students and other Americans. MAC gunships suppressed hostile fire. MAC aeromedical units evacuated 164 wounded US servicemen and foreign nationals. MAC’s Air Weather Service provided weather support. Aerospace Audiovisual Service, another component of MAC, documented activities with still pictures, motion pictures, and video coverage. During the brief operation, MAC flew almost 1,000 missions, airlifted 15,400 tons of cargo, and transported almost 37,000 passengers.
MAC’s tactical operations are the ones most likely to make the TV newscasts because they are close to the action and are telegenic. But MAC leaders insist that strategic airlift is just as vital a combat mission. At Travis, the 60th MAW has no gunships or other tactical weapons, but Colonel Tait views everything his wing does as a rehearsal for such contingencies as Grenada.
Sometimes, the rehearsals surprise even MAC’s closest neighbors, as they did recently when Travis’s heavy transports began to practice low-level, terrain-following delivery missions.
The townspeople of adjacent Fairfield and Suisun City had been accustomed to the presence of large aircraft since the early days of World War II. The Pacific Wing of Air Transport Command flew cargo versions of the B-24 (C-87s) from what was then Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Field. In later years, the communities adjusted to SAC bombers and progressively larger MAC airlifters. C-141s and C-5s came and went almost unnoticed.
In the spring of 1987, however, the heavy transports began to skim the neighboring hills at 1,000 feet, and the phones began to ring at Travis. The practice route, northeast to Lake Tahoe, was authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration, but the sight of huge planes flying at what seemed like treetop level drew a swift reaction from homeowners in the sparsely settled areas well away from the locations of the base’s normal activities.
Base officials had some difficulty convincing such critics that the planes indeed were flying at the prescribed 1,000 feet. From the ground, a C-141 at that altitude looks big enough. The look-alike C-5 is roughly half again as large and even at the same altitude appears to by flying even lower. It took some doing to convince the neighbors that the flights presented no hazard. The big, friendly airliners that had passed high overhead for years suddenly were looking suspiciously like warplanes preparing for battle.
The Global Stage
In fact, that is exactly what they were doing. But they are also doing it when they cruise the world’s air lanes at a reassuring 35,000 feet. It is a rehearsal on a grand scale and on a vast stage.
Travis is geographically located in northern California, but it exercises Texas-size bragging rights. It sprawls over more than 7,500 acres of real estate, owns more than $6 billion worth of resources, and employs 8,000 active military, 3,400 civilians, and 5,500 reservists. It hosts the headquarters of the Twenty-second Air Force. It is the West Coast terminal for medical evacuation flights from the Pacific. Its hospital, David Grant USAF Medical Center, has a staff of 1,125, and a new composite medical facility will have almost 300 beds and another seventy-five-bed Aeromedical Staging Facility.
Travis launches about 1,300 aircraft carrying about 14,000 passengers per month. Its Deep Freeze operations alone airlift some 1,600 passengers and 700 tons of equipment to and from the Antarctic every year.
MAC’s evolution into a global airlift command is nowhere more apparent than at Travis. The off-the-shelf transports and converted bombers it sent off during World War II carried pilots, navigators, a few strong-armed enlisted men, and rudimentary navigation equipment. Over the Pacific, they followed routes charted only a decade or so earlier. As the island-hopping Miles gained new territory, ATC crews found their own way and laid down corridors for the combat crews to follow. Flyers barely out of their teens plotted their courses to dots in the ocean and arrived safely a remarkable percentage of the time.
Not only the planes but the early navigational aids were crude compared with those of today. Radio communication was chancy, and navigators often relied on little more than the compasses and sextants that had guided mariners centuries before.
By contrast, today’s C-141s and C-5s leave Travis for distant points on the globe with the ease of a sub urban commuter. Except for those flying airdrops and some other specialized missions, they carry no navigators. In their place are inertial navigation systems, computerized black boxes, two or three to an aircraft. The INS is programmed before takeoff with courses through various turning points to the ultimate destination.
Its tiny gyroscopes provide a basic reference to position, sense every turn, and feed the information to the computer. Pilots can adjust the system with fixes from other navigational aids, but the system balks at accepting obviously unreasonable human corrections. In a sense, the traditional professional rivalry between pilots and navigators has become a contest between the computer and its human operators. The computer usually wins.
