Building Gliders Should Have Been Easy: It Wasn't

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When I was shooting today’s video in the Airborne Museum at St. Mere Eglise earlier this month, I was impressed that the museum has on display an example of every little thing the paratroopers carried. And I mean everything, including a box of Smith Brothers Cough Drops.

Seeing that unleashed a flood of nostalgia. Those cough drops enjoyed prosecutorial immunity from the nuns’ edict against chewing gum and eating candy in class. I can still taste that tart licorice flavor. Writ small in cardboard, it also reminded me yet again that World War II was geopolitics and strategy, but it was also a contest of industrial production. Either someone in the War Department put cough drops on the infinite list of requirements, or an enterprising Smith Brothers executive insisted that the boys would need them. They probably sent a ship load.

Through the gauzy lens of history, Americans tend to view war production romantically; Rosie the Riveter stepped up and created an industrial miracle. In the aggregate, that’s true; in the granular, it was sometimes messy—really messy. When I was prepping for my glider shoot, I referenced Michael Manion’s thesis Gliders of World War II: The Bastards No One Wanted and Flint Whitlock's If Chaos Reigns: The Near Disaster and Ultimate Triumph of the Allied Airborne Forces on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.

If the titles strike you as baleful, there’s good reason for it, for the entire airborne operation, although carefully planned, devolved into such chaos during its execution that only determination, discipline and training saved it from disaster. But as Whitlock reveals, even two years ahead of the invasion, the effort to build gliders was a comedy of missteps, errors and incompetence that have been largely forgotten in the hagiography of the Arsenal of Democracy. 

The U.S. came late to the airborne and glider idea, so late in fact that by the time the Americans decided they needed gliders, Germany was already phasing both paratroopers and gliders out of its doctrine. It had had several successes with gliders and vertical envelopment, but the German high command—and Hitler—decided that surprise no longer favored airborne units and the casualties didn’t justify the gains. The Germans evolved to the air landed concept that's favored today.

Nonetheless, despite no developed doctrine or specific plans, the U.S. forged ahead building gliders. A lot of gliders. As Whitlock writes, the Army faced an almost insurmountable challenge in finding enough companies to build these machines. Waco fairly quickly devised what became the standard U.S. glider design, the CG4A. Producing it in volume proved another matter.

The major airframe companies—Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman, North American—were up their Cleco bins in war work and had no surplus capacity. Desperate to get the CG4A built, the Army eventually enlisted 16 companies to build the airplane. Although it eventually got its gliders, it also revealed a truth that, despite the application of experience and digital technology, remains a truth today: Serial production of anything defies easy solutions, but it always seems far more difficult when airplanes are involved.

According to Whitlock, having designed the airplane, Waco should have been in a good position to build it. It was an experienced airplane company, but Waco, like so many companies, couldn’t ramp up fast enough and was continually bogged down by design change requests from the government and technical envoys from the other companies trying to figure out the CG4A. Of 13,903 CG4As built, Waco produced about 1000. Not surprisingly, Ford built the most—4190—at a unit cost of about $15,000.

Well, that made sense. They were car guys and who knows mass production better than car guys? Ford had its share of airplane experience, too, with the Tri-Motor and a couple of minor models. Ford made gliders at its Kingsford, Michigan, plant which, before the war, built woodie station wagons. They obviously had the skill base. Other aircraft companies pitched in, including Cessna (750), General Aircraft Corp. (1112) and even the Gibson Refrigerator Co., which churned out 1078.

In the 1940s, the aircraft industry was still composed of many small manufacturing companies most of us have never heard of. And here, the government ran into trouble or, more accurately, the companies themselves did. The poster child for mismanagement and incompetence was the National Aircraft Company of Elwood, Indiana. Despite the name, had no experience at all building airplanes. In awarding a CG4A contract to National, the Army Materiel Command hoped they would figure it out.

They didn’t. Whitlock writes that the Army’s experience with National was more like a Marx Brothers comedy than an aircraft contract. With an order for 90 aircraft, National appeared to be building in a barn and suffered from lack of skill and poor management. Its shop was too small to accommodate the CG4A wingspan, so it knocked out the walls and put up lean to’s. A revolt by workers stopped production, such as it was. By the time a frustrated Army contract officer cancelled the contract, National had produced one glider at a unit cost of $1.74 million in 1943 dollars. That’s about $25 million in today’s dollars, vividly illustrating that cost overruns and shoddy quality are nothing new in airplane building.

