Silent Wings – Texas Glider Training Program in World War II

For many years, there was a “Silent Wings” Museum in Terrell, Texas at the municipal airport.  It was a tribute to the World War II glider project that allowed the Allies to transport troops and supplies into enemy territory.

The military concept of using gliders began under United States Army Air Corps Commander General H. R. “Hap” Arnold who was able to put in place a number of programs designed to help the war effort, including pilot training for powered aircraft and also for nonpowered gliders. Gliders had been around since shortly after the first powered flights. According to articles on the museum and pilot’s association websites, the concept of gliders to be used for military purposes had already been tried and abandoned by both the United States Navy and Army after World War I but before the start of World War II. Prior to the hostilities, they were primarily used for sporting and recreational purposes, similar to their use today.

General Arnold set about to acquire all the available sail planes and began contracting with several manufacturers of the aircraft, including Frankfort, Schweitzer and Laister-Kauffman to be later joined by Aeronca, Taylorcraft, Waco and Piper. The Waco design appears to have become the main design used, regardless of the manufacturer. At first, the Army tried to use only powered aircraft pilots, but elected also to add previously untrained enlisted men to become glider pilots as the need for for both glider pilots and powered aircraft pilots grew. The Army also quickly abandoned traditional sail plane trainers in favor of military glider trainers.

Advanced glider pilot training bases were established in Austin, Dalhart and Lubbock, Texas; Fort Sumner, New Mexico and others in South Carolina, Ohio, Arkansas and California.  In Lubbock, flight instructors arrived in July, 1942 at the training base located at the old municipal airport just north of town.  Commander of the effort was Col. James W. Andrews and Col. Norman B. Olsen was director of flying.  Col. Andrews designated that the school be known as the South Plains Army Flying School.  Initially, instructors and enlisted men lived in a tent city at the facility and their mess was located in a frame building on the grounds.  The Dalhart facility was called Dalhart Advanced Glider School and was commanded by Col. Edward H. Underhill.  By November, training was well under way and Governor Coke Stevenson proclaimed November 10, 1942 as Glider Pilot Day.  Lubbock also was the site of a powered aircraft flying school.  Each had enough personnel to form a football team and a game was held between the Lubbock Army Flying School and SPAFS the following day between the two teams.

During the war, gliders were used in many operations including the invasion of Sicily, D-Day, Operation Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, Arnhiem in the Netherlands and also in the Asian-Pacific theater. A typical aircraft was the Waco CG-4A (pictured below). It was constructed around a framework of wood or tubular duralumin covered by canvas. They were equipped with two fixed wheels under the high wing which had a span of about 84 feet, and a tail wheel. The gliders were piloted by a crew of two (pilot and copilot) and could accommodate a cargo load of 3,710 lb. which would allow for about a dozen personnel or a jeep or piece of small artillery. They were towed by a nylon cable to the target area by a larger powered aircraft, often a C-47. The venerable C-47 could theoretically tow as many as two gliders at a time. The gliders were designed to be recovered, but it is thought that most were left in place where they landed, if they were not put out of commission in the process of landing.

Waco CG-4A (Image credit: USAAF – National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

It is estimated that about 6,000 glider pilots were trained and roughly 14,000 to 15,000 gliders were built for use in World War II. They were eventually organized into four Troop Carrier wings and it is estimated that as many as 10,000 may have been in use at one point.

In a 1975 newspaper interview, one pilot, Joseph Menard of Indiana, joked that “they flew like bricks.” Other pilots referred to the landings as a “controlled crash.” The aircraft flew slowly, were vulnerable because of their lightweight construction and often took fire. Accordingly, according to Perley in the above article, because of the craft’s known vulnerability, pilots attempted to descend to the assigned target location as quickly as possible. Menard had volunteered to be a glider pilot in order to get more involved in the war than his previous assignment of staff car driver. Another pilot, Frank Perley of Illinois, was accepted for glider training after being told that at 28 he was too old for powered flight training.

Pilot Menard on the right at the nose of his Waco CG-4A. (Image credit: The Buffalo Grove Herald (Wheeling, Illinois), 1975)

Glider pilots received wings with a capital G in the center. Unlike powered aircraft pilots who were commissioned as officers, glider pilots were at first commissioned as tech sergeants until later when the noncommissioned title of flight officer was used.

Ownership of the Silent Wings museum in Terrell was transferred to the City of Lubbock in 2000 and its collection was transferred by 2001.  The museum is now located in the old municipal airport terminal.  Its collection includes a glider, trainer and many other artifacts.  The museum is presently open, subject to coronavirus restrictions. 

© 2020, all rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s