Gliders that carry 40 men, or tons of freight! No longer a stunt machine, the sailplane has become one of war’s most vital weapons

RONALD A. KEITH February 15 1943


Gliders that carry 40 men, or tons of freight! No longer a stunt machine, the sailplane has become one of war’s most vital weapons

RONALD A. KEITH February 15 1943


Gliders that carry 40 men, or tons of freight! No longer a stunt machine, the sailplane has become one of war’s most vital weapons


THE FLYING surfboard is spreading its wings. Yesterday’s sport glider has become the motorless air transport or “trailplane” which promises to write a new and astounding chapter for the aviation of war and peace. These grown-up gliders, each able to carry from ten to forty fighting men or several tons of freight, are being rushed into frantic production in Britain and the United States. They are being built to rise in stealthy swarms, perhaps to spearpoint the Allied thrust into Naziridden Europe.

The sudden rise of the glider duplicates the now familiar pattern of indifference rudely disturbed by a spectacular enemy success and succeeded by the most intensive interest on the part of Allied chieftains.

Even early in 1941 prevailing opinion in democracy’s war councils scorned the glider as a mere plaything, despite the known fact that Germany and Russia had been seriously developing glider squadrons for transport duties for at least eight years.

While the Nazis were accumulating a silent air fleet of 28,000 gliders and 100,000 trained glider pilots, gliding activity in the United States was a Sunday afternoon sport. In Canada it was virtually nonexistent, except for several small sporadic efforts by a few enthusiasts.

There were less than 300 gliders, of an elementary type, in the U.S. two years after the declaration of war. For some years the annual soaring competitions at Elmira, N.Y., had attracted the newsreel cameras, but the demonstrations were put in the

rame category with tightrope walking or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Daredevil stuff.

Meantime, the Soviets were applying their years of patient research and experiment to the forging of the glider weapon. Russian aviators were towing gliders as early as 1931, and in 1934 they flew a three-glider train 600 miles, from Moscow to Bataisk. A recent report asserts that twenty-one gliders have actually been towed successfully in a single Russian air train.

The airborne conquest of Crete, featuring the first effective use of warrior gliders in battle, revealed their true possibilities to the democracies.

As the facts hitherto blurred by. conservative thinking jumped into clear focus the glider exponents were suddenly granted an attentive hearing. Generald Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Corps stood up and declared that the Army must have literally thousands of fifteen-man gliders and freight-carrying trailplanes. In Britain, too, the awakening was sudden; some of those who had

scoffed at the glider became its boosters, and orders were placed for large numbers of twelve-place Hotspur gliders.

Proved at Dieppe

IF ANY further demonstration of the glider’s importance were needed, Dieppe provided indisputable though negative proof. The casualty lists of that super commando raid are the most eloquent testimony to the futility of ramming ships, men, tanks and guns head on against the iron toughness and deadly cross-fire of entrenched fortifications.

An aerial invasion in conjuction with seaborne assault on the Channel coast probably would shape up something like this:

There is only a high-pitched singing in the pilot’s ears as broad wings slice through the pre-dawn sky three miles above the cliffs of Dover. The rumbling thunder of the locomotive plane, the insistent tugging of the tow cable, and the constant tussle with the control column to keep his glider above the dangerous turbulence of the slipstream are just memories. After slipping the tow cable and breathing a silent farewell to his towplane, the pilot is riveting his attention on the luminous instrument panel. It tells him an exciting story.

The compass verge ring shows a heading directly across the Channel; the sensitive altimeter points to 15,940 feet ; the airspeed needle quivers on eighty ; the rate of climb indicator registers negatively, revealing a 500-feet-a-minute descent. Auto-

matically, the pilot’s mind translates the language of the dials. His altitude will be used up in about thirty-two minutes, in which time the big glider should travel some forty-three miles in still air, closer to fifty with the moderate tail wind promised by the “met” office. Yes, everything should click. Rendezvous inland at 2000, plenty of time to pick up the flashlamp signal and set her down. Then it will be up to the boys sitting in sardine-pack rows back there in the cabin.

Meantime, in the black silence of a French pasture, a British paratrooper, who has been previously dropped to prepare for the landing, is waiting on the alert, his eyes sweeping the western horizon.

The first of the gliders is barely perceptible, like a soft pencil line on dark paper, then the lines multiply until the smudgy texture of the sky is speckled with thin black gashes. There is no sound from the heavens. The watching paratrooper grins as he aims his signal lamp. Suddenly the sombre countryside is studded with winking lights, red, green, white, yellow, amber and blue.

The “green” squadron pilots spot their signal and slant swiftly to their selected field as the others, the “ambers,” the “reds,” the “whites,” do likewise. The broad-winged warbirds swoop stealthily, noiselessly. Air brake flaps are lowered, slowing their approaches, landing skids bounce, bite into French soil, plow short furrows. Stout plywood fuselages groan with the shock and strain of rough landings.

Then the big glider doors and hatches open. A powerful fighting army spills out in segments.

Men, machine guns, ammunition, rations, even light field guns, small tanks and jeeps are quickly unloaded and marshalled into battle formation.