A St. Louis company called Robertson Aircraft Corp. paid for its incompetence in blood. Although the company actually had engaged in aircraft services and training before the war, like National, it was hampered by mismanagement. That didn’t stop a government desperate for gliders from awarding it an order for 170 CG4As. On a hot August day in 1943, one of Robertson’s gliders was being demonstrated as part of a bond drive when it broke up over Lambert Field. Aboard were the mayor, several city officials and the company president. All were killed when a wing departed the airframe. Left unknown is whether any of the occupants were aware of the Army’s concerns about quality control at Robertson. The cause was later revealed to be a mis-machined strut fitting that hadn’t been properly inspected because no one knew it needed to be.

Although the better of the 16 companies involved in glider production eventually delivered, the Army found delays and quality issues throughout the program. Unit cost varied widely, with Ford the only company hitting the target numbers. A Florida company, Babcock Aircraft, built 60 gliders at a unit cost of $51,000, according to Whitlock. North American was building Mustangs for only a little more, at $58,000. Such was the headlong rush into material production for the coming invasion of Europe that the government had little choice but to continue with most of the companies it had engaged.

Ironically, the gliders came very close to not being used at all, at least in Normandy. As late as May of 1944, Eisenhower’s air officer, Air Chief Marshal Trayford Leigh-Mallory, argued with Gen. Omar Bradley about the need for an airborne operation at all. Leigh-Mallory believed the two American divisions stood a good chance of being wiped out. Neither man knew that the Germans had already come to the same conclusion in their own use of airborne forces. Bradley believed the landings on Utah Beach wouldn't be successful without an airborne component. Eisenhower overruled Leigh-Mallory, assuring the storied history of both divisions.

Further irony: American planners vastly overestimated the number of gliders that would be needed, much less used. Adding up all the glider operations in Europe, I can’t come up with a total that reaches even 6000 CG4As used in combat. That means less than half were used. The rest were sold for scrap for as little as $50. The crates the gliders were shipped in—five in all—had 10,000 board feet of select lumber. That was much in demand for the post-war housing boom. A few of the gliders were converted to campers, but the vast majority, like so much of the staggering volume of material produced during the war, were simply scrapped.

I wonder if all those cough drops suffered a similar fate.

Comments (7)

"Through the gauzy lens of history, Americans tend to view war production romantically; Rosie the Riveter stepped up and created an industrial miracle. In the aggregate, that's true; in the granular, it was sometimes messy--really messy." Great observation and great writing, Paul.

I've written 3 magazine articles about building the CG4-A and larger gliders in Minneapolis by Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation. They produced over 1500 gliders.

Could the combat gliders be effective in WW II battles? The answer is YES--but like all military operations, it all comes down to how those assets are deployed. The British took and held Pegasus Bridge by putting 3 Horsa gliders within yards of the bridge. Had that bridge not been taken and held, German armor could have rolled right up the Allied lines.

Overall, Normandy was a great plan--with horrible execution. The parachutists and gliders were so far off the mark--in many cases, by more than 12 miles--that there was no unit cohesion. Gliders were ordered to make NIGHT LANDINGS into areas comprised of tiny fields surrounded by hedgerows--tall embankments of earth, rocks, and trees. The result was that only about a dozen gliders in Normandy could be re-used--the rest became casualties--along with their troops and their much-needed equipment. It was a bad plan--for both the parachutists and the gliders.

Contrast that with Operation Market Garden--Montgomery's mad scheme for an attack on the Rhine bridges. While the plan itself was fatally flawed, the execution was perfect. The terrain was flat for the glider and parachute landings. It was scheduled during the day. Over 20,000 men were delivered by parachute, and nearly 15,000 by glider--but this time, the gliders could be recovered and re-used. The gliders also brought in vehicles, anti-tank guns, and other large equipment. It was (and likely always will be) the largest airborne invasion in the history of the world. Normandy was a good plan, with poorly thought-out elements. Market Garden was a poor plan, executed perfectly. Normandy succeeded in spite of the screw-ups--Market Garden failed--though the individual elements performed perfectly.

Posted by: jim hanson | June 19, 2017 9:52 AM    Report this comment


Failures in building programs during wartime due to the need for production in a hurry is not unique. There were any number of programs in any wartime production that were failures--our liberty ships had problems, some of the contractors for submarines during WW II were abject failures--others performed brilliantly. The War Department froze bomber development--with aircraft being delivered with known defects--the problems were remedied on arrival at the base, or in modification centers--production was more important than perfection. The Germans took the opposite approach--Tiger and Panther tanks were constantly being modified--the result was a lack of spare parts and proven technology. In contrast, the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued production of their mainstay designs--and out-produced the Germans.

The Germans didn't completely abandon gliders--the built their GIGANTE giant gliders--capable of carrying tanks--and pulled by THREE bombers. They even produced powered versions. That didn't fare well, either--but for all armies--desperate times call for desperate measures.

Can you imagine being towed across the English Channel--over enemy territory--then pulling the release on a glider--at night--knowing the terrain beneath you is deadly. It's true--the "G" in the middle of glider pilot wings stands for "GUTS!"

