World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis

On a Wing and a Prayer:
The Use of Military Glider Aircraft in World War II


Did you know that the United States military used stealth aircraft during World War II? Though most of us think of stealth aircraft coming into use by our military in the late 20th century, the U.S. Army Air Force used gliders during World War II to silently land and surprise the enemy.

Photograph of a C-47 Skytrain towing a Waco CG-4A glider.

In organizing and designing the current display "World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis,"I discovered the photo documentation of military gliders in the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection, one of the permanent collections preserved by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Because some staff members had not heard of these aircraft and were intrigued to learn more, I was compelled to do more research.

What were gliders? They were lightweight engineless aircraft that were used to transport a group of 13 to 28 infantry troops and heavy equipment into enemy controlled areas without detection. Built to be disposable and for one way missions, the glider's outer body and wings were made of plywood covered with fabric and the infrastructure was aluminum framing for some larger models which added strength and stability to carry heavy equipment and military vehicles.

It took incredible skill and much courage to fly a military glider. These special aircraft were airlifted by the use of a cable connection to military transport planes such as the C-47 Skytrain or Dakota, or sometimes by bomber planes that were not assigned to a bombing mission, and then released near the designated enemy target. It is hard to imagine how pilots managed to guide these aircraft. Without engines, the gliders had little ability to change course to avoid obstacles or harsh terrain. The goal was to land the gliders, without significant damage to the cargo or crew, in open terrain that was close enough to the enemy. Unfortunately, glider pilots were killed at a higher rate during both training and assigned missions. The gliders would often be destroyed during landing. Examples of the Waco CG-4A glider and the C-47 Skytrain are on display at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Del.

Photograph of two C-47 Skytrains.
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Carolyn Apple Author

Dr. Carolyn Apple is a retired Dover-area emergency medicine physician and
Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs volunteer.

The images in this display were selected from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection, one of the permanent collections preserved by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Willis of Dover, Del. served as a photographic technician with the Army Air Force during the Second World War. A traveling exhibit, comprised of photographs from the Willis collection supplemented by objects from the state's collections, is often displayed at locations across the state. For additional information, go to the Exhibits & Displays page on the division's website.

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