Building Gliders Should Have Been Easy: It Wasn’t


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.