The enemy, facing the sea, is going to be treated to such a terrific kick in the pants that he won’t be ready for the seaborne jaw wallops which will come as a swift and precisely timed sequel.

Such is the blueprint for the new “airlined” assault technique, the answer to Dieppe, the reason for an almost feverish attention to glider pilot training and glider production.

Vertical Envelopment

PERHAPS THE most outspoken criticism of the Dieppe strategy was based on failure to use air power offensively, and there are disturbing claims that some highly placed militarists still stubbornly refuse to recognize the desperate necessity for the tactic of “vertical envelopment,” the aerial flanking movement.

On the other hand, the glider exponents are armed with invincible arguments, with plenty of backing evidence, and there are indications that the “airtight” militarist is rapidly becoming a museum piece. In the United States, particularly, there are plentiful indications that the winged invasion barge is no fanciful fiction.

In England glider trainees are mostly Army men who have at some time signified their desire for transfer to the R.A.F. No accurate indication of the glider program’s proportions has been given, but it is known that large glider schools are in

operation and that senior classes practice towed flight, night gliding, formation gliding, map reading and navigation in addition to approaches and landings under difficult conditions. It may be safely assumed that these glider trainees are not just going along for the ride.

Meantime, the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps each have their own glider schedules and the demand for silent-flight recruits is such that the age limit has been boosted to thirty-five. The enormous reservoir of lightplane pilots trained under the Civil Aeronautics Authority program in the U.S. during the past few years is being drained for conversion to glider piloting and instructing.

Factories have been given the green signal for production of three standard categories: elementary, intermediate and operational. The elementary gliders have two seats, the intermediates are nineseaters, and the troop-carriers or commando gliders are fifteen-place jobs. The latter type, designed by Waco, has a wingspread of eighty feet, almost equal to the length of two street cars. Three large manufacturers, Boeing, Beech, and Cessna, have pooled facilities in Wichita and, according to reports, will be able to virtually darken the skies with winged “Commandos.”

Student glider pilots, many with previous powered flying experience, quickly discover an exhilarating new world of adventure which is man’s closest approach to the effortless and silent flight of birds. They learn that gliding actually antedates the airplane, that a man named Otto Lilienthal

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used willow sticks and waxed fabric to build a bird-shaped glider in 1891 and five years later was successful in floating off the top of a hill for a distance of 900 feet. That was still six years before the success of the Wright brothers at Kittyhawk where the first powered aircraft was flown.

The progress of the glider, although overshadowed by the power plane, has been responsible for several important advances in aviation. Gliders first used the diving brakes later featured on the dive bomber, and the tail-high landing of the glider, as distinct from the airplane’s threepoint, has been adapted to heavy aircraft like the Douglas B-19 Hemisphere Defender, resulting in the tricycle landing gear.

The training system is of much the same pattern as in powered flying, except that the novice can perhaps be initiated more gently and without the distracting noises, the smells and the relatively high speedsof the latter.

—Wide World photo

In Russia as many as eleven gliders are towed at one time.

One ingenious device used in the United States involves tethering the glider in front of a powerful wind machine so the the student can work the controls and even rise a few feet above the ground. Thus he can get the feel of the glider without suffering from a serious mistake.

Otherwise, towing either by automobile, by power winch, or by aircraft is the usual method of “getting upstairs” in a glider. The elementary glider has two seats in tandem with the student out in front, practically encased in a plexiglas nose, enjoying the weird sensation of silent flight. The birdlike floating-on-air impression is heightened by the fact that the wings sprout from the fuselage just at the student’s shoulder level, so that it is not hard to imagine that they are his own wings.

Dead-Stick Landings

INSTRUMENTS and controls are few and simple, there being no intricate engines to bother with. There is the usual control column to regulate the climbing, gliding and banking, and of course the rudder

foot-bar for the turning movement. On the instrument panel in front of him, the student finds an airspeed dial, a bank and turn indicator, and perhaps a rather puzzling gadget called a variometer. This is simply a dial containing two glass columns, one showing a red liquid, the other a green. The student soon discovers that when the glider rises the green column goes up, and as it descends the red column appears. For this reason, in glider-pilot language, a rising column of air on which lie can float upwards is called “green air,” while normal air in which he will sink or a down draft, is termed “red air.”

The approach and landing require skill and precision because every landing is what an airplane pilot would call a “dead-stick” or engineless one. If he comes in too short there is no engine to “nurse” the plane over the telephone wires or boundary fence.

Rising or descending air currents, just a bump to a power-plane pilot, are vitally important to the pilot of a light glider. Riding the thermals or up-drafts, glider pilots have been able to stay aloft for many hours and travel hundreds of miles across the country.

Instead of landing three-point, the glider is merely brushed onto the field in level flying position, using a landing skid in the place of wheels.

Managing a glider behind a tow plane is a tricky procedure for the novice. As the towrope tightens on the take-off run, he holds the glider level, then takes off while the heavier tow plane is still gathering speed. About thirty feet above the ground he noses his glider downward to take the load off the towrope as the tow plane struggles into the air. From there on it’s mainly a matter of keeping high enough to avoid the slipstream and trying to prevent the towrope from slackening, which would mean sudden jerks or perhaps overtaking the tow plane.

