Today, a forgotten technology of war. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I was in junior high during
the early days of WW-II, and I wanted to be a
glider pilot. I guess I'm here today because I was
too young to qualify. The Air Corps was, by then,
recruiting glider pilots heavily. That should've
been sufficient warning. But, when you're only
twelve, you miss subtle points like that.
WW-II gliders were the most elementary engineless
wooden airplanes. A cargo plane would tow two into
the air and release them into a battle zone. They
were loaded down with two tons of soldiers and
supplies. One might carry 13 men in full gear, or
fewer men along with a jeep or a howitzer. Gliders
carried mules into Burma. They carried gasoline and
high explosives. They carried soldiers into
Normandy before dawn on D-Day -- five hours before
troops hit the beaches.
Experience with sport gliders was little use in one
of those crates. There was no soaring, no picking
up thermals to go where you wished. You simply fell
like a stone out of the sky. You had one chance at
landing in an open field. That was it.
Kathleen McAuliffe tells how Hitler was first to
champion war gliders. The Germans had to breach the
Maginot line to invade France and Belgium in 1940.
They landed 10 gliders -- 78 troops -- right on the
roof of that fortification. Before Belgian machine
gunners could react, the Germans had set charges
and blown the line wide open. France fell within
So we developed our own war glider and went into
production. Since airplane companies all had full
plates, the Army had to use other makers. Ford
Motors made 4000 gliders. Some companies had no
talent for making airplanes. In 1943 a wing broke
loose from a glider at a demonstration in St.
Louis. Onlookers watched in horror as a half-dozen
civic leaders fell to their deaths. That glider had
been made, appropriately enough, by a casket
The Army recruited washed-out pilots, men too old
for flight school, men with minor disabilities --
anyone brave enough to steer a defenseless wooden
box through air filled with lead to a one-chance
landing in a mined field. Parachutes were out --
they weighed too much. Enemy fire came from below,
so men took the helmets off their heads and held
them between their legs.
It was an imperfect technology -- used in one war,
then forgotten. Medals went to people whose
airplanes killed other people. Those heroic glider
pilots were simply overlooked.
Finally, three astronauts gave the Glider Pilots
Association some long overdue credit. For they too
come back to earth in an engineless plane for a
one-chance landing. They sent a note saying, "At
least the natives were friendly where we landed."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds