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The ‘G’ Stands For Glider Pilot… And For Guts

Glider pilots are unknown heroes of World War II.  Their bravery is captured in the documentary “Silent Wings”.

Back in the summer of 2000, I was a brand new sophomore (or three degree) at the Air Force Academy.  As a cadet, you get a three week summer break followed by 6 weeks of air force training before you go back to school. I had just completed a miserable three week period of survival training in the woods.  I looked forward to my final air force training class for the summer–flying gliders.

I’m in the back of the mighty TG-4, smiling after having just completed my instructor upgrade check ride.

Just three summers earlier, I was working at K-Mart–earning $4.75 an hour to pay for flying.  Working there wasn’t much fun. I’m pretty sure I’d rather do survival training repeatedly–even without food–versus getting yelled at by a high school-educated manager to clean out a filthy restroom as the Eagles song “Take it Easy” blared over the K-Mart Radio Network speakers for the 100th time.  That job paid for my flight lessons though and helped me get into the Air Force Academy.

I didn’t mind the 4:40am wakeup to board the bus to the airfield by 5:00am.  For the first time in my life, I was finally getting paid to fly.  In my mind, I had arrived.  I learned the basics of unpowered flight that summer and quickly soloed the mighty TG-4.  During my sophomore year, I would learn how to instruct in the TG-4 (Schweizer SGS 2-33) and earned my glider wings.

It was after I earned my wings that I began to realize the gravity of the long-storied history of “G”-wings.  Our speaker that day at the dining out was LtCol Floyd Sweet (his obituary can be read here) who spoke with eloquence as he recalled his time training hundreds of combat glider pilots during World War II.

gliderwingsI realized at that dining out that I was wearing the same wings as heroes like LtCol Sweet and his trainees wore.  Sixty years earlier, men with more guts in their pinky finger than my entire body on my best day flew unpowered airplanes over Nazi-controlled territory with amazing bravery.  They guided a canvas plane that was difficult to fly, with no armor, and tried their best to land it in enemy territory on a field that was often defended with telephone poles that could rip a glider in half.  My wings meant that as one of the few glider pilots in the Air Force, I was now part of that same legacy.  Sure their wartime mission was a far cry from our ‘mission’ of training young cadets over the relatively safe skies of Colorado Springs.  But we took immense pride as being part of that long blue line of glider pilots.

After I graduated from USAFA, I went on to fly Learjets and then C-17s. I still had a special place in my heart for the WWII glider pilots. From time to time, I would spend a Saturday afternoon searching the web for an interesting story or book about them. I recently came across a documentary online that shares glider pilots’ stories of heroism better than I ever could.

“Silent Wings” documentary tells the often ignored story of the role gliders and their pilots played during World War II.

Even if you consider yourself an expert and well-versed on World War II, this documentary is worth your time.

waco glider

“Silent Wings: The American Glider Pilots of World War II” tells the story of the brave men who piloted gliders. The Waco CG-4A combat glider was constructed of wood, metal and a canvas covering. It had a pilot and a co-pilot and could carry 13 troops or could also carry a Jeep, a 75 mm howitzer or a ¼-ton trailer.

Approximately 5,000 pilots were in the glider program, which saw action in Sicily, Burma, Normandy (D-Day), Southern France, Holland (Operation Market Garden) and Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge) and Germany.

On D-Day, gliders played a key role and many of the Waco gliders lived up to their nickname – the Flying Coffin. But those who were able to successfully land were able to bring troops and equipment behind enemy lines to support the invasion of the Normandy beaches. Gutsy glider pilots are part of the reason that we are free today.

This documentary is narrated by Hal Holbrook and two great CBS newsmen are interviewed.

As Andy Rooney explained, “Gliders were a completely expendable piece of equipment … landing was a planned accident and you hoped you survived the accident.”  And Walter Cronkite described the deafening noise of riding inside a glider because of the canvas covering. “It was like being inside a drum at a Grateful Dead concert.”

We owe much to these brave men.  Without much fanfare, they did their job and kept America free through their strength and sheer guts.

You can watch the entire documentary below:

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Jeff Gilmore

Written by Jeff Gilmore

Jeff is a former active duty Air Force pilot who founded and now works in Silicon Valley. A longtime #avgeek, Jeff loves technology, aviation, model airplanes, and his family.

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