Skip to main content
No. 936:
War Gliders

Today, a forgotten technology of war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was in junior high during the early days of WW-II, and I wanted to be a glider pilot. I guess I'm here today because I was too young to qualify. The Air Corps was, by then, recruiting glider pilots heavily. That should've been sufficient warning. But, when you're only twelve, you miss subtle points like that.

WW-II gliders were the most elementary engineless wooden airplanes. A cargo plane would tow two into the air and release them into a battle zone. They were loaded down with two tons of soldiers and supplies. One might carry 13 men in full gear, or fewer men along with a jeep or a howitzer. Gliders carried mules into Burma. They carried gasoline and high explosives. They carried soldiers into Normandy before dawn on D-Day -- five hours before troops hit the beaches.

Experience with sport gliders was little use in one of those crates. There was no soaring, no picking up thermals to go where you wished. You simply fell like a stone out of the sky. You had one chance at landing in an open field. That was it.

Kathleen McAuliffe tells how Hitler was first to champion war gliders. The Germans had to breach the Maginot line to invade France and Belgium in 1940. They landed 10 gliders -- 78 troops -- right on the roof of that fortification. Before Belgian machine gunners could react, the Germans had set charges and blown the line wide open. France fell within weeks.

So we developed our own war glider and went into production. Since airplane companies all had full plates, the Army had to use other makers. Ford Motors made 4000 gliders. Some companies had no talent for making airplanes. In 1943 a wing broke loose from a glider at a demonstration in St. Louis. Onlookers watched in horror as a half-dozen civic leaders fell to their deaths. That glider had been made, appropriately enough, by a casket company.

The Army recruited washed-out pilots, men too old for flight school, men with minor disabilities -- anyone brave enough to steer a defenseless wooden box through air filled with lead to a one-chance landing in a mined field. Parachutes were out -- they weighed too much. Enemy fire came from below, so men took the helmets off their heads and held them between their legs.

It was an imperfect technology -- used in one war, then forgotten. Medals went to people whose airplanes killed other people. Those heroic glider pilots were simply overlooked.

Finally, three astronauts gave the Glider Pilots Association some long overdue credit. For they too come back to earth in an engineless plane for a one-chance landing. They sent a note saying, "At least the natives were friendly where we landed."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McAuliffe, K., Crossing the Lines on Silent Wings, Smithsonian, Vol. 25, No. 3, June 1994, pp. 118-133.

Here is a website that tells the story of WW-II gliders: