Troop Gliders by Lewin B. Barringer

Flying Magazine Cover - February 1942American ingenuity is developing troop-carrying gliders that will outstrip efforts of the enemy.

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Troop Gliders by Lewin B. Barringer

Boxed Info:  One of the best known, veteran pilots in this country, Lew Barringer is now head of the Army’s new glider training program. Stationed in WashingtonD.C., he is an expert on gliding, has written several articles for this magazine on the subject, besides being author of the book, “Silent Wings,” a detailed account of the art of soaring. In addition, Barringer is a veteran of more than 2,000 hours of powerplane flying. –Ed.

At the banquet closing the 12th annual National Soaring Contest at Elmira, N.Y., last July, Lieut. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, made a stirring speech. This address was given the widest publicity because it marked a new milestone in American military aviation – the official recognition of the glider as a potent military weapon.

Fresh in the minds of the public was the successful invasion of Crete by air and the important part played in that history making battle by the troop-carrying gliders. Heartening then it was to hear from the chief of our fast growing Air Forces that gliding and gliders had not been overlooked and that now we were to have a glider force second to none.

In the months that have passed since then we have read and heard numerous exaggerated and even fantastic stories about military gliders by so-called experts. Totally lacking, however, has been any news of the Army doing anything about them. This has led to rumors that nothing has been done or would be done, that the first announcement was nothing but a bluff to quiet the growing clamor of public opinion. Whoever started such rumors certainly has no conception either of the character of the Army’s top airman nor the energy and ingenuity of the material and training divisions of the great air arm he is building up.

Let me say here and now that not only has the Army not permitted any lag in the glider program, but it has in fact brought it well along the development path which will make it an important part of our aerial strength. During the past several months engineers have been working steadily designing and building large gliders capable of carrying from five to 15 ground troops with full military equipment. The reason that nothing has been heard of this is that the work has had to be carried on in secret – as many details of it must now remain.

Any day now some of these huge, silent craft – large as airliners – will be seen in the air over Wright Field, the Air Corps’ great experimental base near Dayton, O. Not only would it then be impossible to keep the existence of these gliders a secret with thousands of people seeing them towed aloft on test flights, but also, if this were possible, it would be an injustice to the public which should be told what is being done.

Let us examine for a moment just what the tactical usefulness of the large glider is. As developed so far there are two basic uses. First is the air transport of men and supplies from one location to another. Second is the surprise attack on enemy positions by air-borne shock troops.

In looking into the practical reasons for the use of gliders for transport we come to the fundamental truth that you can tow much more than you can lift. This is the basic reason for the economic justification for a locomotive towing a train of cars, a truck towing trailers, or a tug towing barges. Form what we now know we can say that when large numbers of men and considerable amounts of supplies are to be moved by air an efficient way to do the job is by gliders towed behind airplanes.

In continuing the comparisons we find that the rails supporting railroad cars, the roads supporting the truck trailers and the water supporing the barges compare to the air supporting the gliders. Similarly the friction of steel wheels against rails, rubber tires on roads and boat hulls through water compares to the aerodynamic drag of the glider towed through the air.

The thought naturally comes to mind: how about freight and passengers carried by glider trains? My answer is that this is bound to come in the near future. As commercial aviation grew out of the technical advances of the [F]irst World War so this very important phase of aerial commerce will grow out of the use of troop gliders in the present war.

We can visualize long-range towing airplanes (the British call them “tugs”) designed and built for this specific purpose and carrying crew, radio and fuel with all passengers and freight being carried in the towed gliders.

A basic development that will make the launching of trains of troop gliders as well as future freight and passenger gliders practical was recently tried out at Wright Field. Resting motionless on the ground a glider was picked up into towed flight by an airplane passing overhead at close to 100 miles an hour. Following this successful experiment, the first ever made in America, we heard that such pick-ups had been made in Russia. Details of the Russian method are not known. Our pick-up system, a product of typical American ingenuity, is still in the early experimental stage.

The mere fact that the idea works has convinced me that we are well on the way to the solution of two important problems in the use of gliders for transport. The first is the launching of trains of large gliders out of average airports. The second, more a commercial than a military problem, is the picking up of gliders by a “trough plane” without landing.

Let us consider the first problem for a moment. Suppose a transport plane such as a Douglas DC-e is to tow three large gliders capable of carrying 15 passengers each. The gliders will be in an inverted V-formation, each with its own towline to the towing ship. Let us assume that the necessary spacing will make the total length of the train about 500 feet. This means that there will be that much less airport take-off. Suppose the drag of the gliders lengthens the airplane’s take-off run by 800 feet. This then will mean the same as a total of 1,300 feet of runway eliminated. When added to this we have the consideration of the rate of climb being greatly reduced the problem assumes large proportions and limits the use of such an arrangement to the largest airports. Obviously this would not be practical either for commerce or for military consideration. On the other hand, with the pick-up scheme it will conceivably be possibly to tow a train of gliders out of a field too small for the safe take-off of the airplane alone.

