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Silent Winged Flying Coffins

Below are the notes to Season 2 Episode 12 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.

  • The Coolest Tourist Shack west of the Mississippi
    • I was a junior in college when my mom suggested she and I travel to see my Aunt (as well as my grandparents and cousins) in Las Vegas. Mom booked the flight over my winter break. While there my mom got the idea to drive to Phoenix Arizona to meet other friends and family.
    • So mom rented a car and we drove 5 hours through the desert together. Luckily I have a good relationship with my mom, because most guys wouldn’t be able to stand such a road trip.
There is a 2012 movie called The Guilt Trip starring Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand. The plot is all about the nightmare of being stuck in the car with your mom as an adult guy for a really long road trip.
  • But I had a lot of fun with my mom. I actually loved the desert landscape, the bizarre desert communities, and the hours of listening to each others’ music of choice.
    • But without a doubt the most memorable part of our trip was on our way back to Vegas.
    • Just north of Phoenix is a town called Peoria Arizona where, if they had their own newspaper, a tumbleweed might make the front page.
    • As mom and I were passing through we spotted a faint silver glint in the air with the backdrop of that pretty pale blue cloudless desert sky. I said “what is that? Is it a plane? It’s so small.”
    • Then my mom noted “but there is no sound, no engine noise.”
    • Five minutes later my mom spotted a big white makeshift sign made out of plywood. In big black lettering the sign said “GLIDER RIDES, NEXT RIGHT”
    • My mom has always been an advocate for new experiences so she decided right then and there: We were going to ride in a glider.
    • I vividly remember the the shack that the glider operation was run out of. Standing on the wind and sand worn floor boards under the ramshackle roof I felt like I was on the Australian outback. The friendliest employee was a big white cockatoo that stayed up in the rafters saying “hello!” every 60 seconds.
    • Mom and I waited for a few hours for each of our turns in the engineless flying vehicle, but it was worth it.
    • The glider we rode in was small, just meant for about 2 people. In the front was the pilot and in the passenger rode directly behind him. The glider was towed in to the air by a metal cable attached to a motorized airplane. Once at an acceptable altitude, the cable was detached. At which point the heavy-set glider pilot turned to look at me with a sinister grin and said “Alright! we are now hundreds of feet in the air with no engine. Better hope I don’t have a heart attack!”
    • I thoroughly enjoyed flying through the air with hardly any sound. and at one point the pilot let me experience 0 G… it made me want to throw up, but I’m glad I got to experience it.

Home – Pleasant Valley Airport – when I googled the glider ride place, this is the website it led me to, but I don’t think the glider place is open any longer.