Posted by: jim hanson | June 19, 2017 9:56 AM    Report this comment

Combat glider pilots, especially nighttime combat glider pilots, displayed an incredible degree of bravery that (in my opinion) were never properly recognized. Can you imagine switching your mags off at night over hostile territory (let alone hostile terrain) and expecting a good outcome? It's like the old saw about nighttime engine-out landings; upon descending, turn your landing light on at 200 AGL, and if you don't like what you see...turn it off!

Posted by: A Richie | June 19, 2017 12:50 PM    Report this comment

Great report Paul

Posted by: TIM COLE | June 19, 2017 1:09 PM    Report this comment

Your article got me to thinking about Paul Poberezny who I knew held all seven of the wings the military offered. A check of Wikipedia confirmed that he was one of 5,500 who held the Glider Wings rating. Couldn't find any history about how or why he had them or what he might have done. Since the glider pilot rating was only issued during WWII, he would have had to obtain it during the war. Poberezny -- I think -- was one of very few that held all those pilot rating wings.

Worth noting, "WW2 era Glider Pilots invited to fly the Space Shuttle Orbiter simulator at NASA's Johnson Space Center have reportedly completed every simulated landing accurately and correctly on the first attempt."

Ironically, last month when I toured the USAF Museum in Dayton, I stayed near the Waco Museum in Troy, OH. I tried to get in but it was too late and there was insufficient time to see it in the short time I was there. Looking at their website, I see that volunteers have built a runway and there is a nice museum on 1WF. Also notable, their website says that, "The WACO Aircraft Company was the largest manufacturer of civil aircraft in the country in the late 1920's and early 30's and this museum is dedicated to the plant and the employees that made it great."

From the interesting CG-4A Wiki site, it's ironic that Waco designed the CG-4A but only built 999 of the 13,990 total built. Ford in very rural Kingsford, MI built the most ... 4,190. Surplus CG-4A's sold after the war were purchased for the wood of the crates they were in. Some CG-4A's were converted to RV's or cabins themselves. Imagine finding one in a crate someplace THESE days!

Great article.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 20, 2017 6:04 AM    Report this comment

Very nice article! If I may I would like to clarify and add some info addressing the article and comments.
Boeing had excess factory capacity. That is why Boeing actually u sed their facilities to produce the Cessna rush contract of CG-4A articles in late 1942. General Arnold had decreed that aircraft companies already in power production could not be used to produce gliders as he wanted no interruption of power production. His idea was to build the largest fleet of aircraft possible to be used in winning the war. If powered flying barn doors had been deemed important there would have been contracts for thousands of them.
The lack of inspection of the machining defect in the Robertson crash was not so much that no one knew it was needed as ti wa that previously inspected and rejected parts were used becasue the inspectors allowed them to be used.
The article leads one to believe that almost 8,000 CG-4A were scrapped since only about 6,000 were used in Europe when in fact there were thousands used, damaged beyond repair, then scrapped during flight training.
Paul Poberezny was very early in glider pilot training at the contracted glider training at AZ Gliding Academy as SSgt primary training beginning July 1942. He received his G wings on completion of that training and in late April 1943 he was honorably discharged and became a civilian flight instructor.
By assigned contract serial number there were 13,903 CG-4A delivered to the USAAF including the two XCG-4. WACO was contracted and built 1,075 CG-4A fuselages. One became the XCG-15 leaving total WO delivered CG-4A at 1,074. WO had only a 75 article 1945 CG-4A contract as it had 1944 contract to build 1,000 CG-15A.
Charles Day

Posted by: Charles Day | June 20, 2017 10:20 AM    Report this comment

The "new built" CG4-As in Minneapolis were built largely of abandoned parts from Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City--it was a glider training base during the war. Three other airframes were discovered at a former and disused auxiliary glider training base in Texas. When the would-be restorers asked the mayor of the town how much they would charge to sell the airframes, he said "If you get them out of here today, nothing!"

When the Minneapolis factory closed, the factory allowed the employees to take whatever was left home with them. As the glider restoration started to come together and it received publicity, people started coming forward with remnants--bolts of fabric--instruments and instrument panels--even wooden airframe parts made locally. Many of these remnants were incorporated into the "new" glider. For anyone wishing to tackle a similar project--they have parts for several more CG-4As, as well as the larger 15-series.

The Villaume Box Company that built the wooden parts is still in business, and allowed the restorers to use part of their warehouse to do the project. I was able to assemble hundreds of photos for the article I wrote--including photos of the gliders in 5 large boxes--photos of a train with 100 gliders boxed for delivery, and gliders being towed two at a time behind C-47s from the glider-covered Minneapolis airport.

Posted by: jim hanson | June 20, 2017 10:47 AM    Report this comment

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