The next generation of inertial systems will have laser gyros and no moving parts. Just beyond that lies the Navstar Global Positioning System, which will take its position readings from eighteen orbiting satellites. Tied into the full range of military and civilian navigation aids, Navstar will give crews continuous readings on their latitude, longitude, and altitude anywhere in the world.
A Matter of Course
Such technological wonders are accepted as a matter of course by a generation raised on television and video games. David Carbin, an Air Reserve technician with the 60th Avionics Maintenance Squadron at Travis, sits on the towering flight deck of a parked C-5 and plays the buttons on the INS as he would some electronic instrument in a rock band. He frowns at a questionable position reading and concludes that the C-5 has been moved since the system was last set up.
Travis assigns different coordinates to each parking space on the ramp, and the INS can sense when its plane has been taxied to another place. Carbin is on intimate terms with the anatomy of the INS and apparently finds nothing remarkable in the fact that it can tell him where he is on the globe to within a matter of feet.
Electronic devices do more than navigate. They monitor a variety of subsystems and diagnose malfunctions. They advise altitudes to fly for fuel economy. They supply weather information and a host of communications options. In the c-I 7, not only the navigator but the flight engineer will be eliminated on most flights. Its normal crew will consist of one loadmaster and two pilots.
For the foreseeable future at least, there is little danger that pilots too will become technologically unemployed. In fact, MAC’s more immediate problem is retaining enough of them.
Hiring by commercial airlines, long a problem for the service, has significantly increased in recent years. Experienced airlift pilots are particularly attractive to the commercial carriers, and many are receiving tempting offers to defect. The exodus is becoming critical. MAC officials, recalling some serious past raids from the airlines, are concerned.
Maj. Gen. Alexander K. Davidson is Commander of MAC’s Twenty-second Air Force. He notes that many pilots, particularly those who have never worked in the private sector, complain about the demands of the airlift mission on both pilots and their families. Many pilots cite such irritants as their main reason for going to the airlines.
Although he indicates that MAC is working hard to reduce or eliminate irritants, General Davidson concedes that irregular schedules, frequent separations from families, and uncertainties about the future do go with the territory in military airlift. But he argues that a pilot’s life in the airlines, particularly in the early years, also can be unsettled and uncertain. General Davidson believes that the prospect of higher pay on the outside is a greater factor in the pilots’ minds than most care to admit.
A Little Help From Its Friends
The problem is not a new one. The loss of expensively trained pilots long has been a major worry for the services. Years ago, the Air Force conceded that since it could not match airlines’ pay, it would have to do what it could to improve the lot of its pilots and accept a certain level of attrition as its contribution to the resource of flyers available to the nation as a whole.
Like many bases, Travis receives at least a partial return on its investment. Along with the active-duty 60th MAW, the base hosts the 349th Military Airlift Wing (Associate), an Air Reserve unit with more than 5,500 members. Between eighty and ninety percent of the pilots in the 349th work full time for the airlines and fly for MAC in their Reserve status.
The 349th, the only Air Force Reserve unit checked out in both the C-141 and the C-5, supports about one-third of the air cargo missions flown from Travis. Other Reserve and Air Guard units carry a similar load from other bases, including a healthy share of the tactical airlift and special operations missions.
The 349th belies the traditional image of the old Reserve unit that breaks the monotony of once-a-month meetings with an occasional proficiency flight in some outdated aircraft. Its pilots fly the same equipment used by the 60th, often sharing the cockpit with active-duty crew members. In a mobilization, both the air crews and ground elements of the 349th would integrate fully with the 60th.
Keeping the Reserve unit ready to fill that role is not without its problems. Maj. William R. Tefteller, Assistant Deputy Commander for C-5 Operations of 349th MAW, is another of the Air Reserve technicians at Travis who serves full time as a civilian employee and maintains a dual status as a member of the Reserve wing. His full-time job includes scheduling Reserve crews to fly.
Major Tefteller concedes that a perceived favoritism for the Reservists causes some tension, but it is, he contends, like disputes within a family. On the job, such differences are set aside, and the active and reserve members work well together. In any case, he says, the days of the stepchild Reserve unit flying castoff aircraft are gone.
Air Guard and AFRES units not collocated with active-duty units are receiving their own first-line transports, such as the C-5 and the C-141. They participate in major exercises and fly with active-duty units in humanitarian airlift operations.