  • The Combat Glider
    • I thought this glider technology was cool to experience, but I couldn’t think of a practical use for gliders past recreational fun.
    • Little did I know that aviary glider technology was used by the military for stealth operations. Using a glider meant No engine, no noise, and very little chance of the alerting the enemy.
    • Apparently during the invasion of Normandy, D-Day, there was a company of Glider men who launched a massive operation to deploy troops behind the enemy lines.
    • These crazy SOB’s flew over one of the largest and most dangerous military operations in human history in canvas covered engineless aircraft. The only sounds they must have heard were the engines of other aircraft, non stop gunfire, and hundreds of explosions going off beneath them. All this knowing they physically couldn’t just turn around and fly home. They were without any propulsion so they were on a 1 way ticket behind enemy lines.
    • The glider pilots had no weapons, no parachutes, and no second chances. They were behind the wheel of what would come to be known as the flying coffins of WW2
    • For the benefit of stealth, these specialty trained pilots and soldiers got in to notoriously dangerous and unreliable aircraft. To the axis anti-aircraft gunners on the ground they were especially easy targets as they couldn’t make quick maneuvers to evade fire.
    • These silent winged warriors were history’s first ever stealth air fighters. Although incredibly dangerous, the gliders were present for every major allied operation:
      • The Invasion of Sicily
      • The Liberation of France and Holland
      • The Battle of the Bulge
      • The Crossing of the Rhine River in to Germany
      • and they were present for many operations in the Pacific against the Japanese
    • Their jobs were so dangerous that Senior officers wrote off glider missions as dead the minute they took off.
  • The Tactics
    • When Aviation was first invented in the early 1900’s in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers used a glider to fly. When motorized flying was invented, gliding technology became less popular. It was mostly recreational sports that kept gliding going.
  • The first use of gliders in combat was thought up by Adolf Hitler himself during his siege of the Belgian Fort Eben Emael.
      • General Karl Student of the 3rd Reich led an elite force of Luftwaffe paratroopers to invade Fort Eben Emael in the experimental and untested combat glider. Hitler’s gamble payed off. 780 Belgian soldiers surrendered. Only 6 German soldiers were killed. And then Hitler had a straight shot to France with no opposition in his way.
      • Hitler knew the advantage glider technology had over paratroop tactics. Where paratroops dropped in a widespread area, taking time to regroup and be battle ready, gliders landed all vehicles, equipment, and troops in the same area. Glider missions could be carried out with much more speed and efficiency.
  • The allies primarily used the Waco CG 4A glider. It was a massive piece of machinery. They were nicknamed Silent Wing.
      • The Waco CG 4A glider could carry 13 fully equipped soldiers, a 4 man crewed jeep, or a 75mm howitzer with supplies and ammo.
      • The Waco’s were towed by Douglas C47 airplanes. They were towed by a cable that double as a communications wire between the airplane and glider before the glider detached.
      • Unlike motorized airplanes, gliders don’t really soar. Instead of a flight, it is more like a planned fall.
      • The Waco glider pilots were towed up to about 500 feet above their landing zone. After being detached from the airplane, pilots had about 20 seconds to decide where to land.
      • If WW2 airplanes were metal eagles, WW2 gliders were bricks with wings.
Imagine it: you are 500 feet up hurling through the air in a giant metal box with no engine. 13 smelly paratroopers are behind you putting their lives in your hands. You get a radio transmission from the pilot of the C47 plane that is towing you stating “alright, we are nearing the drop zone. Detaching tow cable now.” You feel the force of the plan leave your glider and the weightlessness of it all come through your feet. You have 20 seconds to pick a 400 foot field to land in. You took down for the controls you have at your disposal and see this….
  • I’m convinced the men who volunteered to get in to these gliders were nutcases. 6,000 allied troops were trained as glider pilots. They were given the possibility of an officer’s pay and the opportunity to fly. They were daredevils.
      • If the thought of “planned falling” in a giant metal “flying coffin” didn’t convince you how crazy combat gliders were, let me tell you about the Snatch Pick-Up tactic.
The C47 plane is flying with a tow pole and cable handing beneath it. On the ground is an undamaged glider. Just ahead of the glider are two tall stakes with the glider’s tow cable hung between them. The C47s pilots were so good they could get their tow cable in between those stakes and tow the undamaged glider (with passengers) to safety.
  • The C-47 planes would fly in to enemy territory with a tow pole hanging from the belly of their aircraft. They would look for undamaged gliders that set up their tow cables to be intercepted. Then the C47s would tow the Waco gliders (typically full of troops) back to safety, like a reverse glider take off. What a legendary maneuver that would be to see in real life.
  • For operation Overlord (that’s the D-Day invasion of Normandy) the glider pilots were up against their greatest threats. Normandy Beach was armed to the teeth with anti-aircraft guns and the fields, where it would have been most opportune for gliders to land, were full of traps.
    • They were known as Rommel Asparagus. The German army set thousands of 10 foot metal spikes in the ground that would impale the gliders and their passengers.
    • If that wasn’t enough, some of these spikes were strung up with wired explosives.
    • If you have watched any WW2 documentary or read in to the allied invasion of Normandy, you know secrecy was of the utmost importance. So radio silence was necessary. On June 6th 1944, 867 gliders carried nearly 4,000 allied troops (plus equipment) across the English channel to land in fields as small as 400 feet.
    • A heavily fortified Nazi gun nest was causing massive casualties on to the amphibias troops on the beach. So a Waco glider was tasked with transporting a light tank behind the gun nest’s position. Attesting to the efficiency of glider operations, the tank was able to take out the gun nest within 2 minutes of landing.
Glider pilots of Operation Overlord
  • The glider pilots that took part in the successful mission of D-Day got a special Air Medal with a big G in the middle.
    • The G officially stood for Glider, but the pilots went on to tell anyone who asked that it stood for “GUTS!”
  • The more I do this podcast and read up on history, the more I understand why it is cliche for old guys to be big history nerds. I’m quickly turning into a grandpa who sits on the couch and watches WW2 documentaries all day.
    • WW2 is the largest known war in human history. The amount of stories that come out of it are seemingly endless. Be prepared for more WW1 and WW2 episodes on this podcast.
    • Until next time Who’d a Thunkers!

CREDIT:

What it was like to land behind enemy lines in a glider on D-Day – We Are The Mighty

The 327th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) during WW II (ww2-airborne.us)

WACO CG-4A (airbum.com)

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