• Although Canadian plans for paratroop training have been publicized, at this writing no official information has been forthcoming on glider production or training in this country. Highly qualified glider exponents have for some time been urging action, however.

W. J. Jakimiuk, chief designer of The de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, Limited, and several other Polish engineers, notably, W. Czerwinski and T. B. S. Tarczynski, gliding authorities of international reputation, for almost two years, have been trying to promote the glider movement in Canada. Jakimiuk was Poland’s outstanding aeronautical expert before the war, having designed several fighter types and one fourteen-passenger airliner.

In War and Peace

THESE POLISH experts have formed a glider club at de Havillandand have successfully flown “The Sparrow” a one-man glider of

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their own design and construction. It is towed into the air by a Tiger Moth, then released to depend on the air currents for its support.

Mr. Jakimiuk believes that the glider should figure prominently in Canada’s air plans for war and peace. One interesting suggestion is that youths of Air Cadet age be given an introduction to flying with inexpensive and safe light gliders which could be produced of plywood for two or three hundred dollars apiece, compared with about six thousand dollars for an elementary training plane. This program would be in line with a complaint often voiced by instructorsthat the trainee’s first several hours of instruction are virtually wasted while he becomes familiar with the sensation of being away from the ground.

For invasion over short distances the glider is an ideal offensive weapon. But from the Canadian point of view the glider is an ideal defensive weapon. An enemy attacking Canadian coasts could not readily employ the glider because of the distances involved. On the other hand, we can use it to rush men and equipment quickly to any area threatened by surprise attack and set both men and equipment down even where there are no landing fields suitable for powered planes.

Transport gliders can land easily on the seashore, on snow or w’ater, and even on terrain completely useless for aircraft. In northern Canada, for example, the myriad lakes which speckle the wilderness would be ideal for glider landings.

Manufacture of gliders in Canada could be achieved readily without disturbing aircraft production, Mr. Jakimiuk has decided after a careful study. He suggests that the small components, such as ribs, frames and bulkheads, could be made by furniture companies. The larger components, such as wing panels and fuselage shells, could be pressuremolded of plywood, using the pressure tanks available in idle rubber factories.

The use of plywood needs no defense, of course, in view of its successful use in the spectacular “Mosquito” fighter now being produced in Canada.

Glider production would require an absolute minimum of precious war materials such as aluminum, magnesium, steel tubing, etc. It would be simply a wooden proposition, plus a few simple control wires and several flight instruments.

Beyond the pressing urgency of this w:ar, informed observers can see a new era in which air travel will revolutionize our living habits. The towed glider or trailplane undoubtedly will survive the war to create the passenger train on wings. In fact, one observer has ventured to predict that eventually a single airliner in the sky will be as rare as an unattached locomotive chugging along the rails.

Aerial Trains

SPECULATING on Canada’s participation in postwar global aviation, O. T. Larson, vice-president of Trans-Canada Air Lines, recently admitted that he had been studying the possibilities of towed passenger gliders which could be dropped eff individually over their respective destinations.

Indeed, the passenger glider has much to recommend it to the airlines as well as to the paying customers. For instance, the airline operator using glider trains would be able to vary the seating capacity according to the demand, simply by adding or subtracting gliders from the train, as the railways do with coaches.

From the passenger point of view, imagine the luxury of occupying a lounge chair in the trailing observation glider of a flying train. You would be free of noise and vibration, floating swiftly and effortlessly to your destinations.

Nor is it difficult to recognize the efficiency of the aerial release system applied to airline operation. The glider train, towed by an exceedingly powerful locomotive plane, takes eff from Toronto for Vancouver. One of the gliders corresponds to the “coal tender,” consisting of a winged tanker which will pipe fuel to the locomotive plane through a flexible hose. Thus the range is extended to permit nonstop flight clear across the country.

Over North Bay one of the gliders cuts loose and its pilot slants down for a landing. The rest of the train flies serenely on. Similarly, at Winnipeg, Regina, Lethbridge and Kamloops the train sheds trailplanes with passengers for these respective destinations.

The development of a glider pickup system in the United States, while still in its early stages, may well provide the means of taking on winged coaches without landing the train. For example, after dropping a passenger glider at North Bay, the train swoops low over the airfield where a loaded westbound coach is waiting. A long hook from the locomotive snares a loop on the end of a cable which is wound around a drum in the nose of the passenger glider. As the train wings past, the cable pays out on the drum. The glider pulls a lever which gradually tightens brakes on the revolving drum, thus steadily transferring the glider’s load to the locomotive. Soon the drum is motionless and the North Bay passengers are aloft with the train.

All of this, of course, is and must remain speculation until the preliminary and all-important job of achieving victory is complete. And thus the strategy and the production brains and skills of the democracies are now occupied with the warrior glider. The pattern for “airlined” invasion is clear. The flying surfboard is spreading its wings.