Besides its four airlift squadrons, the Reserve wing at Travis has four maintenance squadrons, nine aerial port squadrons, and a medical services squadron, six of which are geographically separated units, another medical services squadron, a contingency hospital, an aeromedical evacuation squadron, three civil engineering squadrons (two of which are geographically separated), a weapon systems squadron, a communications squadron, and a USAF clinic. All train to the same standards as those of the 60th.
Col. Raymond Holmes, Deputy Commander for Maintenance with the 60th, says he makes no distinction between active-duty and reserve members in the shops. They work side by side, and it is not unusual to see a reserve NCO supervising active-duty mechanics. Colonel Holmes rates today’s airmen of both components as the best he has seen.
The mixed maintenance team keeps a remarkable percentage of the Travis fleet moving on a day-to-day basis. In an emergency, Colonel Holmes says, it could muster a far larger work force and respond almost with the speed of a fighter unit ordered to scramble.
It Still Looks Like an Airline
For all of its combat readiness, however, MAC remains one of the world’s major air carriers. It has an active force of close to 100,000 military and civilian members. It owns more than 1,000 aircraft. It operates thirteen US bases and two overseas bases and uses 276 others in twenty-four countries overseas. From its headquarters at Scott AFB, Ill., it manages three numbered air forces.
The Twenty-second Air Force at Travis directs the local 60th MAW and two similar wings at McChord AFB, Wash., and Norton AFB, Calif. MAC’s two training bases are Altus AFB, Okla., and Little Rock AFB, Ark. It also has tactical airlift wings in Texas, Arkansas, and the Philippines and support flying groups as distant as Alaska, Japan, and Korea.
The Twenty-second is duplicated in the east by the Twenty-first Air Force, headquartered at McGuire AFB, N. J. It directs MAWs in Delaware, both Carolinas, and Maryland and tactical airlift units in England and Germany.
The Twenty-third Air Force, with headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Fla., maintains special operations units in Florida, Panama, the Philippines, and Germany and integrates special operations, combat rescue, weather reconnaissance, and aeromedical airlift worldwide.
Air Reserve and Guard units mirror the active-duty forces in every type of operation. Like the 349th MAW at Travis, Reserve associate wings in southern California, Washington, South Carolina, Delaware, and New Jersey share bases and aircraft with active-duty forces. Other AFRES units operate from separate locations with their own aircraft, flying everything from tactical airlift to special operations to weather reconnaissance and medical evacuation.
The Air Guard flies C- 130s in five tactical airlift wings and fourteen tactical airlift groups scattered from Virginia to Alaska. Guard groups on both coasts fly HC-130s and Jolly Green Giant helicopters on rescue and recovery missions, and an ANG special operations group flies EC-130s from Pennsylvania.
In a full mobilization, the reserve forces would add about 70,000 members and about 400 aircraft to MAC forces, bringing aboard about forty flying units and some 160 combat support units. About half of MAC’s organic wartime capability is in reserve. The CRAF fleet would add substantially to the total.
No commercial carrier can match the variety of MAC’s inventory. It flies everything from the eight-passenger Beech C-12 to the huge C-5. Its rescue forces use four types of helicopters. Its special operations units use three versions of the C-130, equipped with everything from cannon and miniguns to the latest in electronic warfare gear. It has flying ambulances able to carry forty litter patients and swift C-21s (Learjets) that can double in the aeromedical role when needed.
MAC carries Presidents, Cabinet members, and as many as 2,000,000 other passengers in a given year. In peace and war, ninety-five percent of its passengers are carried by commercial contract flights. It hauls almost half a million tons of cargo annually and flies about 4,500 medical evacuation missions. Still, MAC leaders insist, it is all practice, a honing of skills and a sharpening of claws.
You can put back the service flag, Mother. Your child is in MAC.
A Fifteenth Air Force B-24 bombardier during World War II, Bruce D. Callander was recalled to active duty as an information officer during the Korean War. Between tours of active duty, he earned a B.A. degree in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined the staff of Air Force Times, becoming Editor in 1972. Now a free-lance writer, Mr. Callander has written several articles for AIR FORCE Magazine, including “Navigators With a Difference,” which appeared in the December ’87 issue.