Glider pilots were among military’s bravest

September 11, 2013 

When thinking about airplane gliders, I always thought about lightweight, powerless planes gently flying over beautiful beaches or mountains. However, since working at the Museum of Aviation, I have discovered there is a very different concept of gliders that came from the World War II era.

Germany dominated the world in its development and use of gliders even before World War I. After the war, the Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany had to close down its air force and get rid of its powered airplanes. Germany did that but saw a way around the treaty by creating and encouraging civilian glider clubs all over the country.

Fast forward to World War II, and Hitler used gliders as part of his strategy to take over Europe. The United States began its own development of the gilder for military use in 1941.

The primary U.S. combat glider was the CG-4A. It could transport 13 troops and their gear or a Jeep, a 75mm howitzer or other equipment and supplies behind enemy lines. The plane was designed by Waco Aircraft of Troy, Ohio.

The CG-4A being a glider, of course, had no engine. It was towed usually by a C-47 that pulled the glider on a towrope. The towrope was made of new material, nylon, and was about 350 feet long and 11/16th of an inch in diameter.

The glider itself was primarily made of wood, mostly plywood, with steel tubing for a frame. Treated cotton fabric covered the frame. The glider was built to be as light as possible. There were about 14,000 built. The gliders were seldom recovered. Many tore apart upon landing.

The gliders were effective when everything went as it should. They were called “silent wings” as you could not hear them.

The gliders were a part of practically every major Allied invasion in Europe including D-Day, also in Burma and at some places in the Pacific. Loss of life being in one of these gliders was not uncommon, and the injuries were mostly broken bones.

What is most remarkable about these gliders was the men who flew them. They were very brave. These men were volunteers, about 6,000 of them. Most were not pilots. They got a few hours training or a lecture on how to fly the glider, and that was it. It is commonly said that the G in the middle of the silver wings that the men wore did not stand for glider. It stood for guts.

The men who flew gliders got no hazard pay, had no parachutes, many times no maps or compass. They had no protection coming in on a field sometimes at night and under fire behind enemy lines.

After landing, glider pilots had to join a company of infantry and then find their way home.

Famous journalists, such as Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney, rode to the front lines in these dangerous air machines. Cronkite wrote about his experience, saying it was “a quick way to die.” Rooney wrote that the experience for him was like being in a “planned accident.”

One pilot of a glider described how uncertain the trip was each time. He said, “You see the nervous glider infantrymen behind you, some vomiting, many in prayer, as you hedge-hop along at tree-top level instinctively jumping up in your seat every time you hear bullets and flak tearing through the glider. You try not to think about the explosives aboard. It’s like riding a stick of dynamite through the gates of Hell.”

In 2007, Congress passed a concurrent resolution that recognized the heroic service and sacrifice of the glider pilots of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.

In 1952 the glider program ended. The stories of glider pilots and their planes went untold for many years. Hopefully, now we can begin to understand what it took to volunteer for such duty in war.

At the Museum of Aviation the public can see a TG-4A training glider hanging in the Eagle Building and the nose section of a CG-4A in the Scott Exhibit Hangar.

Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at mnwindham@aol.com.

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