The role of glider pilots and glider troops is often overlooked. Sixty-five hundred glider pilots served in U.S. units, a unique group who not only commanded aircraft but also fought as infantry after landing their gliders. Glider pilots often became the first airborne troops to step onto enemy-held soil, and they played a key role in preliminary assaults from Sicily to northern Europe to the Far East. These pilots also experienced some of the highest casualty rates in World War II. Walter Cronkite, who became one of the most respected broadcast journalists of the postwar era, rode into combat in a glider when he was starting his career as a war correspondent in 1944. Cronkite later characterized his experience colorfully and succinctly: "It was a lifetime cure for constipation" (quoted in McAuliffe, June 1994).
Because parachute drops left troops dispersed over a comparatively broad area, the appeal of gliders lay in their ability to deliver larger numbers of soldiers into a smaller perimeter as a more cohesive fighting force. Also, gliders could carry some wheeled vehicles, mortars, and light artillery that could not be parachuted from World War II cargo transports. Essentially, the role of glider troops was to make landings ahead of the ground forces and take enemy strongholds by surprise. Key objectives in-cluded enemy artillery batteries, bridges, and choke points along rail or road lines. Still, glider troops carried limited supplies, relying on the main force to relieve them in short order. Glider pilots who survived rotated back to their bases for subsequent missions.
America's rush to develop gliders followed the stunning success of the German glider assault on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael in May 1940. Using ten gliders holding only seventy-eight combat troops, the Germans landed within the fortress perimeter, placed demolition charges at strategic points, and disabled most of the Belgian guns and crews in the first few minutes of the assault. Some hours later, the Germans forced the surrender of the fort's 780-man garrison, at a cost to the glider troops of six dead and twenty wounded. In 1941, the German attack on the British-held island of Crete appeared to drive home the new reality of large-scale glider assaults. In fact, the Germans suffered crippling losses of glider troops, gliders, pilots, and tow airplanes, but both Britain and the United States continued to develop similar glider attack capability because it seemed so tactically effective.
The crash program to create production gliders finally settled on a design submitted by the Waco Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio, well known for its series of high-performance private airplanes of the 1930s. Waco's CG-4A glider hardly resembled the nimble light airplanes that had made the firm's reputation. The glider had a boxy fuselage, a blunt nose, and shoulder-mounted wings supported by struts. The fixed gear was mounted directly to the fuselage and provided clearance of only two feet or so.
Waco's design used a fabric-covered tubular steel frame, plywood flooring, and minimal instruments. Without flaps, the heavily loaded glider had an alarming sink rate; free flight at the end of a tether demanded constant attention; and landing amounted to a controlled crash. Normally, the CG-4A carried up to fifteen troops, including the pilot and copilot. With a total payload capacity of some 3,800 pounds, these gliders could trans-port items as large as a Jeep, a quarter-ton truck, or a 75-mm howitzer and its crew. It had a portside door, and the front end swung up on hinges to unload larger cargo. About 12,400 models of the CG-4A went to the AAF along with 940 more for British forces, who named it the Hadrian. Through a reverse Lend-Lease agreement, AAF units in Britain received some twenty-six hundred examples of the Airspeed MK-1 Horsa, a larger glider capable of carrying up to thirty combat troops or 7,120 pounds of cargo. Like the Waco, the Horsa also had a breakaway tail section and a large cargo door on the port side, just aft of the cockpit. The British craft used a wooden frame construction that tended to collapse and spray dangerous splinters on landing impact. Pilots and troops alike favored the CG-4A, although it had its own history of weaknesses.
The urgent need for gliders to use in training as well as for combat meant that production was farmed out to a variety of firms, many of which had little or no experience in aircraft construction. Ford Motor Company produced the largest share of CG-4A gliders-more than four thousand of them-but other suppliers reflected a disappointing cross-section of production know-how. Ford, along with Waco and Cessna, had prior experience, in contrast to Anheuser-Busch and the Gibson Refrigerator Company, two of the larger firms involved in final production. Over 115 other contractors participated, including companies like the Steinway Piano Company and the H. J. Heinz Pickle Company, which turned out wing spars and wing assemblies, respectively. Ongoing quality control problems came to a head in the summer of 1943.
During an air show in Saint Louis, Missouri, the mayor and several other city officials, includ-ing a pair of high-ranking Air Force officers, climbed into a newly delivered CG-4A for a demonstration flight. Just after takeoff, one wing snapped off, sending the stricken glider into a nose dive that killed the crew and all passengers. An inquiry cited faulty workmanship for a wing-root attachment, and this led to stringent new quality controls.
The CG-4A gliders were towed by C-47 transports at speeds less than 120 mph and had a stalling speed of about 44 mph. They were not always reliable even under tow, during which the glider pilot had constantly to keep his craft's tether aligned within a few degrees of the tow plane. His diligence produced a cone of safe tethered flight for both the tower and towee called, appropriately, "the angle of the dangle." If caught fully loaded in turbulent conditions, gliders were known to disintegrate, spilling their cargoes or hapless troops to the ground far below. One surviving glider pilot remembered a harrowing landing in Germany when a phosphorous shell set a fabric-covered wing afire. As he descended through haze into the battle zone, he suddenly saw power lines directly ahead, but was able to fly his glider underneath them and complete a safe landing.
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