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Military Air Transport Service
I was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia when I first heard about MATS.
This is a service of the US Air Force that lets military personnel fly from one Air Force base to another at no charge.
You go to an Air Force base and tell the dispatcher where you want to go. Then he/she will let you know if and when a plane would be headed in that direction.
I wanted to go to Los Angeles to see Norma Jean before going overseas.
Back at Fort Belvoir I had told my Commanding Officer, Captain Kenneth Maynard, that I planned on going to California via MATS flights.
Well, he about had a fit. He stood up, leaned over his desk, and shouted, "Don't do it! Stay away from those MATS flights! Go buy a ticket on a commercial airliner and get there alive. Those MATS pilots think they're God and can do no wrong!"
Before I could say anything about not having enough money, he continued, "Let me tell you what happened to me."
"I was about to get on one of those planes in Houston for a trip to San Francisco. But I was told the last seat had just been taken, and that I'd have to wait for the next flight. Well, about an hour later they announced another flight for Frisco."
"So I got on. Well, within an hour we could see we were heading into a lightning storm, so the pilot opted to go around it. This took us way off course and we arrived two hours late."
But guess what we heard when we got there - the plane I missed had tried to go through the storm and didn't make it. It went down, killing everyone aboard."
"See why you shouldn't go up with one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cowboys?"
Well, I thanked him for the advice, and then headed for Bolling Air Force Base in Washington DC to catch the next MATS flight going west. Not that Captain Maynard's advice hadn't made an impression - it definitely had.
But I only had a few dollars to my name - and wanted to use my week's furlough to see Norma Jean Salina in Los Angeles.
Iíd been at Bolling for less than an hour when they announced a flight leaving for St. Louis. The plane turned out to be a specially outfitted C-36, which I heard was some General's private plane - and it was being flown to Saint Louis to pick him up.
It was sumptuously appointed to carry about a dozen people in well upholstered luxury.
This was my very first time in an airplane and, not surprisingly, I was very favorably impressed! As I stretched out in the plush reclining seat, I was convinced that Capt. Maynardís close call was just a fluke, and that Iíd be doing all my traveling this way as long as I was in the army.
But the comfortable trip to St. Louis was not to be repeated. There I had to wait two days for another plane headed west.
It was a B-25 "Billy Mitchell" bomber destined for Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, and there was room for one passenger to accompany the pilot, the copilot and someone called a flight sergeant.
There were no upholstered seats - just a couple of wooden benches behind the open door to the pilots' compartment - one each for the sergeant and myself.
On either side of us there was a huge, noisy engine that powered the aircraft's twin propellers. The engine noise was so loud we had to shout to hear each other.
But it was free and it was heading west.
Well, somewhere over Texas the skies began to darken and the airplane started to bump and bounce in a horrific way. Then it started to rain. And it wasn't just any rain - it was a lightning storm.
I knew this because I could see lightning bouncing off the wings. And, of course, I was now remorsefully remembering what Capt. Maynard had said just days before.
Needless to say, I was scared to death. I even asked the flight sergeant if there was a parachute available. He said a chute wouldn't do any good in this kind of weather, but gave me one anyway.
As I was trying to strap it on, the youthful copilot caught a glimpse of me and started to laugh.
"Whadda ya think," he shouted, "are our wings gonna stay on?" The senior pilot, whose face had become very grim, gave him a dirty look - but the kid was having too much fun teasing me to quit.
"If you decide to use that parachute, try not to get hit by lightning on the way down!" Then he started singing the Air Force song, emphasizing the part that goes, "We live in fame or go down in flame..." Then he laughed some more.
Well, the rest of us weren't laughing. The older pilot's knuckles had turned white and he was looking more serious by the moment. The flight sergeant looked as worried as I felt, and seemed not to hear me as I asked him how to open the bomb bay so I could make a quick exit, should the need arise.
But the fact that I'm here to write about it says we made it safely through the storm. Nonetheless, when we landed I decided I'd had enough of MATS, and that I'd hitchhike the rest of the way to Los Angeles.
However, the hitchhiking ride I got turned out to be more dangerous than the B-25 flight.
But thatís another story.
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