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LET’S CELEBRATE the Waco CG-4A Hadrian glider, first flown 75 years ago. This U.S. glider’s delivery of troops and armament was part of the Allied invasions of Sicily, Normandy, the Netherlands and crossing the Rhine, as well as in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.
The CG-4A was designed and originally built by a Troy, Ohio, firm, Waco Aircraft, established in 1920 as the Weaver Aircraft Company. Waco was renowned during aviation’s Golden Age for its open-cockpit and cabin biplanes.
Ironically, it was the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I that brought about a worldwide interest in military gliders. Germany was prohibited from significant aircraft development (see, for example, the tale of the Zeppelin-Staaken). A consequence of this prohibition was formation of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug, German Research Institute for Sailplane Flight. During the 1930s, the Nazis as well as the Soviets developed troop-carrying gliders.
The U.S. Army Air Force Waco CG-4A first flew in 1942. By war’s end in 1945, more than 13,900 of these military gliders were produced by a total of 16 U.S. companies. Ford delivered the most aircraft, 4190, at the least cost, $14,891 each. Another supplier, National Aircraft of Elwood, Indiana, managed to produce one for an astronomical $1,741,809. Waco built 1074 of its design for $19,367 each. To put these in perspective, in 1945 a P-51 Mustang cost $50,985.
The CG-4A had a tubular steel and wood frame, a canvas skin with a floor and other surfaces of honeycombed plywood. It carried two pilots and as many as 13 troops or a combination of 75-mm howitzers, Jeeps or other supplies.
In most operations, the glider was towed behind a twin-engine C-47, the military variant of Douglas’s DC-3. The standard procedure was to start the pair already linked at an airfield. Another in remote areas involved a low-flying C-47 catching a 225-foot nylon cable of 15/16-in. diameter. Once airborne, the powered aircraft towed the CG-4A at around 73 mph with a 350-foot nylon cable of slightly smaller diameter. Over the designated landing area, the tow cable was released.
The Waco military glider earned a variety of nicknames, among them “tow targets,” “flying coffins” and “silent wings.” As described in a tribute by the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, its “silent wings” nickname was something of a misnomer:
“ ‘For us it was louder than hell,’ said pilot Donald MacRae,” who participated in the D-Day operations and the liberation of The Netherlands. “The glider’s spartan construction provided no insulation from the roar of the C-47 tow plane’s engines, the pounding of the natural elements and the din of enemy anti-aircraft fire, he said.”
“There were four basic instruments, which the pilots mistrusted. Air pockets and 40-mph crosswinds created violent turbulence.” Once their troops and cargo were delivered, the CG-4As were considered expendable. Their pilots had to make their way on foot back to friendly forces, often through enemy territory.
The “air-landing” forces, as the CG-4A troops were called, offered tactical advantages over their paratrooper compatriots whose landings were typically dispersed over a larger area. It wasn’t until the Korean War that helicopters replaced gliders, evidently enhanced by a helicopter’s ability to retrieve troops as well as deliver them.
Predawn D-Day operations on June 6, 1944, made use of 104 CG-4As flown in behind German lines. Later in the day, another 208 gliders brought in backup and supplies. Other glider deliveries continued the following day.
Based on these and other WWII operations, glider pilots earned special Air Medals, differentiated from the conventional variety by an added letter G. It has since been observed that the designation stands for “Guts.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017