Silent Wings of History

by Capt. Carie A. Seydel

This story is from a firsthand account. It is not copyrighted unless noted but we request anyone using this for other than personal use to credit the author and the museum.

When 81-year-old Dominic Devito, a retired major, decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1942, it was because of his fascination for planes. But some of his fondest memories came from the glider program — a little-known “weapon system” of the 1940s. His first exposure to gliders was in the fall of 1942. “I started working at Wright Field, [ Ohio ], in 1941 as an aircraft mechanic and enlisted in 1942,” he said. “One afternoon I walked to the end of the hangar to watch a glider land. It was moving pretty fast when two men bailed out onto the runway.” Devito learned the two men were generals who requested a glider flight demonstration. Because the glider had no brakes, they jumped out when they thought it was getting too close to a B-24 preparing for takeoff. Although the generals were scraped up and limping, the pilot turned with the help of the B-24 propeller blast, landing the glider unscathed.

A few months later, as a buck sergeant, Devito was assigned to the glider unit. “I asked [the program managers] why I was getting involved in gliders,” he said. “I told them I liked fixing airplanes.” He never got an answer to his question, but didn’t regret the move. Devito — and two other airmen — became glider gurus in the technical inspection branch.

Back in Time

They soon learned of the 1920s glider revival. After World War I, according to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany wasn’t allowed to have an air force with powered aircraft. Since gliders or paratroopers weren’t restricted in the treaty, a glider program emerged as an alternative defense. In the United States, with the advent of powered aircraft, military officials discounted the use of gliders. There wasn’t significant evidence the glider was of real value as a weapons system until May 1940 when Fort Eben-Emael, a seemingly unapproachable Belgian fortress, was captured. In the early morning hours of May 10, nine German DFS-230 assault gliders unexpectedly landed at the fort. With specific objectives, each team of seven to nine men helped seize most of the fort within 15 minutes. Even though outnumbered ten to one, the Germans captured the rest of the almost 1,000 Belgian soldiers in the tunnels of the underground complex by the next day. With 24 Belgian and six German casualties, the world’s first airborne attack was a success.

In fact, the attack at Eben-Emael got the chief of the Army Air Corps, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold’s, attention. In February 1941, after studying engineless flight, glider production was approved. Gliders were also used in World War II when, in 1944 during the D-Day invasion, they carried thousands of nurses, troops, and equipment onto enemy fields, contributing to the defeat of Hitler’s Army and ultimately to the Allied victory. “Gliders were good to surprise people,” Devito said. “You could sneak in quietly from miles away.” The War Department started the American Glider Program. It was headed by world-soaring distance record holder Lewin Barringer, until 1943 when his plane disappeared. Then the program was under the direction of Richard DuPont, special assistant to Arnold.

Several contractors started with the program, and 16 companies manufactured CG-4A cargo gliders over the years, but the most successful was the Waco Aircraft Co. of Troy, Ohio. Its glider had a steel tube fuselage, plywood wings, and droppable gear that made it lighter while in tow. A spoiler was mounted on the wings, and a lever controlled it to decrease airflow over the wing so it came down faster. But with such large wings and a maximum tow speed of 150 mph, the CG-4A could only come down so fast.

Five months after DuPont’s appointment, he joined Col. Ernest Gabel, a glider specialist, and W. Hawley Bowlus and C. C. Chandler, two expert glider pilots, when they took off on an XCG-16 glider flight to show its load capacity. Designed to carry about 7,000 pounds of cargo and soldiers, sand bags and ammunition were put in the gliders to simulate a full load. But the cargo wasn’t tied down. When the C-60 Lockheed Lodestar towing it took off, the load shifted and forced the aircraft crew to cut the porpoising glider free because it tugged at the plane. DuPont and Gabel died when the glider crashed. The glider mission became a family affair when DuPont’s brother, Maj. Felix DuPont, was appointed the next program director.

Putting Gliders to the Test

Devito had the opportunity to test, inspect, and fly several glider models from the United States and Europe. “When we got done inspecting a glider, we flew in it,” he said. “So we made sure they were ready to fly.” By 1945, the glider unit had helped develop and test almost every type of tactical glider to include assault, power, and cargo gliders, like the CG-4A, XPG-1, XPG-2, and XPG-3. To train glider pilots to safely pick up troops behind enemy lines, they tested different methods. One unique test subject was sheep. During the first test, a sheep was released from an aircraft and hung below it on a cable.

“After they towed the sheep around for a while, it was brought up, and a veterinarian would check its vitals to see how the sheep liked it,” Devito said. The next trial was to pick up a harnessed sheep similar to the way tow planes picked up the gliders — like a fishing rod hook and line. But during this test, the sheep got the pickup cable wrapped around its neck and died, so the harness was modified. “The second sheep survived,” Devito said. “So the team figured it was safe to pick up a lieutenant, then a sergeant.”

Faith in the Flight

Confidence in gliders grew, and the Army Air Corps placed an order for about 13,000 gliders costing from $14,000 to $32,000 each. With that many gliders being produced, pilots had to be quickly trained to maneuver the monoliths, so recreational soaring gliders such as the TG-1, TG-2, TG-3, and TG-4 were used as trainers. But simulating a glider landing in a hostile environment wasn’t easy. And no matter how much they learned, the recreational crafts were easier to handle than the CG-4A, so in many cases the real test was the first combat mission. Eventually, the Army Air Corps bought training gliders — the TG-5A and TG-6A — and modified light airplanes by removing the engines and installing a third seat to give glider pilots a better idea of what they were in for. In June 1943, the program accelerated, and Devito was assigned to the newly established Glider Testing Program in Wilmington, Ohio . More than 13,000 CG-4A gliders had been made since production started in August 1942. It was the only glider produced during World War II used all over the world.

Because of its metal frame, the Allies considered the CG-4A stronger than other gliders. Where others would crumble like cardboard boxes upon landing, the CG-4A usually survived and was reused. And in a combat glider, where there was only one chance to land safely once the pilot committed to a landing, there was no turning back.

Final Landing

After the war the gliders’ use dwindled. And because they were so fragile, few exist today. As for Devito, he advanced to master sergeant and was recruited into the Ohio Air National Guard, then commissioned as a lieutenant in 1948. He returned to maintenance as an officer on P-51s, and was called back for a year of active duty in 1961. After 35 years of military and Department of Defense civil service, he’s landed just outside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he can return to a piece of his past — the CG-4A. At the National Museum of the United States Air Force, there’s a display highlighting the contribution of this rare glider, the silent wing of history.