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Pilot: Straight, Proud and Tall

Crash: Marine Capt. Matthew Bancroft had achieved a goal set when he was 7--to be a military flier.


REDDING, Calif. — He was everyone's All-American gone to war. Tall, athletic, brainy and ramrod straight--in stature and in his march through life--Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft never took his eyes off the destination.

When word came that Bancroft's tanker plane had gone down in Pakistan, his parents fought hard to contain their grief amid the assault of fond memories.

This was the little boy who at 7 vowed he would go to the U.S. Naval Academy and become a flier. Here was the high school student body president always a couple of grades ahead of everyone in math. Later, as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, he once playfully buzzed his old hometown three times in a lumbering KC-130.

Bob and Beverly Bancroft sank into a living room couch Thursday, a day after the news came. Matt's sister, 26-year-old Sarah, listened, forlornly holding her baby.

Despite the temptation, they refused to call their son a hero. They will leave that to others.

"That was Matt--tall, straight and proud," his father said between sobs. "That was our son. That's the way he went down."

The 29-year-old Marine was one of seven Marines killed when the plane Bancroft was piloting crashed into a mountain in Pakistan.

At his home base, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, he left his wife of two years, MaryEllen, their 9-month-old daughter, Maddie, and her two sons, Sean, 13, and Christian, 12.

Although his parents now live in Redding at the northern rim of the Central Valley, Bancroft grew up in Burney, a tiny town in the wooded mountains about 50 miles east.

From an early age, he idolized Roger Staubach, the Naval Academy football star who went on to pilot the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowl victories. Matt watched Navy football games and told everyone he would be going to school there one day.

"He set these goals," said Beverly Bancroft. "And he always reached them."

As he grew into a strapping, 6-foot-4 young man, Bancroft never veered from the path. In school he always got the best grades while lettering in three sports. He tutored other students. As a junior, having virtually exhausted Burney High School's curriculum, Bancroft began taking college-level classes.

His mother remembered the day Bancroft heard he had been admitted to the Naval Academy. He was like a little kid jumping up and down, she said, shouting: "I made it! I made it!"

He graduated in 1994 and got his wings in 1996 from the Marine Corps.

But he never forgot about his home. Bancroft always carted along aerial photos of Burney and the rolling hills of eastern Shasta County, which he called God's country.

His mother, dressed in a bright red U.S. Marine Corps T-shirt on this dreary day, recalled how he once returned to his hometown airspace while delivering gear for a Blue Angels air show in Northern California.

Bancroft flew back and forth over the erstwhile lumber town, population 4,000. The native son had returned.

It was a rare display from someone who normally never strayed far from the straight flight path through life. Beverly Bancroft said her son wouldn't drive after even one beer.

Despite his love of the Marines, Bancroft had begun thinking last fall about starting a new chapter and leaving the service.

But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks derailed any plans he had of mustering out, his parents said. The subsequent decline in air travel and resulting layoffs squelched any easy move into commercial aviation. And he wanted to join the fight with his comrades.

"He wanted to go," Bob Bancroft said. "That's his job. He wanted to be part of the team."

Bancroft left for Afghanistan in December. He promised his family all would be OK, that he was safe. And they took him at his word.

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