Let us take a look into the future and imagine commercial operation of glider freight or passenger trains. We can think of a non-stop train operating between New York and San Francisco. In tow at 200 m.p.h. we can visualize six freight-carrying gliders. One of these is consigned to Akron, O., where another is to be picked up. A mile from the airport, during the let-down, the pilot of the first glider releases his towline and glides in to land. At about 120 m.p.h. the train continues, swoops low over the pick-up station, hooks on the towline and the other glider becomes part of the train. This process is repeated in variation of several gliders released or picked up at a time as the train continues.

In considering the economic reasons for the use of large gliders, both military and commercial, the operating saving in having two engines do a job now requiring eight, is immediately obvious. Far greater, however, is the saving in equipment cost. It has been estimated that the job of moving one air-borne battalion of infantry, consisting of about 800 officers and men with full equipment, would require 50 transport planes. Under proper conditions the same job might be done by 18 transport planes towing 48 gliders, with a considerable saving in cost.

Now let us consider the second military use of the troop gliders – for attack. So far we have been able to get only scant information on this use by the Germans. However, it seems that this probably was Hitler’s vaunted “secret weapon” in the invasion of the lowlands. It now seems pretty well authenticated that key Belgian forts as well as important bridges over the Albert Canal were captured by chock troops landed in gliders. These surprise attacks were probably made by towing the gliders in a night to a point 10 to 20 miles from the objective at sufficient height and with perfect timing so that the gliders could land, unseen and unheard, in the first faint light of dawn. The successful air invasion of Crete was probably the first time that troop gliders were used in any numbers for attack. Even here many details must still be learned before we will have the complete picture. However, we do know that the gliders were of 10 to 12 men capacity. They were said to have a span of 80 feet, length of 50 feet and an overall weight of around 4,200 pounds. Construction of these gliders was of wood for the wing and welded steel tubing for the fuselage, the whole being fabric covered. A Two-wheeled landing gear was used for take-off and dropped in flight, leaving only the wooden skid for landing, which was probably done at 35-40 m.p.h.  They were towed behind the Junkers Ju-52 trimotored transports, similar in performance to our old Fords.

While not replacing paratroops, troop gliders would seem to have certain definite advantages over them in some respects and in certain situations. Chief advantage is the ability to land a compact combat unit, together and with weapons ready to use.

Among the exaggerated news stories we have read of the invasion of Crete have been those that claimed that the gliders did the larger part, if not the whole job that turned the tide in favor of the Germans. This is, of course, not true. Glides were used in numbers, but constituted only one of the methods of transporting troops from Greece over the British navy and landing them in Crete. The other methods were by parachute and troop-carrying transport planes. Hundreds of the latter were landed on airports first captured by parachute and glider troops.

Of the important facts yet to be learned about the German military use of the troop gliders is the training and experience background of the pilots. First thought is of their huge reserve of glider pilots, who could be used after a brief course of training in the large gliders. A careful study of the factors involved, however, leads us to believe that, although his experience could be very helpful, the average glider pilot lacks sufficient background to do the job. It seems probable that the degree of skill required to pilot a huge troop glider with a wing span of close to 100 feet, in towed formation at night, possibly under instrument conditions, and landing it in a small field seems to indicate that the use of only qualified airplane pilots would be desirable.

This brings us to the Army’s training of pilots to fly the troop gliders. Since early in the summer a steady succession of small classes of Air Corps pilot officers have been trained at the famed Warren Eaton gliding site on Harris Hill near Elmira, N.Y. This school has been operated by the Elmira Area Soaring Corporation. Chief instructor is John Robinson, the National Soaring Champion. One class was also trained at the Lewis-Frankfort School of Soaring at Lockport, Ill., near Chicago. Training at this school was discontinued because the volume of training necessary at present is not yet large enough to justify the use of two schools.

The officers that have been trained so far will be used in the expanded program as instructors, supervisors and test pilots. For this reason they are taught, in addition to piloting the two-seater gliders in auto, winch and airplane tow, to operate the tow car, which and towplane. The four weeks course also includes study in meteorology, with special reference to vertical air currents. Just enough soaring is done by each student to build up his skill in glider piloting, make him become thoroughly weather conscious and instill in him real enthusiasm for this type of flying. This last consideration can work wonders in stimulating a pilot’s interest and initiative.

Operations at Elmira have been discontinued for the winter months due to the weather. They will be continued, on a gradual, expanded scale timed to the expected procurement of the troop gliders, at a site in the far West.

There is every reason to believe that General Arnold’s statement that we will have a glider force second to none will be a reality in the not-too-distant future. After all, most of the worthwhile innovations in glider design and use were invented here and then copied and developed abroad. With American ingenuity stimulated as it is now is in the development of the troop-carrying gliders we are bound to outstrip our enemies in quality as well as the quantity of our motorless aircraft.   END

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