America's World War II Glider Program Was Plagued With Problems

January 21, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAir ForceGlidersTechnology

America's World War II Glider Program Was Plagued With Problems

The American glider-building program more often resembled a comedy of errors than a serious wartime manufacturing effort.

Here's What You Need to Know: A postwar report on the glider program spelled out the many problems: “Poor workmanship, improper methods of manufacture, and general inefficiency at the plants of contractors were all unfortunate aspects of the glider program.”

To bring soldiers swiftly and silently onto a battlefield, the U.S. Army decided to follow the German and British examples and build tactical gliders. But troubles galore plagued America’s glider manufacturing program from the very beginning.

Sixteen companies were eventually contracted to produce the CG-4A glider—an American record for an aircraft having the most individual manufacturers. But, with almost the entire American manufacturing industry being awarded contracts to build an incredibly wide variety of military goods, finding enough companies with aircraft manufacturing experience was next to impossible.

Aircraft companies such as Boeing, Northrop, Grumman, Douglas, North American, Curtiss-Wright, Republic, Ryan, Taylorcraft, Aeronca, Piper, Beech, Consolidated, Vultee (Consolidated and Vultee would merge in March 1943 under the name Convair), and even Ford and General Motors were already up to their eyeballs in war-related work. The government, therefore, was forced to look elsewhere to find companies it hoped were capable of turning out large quantities of gliders.

The Waco CG-4A: America’s Tactical Glider

The winning design for the CG-4A (the CG stands for Cargo Glider) was submitted to the Army by the Waco (pronounced “wocko”) Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio. The beauty of the Waco design was the fact that the entire nose section, including the cockpit, was hinged and could be swung upward, thus allowing troops or large cargo, such as a jeep or artillery piece, to be loaded and unloaded quickly and easily.

Waco touted itself as the leading manufacturer of civilian aircraft in the United States from 1928 to 1935. Beginning in 1921 as the Weaver Aircraft Company, the firm moved from Lorain, Ohio, to Troy in 1924. In 1929, the name was changed simply to the Waco Aircraft Company.

Building the Gliders

Early on, only four companies were found with aeronautical-related experience and enough available industrial capacity to produce the unpowered aircraft: Waco, Ford Motor Company, Cessna, and Timm. Of these four, only Ford and Cessna had the facilities and organizational framework expected of a prime contractor. Ford was already building jeeps, tanks, and bombers in addition to other military vehicles.

Ford manufactured the gliders at its Kingsford, Michigan, plant where, before the war, “woody” station wagons were produced. During the course of the war, the 4,500 workers at Kingsford turned out 4,190 CG-4As—an average of eight per day—at an average price of $15,400. And Cessna would deliver a total of 750 gliders from its Wichita, Kansas, facility.

The government went shopping for other companies to produce the additional thousands of necessary gliders. The Pratt Read Soaring Company of Deep River, Connecticut, which already had glider-building experience, would deliver a total of 956 CG-4As during the war, while G&A Aircraft of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, would build 627 of them.

In Minneapolis, the Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation was awarded a string of contracts and eventually manufactured 1,509 CG-4As; 1,470 more were built by Rearwin Aircraft and Engines, Inc. (the company later changed its name to Commonwealth) of Kansas City, Missouri. Another 433 were turned out by the Timm Aircraft Company of Los Angeles. Jenter Corporation (formerly Ridgefield) of New Jersey manufactured 162 of the craft.

Even well-known companies that apparently had no connection to the aircraft industry got involved. For example, the Gibson Refrigerator Company of Greenville, Michigan, built 1,078 of the engineless craft. Plenty of specialty subcontractors also produced component parts for the glider makers; the CG-4A consisted of approximately 70,000 individual parts.

For example, Steinway and Sons, the famous New York piano makers, provided wings and tail surfaces. The H.J. Heinz Pickle Company of Pittsburgh made wings and spar tips. The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company of St. Louis created inboard wing panels and wooden fuselage frames. Gardner Metal Products, a St. Louis-based coffin maker, made steel fittings. American Lady Corset Company was one of the companies that manufactured the silk drogue parachutes.

A total of 13,903 CG-4As were ultimately delivered during the war, more than all the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers or Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter bombers manufactured. Even the British received 1,095 American-made CG-4As, which they dubbed Hadrians.

Problems in Production

Many of the chosen manufacturers, however, struggled to build an acceptable product at an acceptable price and deliver it on time. Babcock Aircraft Corporation of Deland, Florida, for example, built 60 gliders inside a circus tent for an average price of $51,000. In contrast, a high-performance fighter such as North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang cost approximately $58,000 per aircraft.

Four of the 16 companies that eventually received contracts, National, Rearwin/Ridgefield, Robertson, and Ward, had no experience in the field of aviation manufacture whatsoever. The Army’s Materiel Command hoped that if all companies were working from the same set of blueprints and specifications all should be capable of producing high-quality gliders in sufficient numbers and at a reasonable cost. The hope would soon prove to be unfounded.

Because Waco had submitted the winning design, it was awarded the first contract. The order, approved on March 21, 1942, was for 200 nine-place CG-3A gliders. Shortly thereafter, the Army decided that the CG-3A was too small for general combat use, and besides, the only way for troops to exit the craft was to jump out the cockpit windows, so a contract was given to Waco to build 500 of the 15-place CG-4As. During the course of the war, Waco would be given contracts to build 1,074 gliders of various types.

During 1942, however, Waco had production problems and did not deliver its first glider until October of that year. One of the major problems that led to Waco’s inability to meet its goals was that the other prime contractors, who had little or no knowledge of how to build a CG-4A, were constantly sending representatives to camp out at the Waco factory. They badgered the Waco staff for engineering data and production information so they could learn how to build their own gliders. There were some 2,500 pages of blueprints for the CG-4A.

As many as 60 representatives from the other manufacturers had been at the Troy facility at one time or another, a burden that greatly affected Waco’s ability to meet its production quotas. Additionally, Waco, a relatively small company before the war, was continually being bombarded with calls from Materiel Command to design and build additional experimental gliders. All of these extra tasks put a strain on the already understaffed company and prevented it from working at peak efficiency.

Gradually, Waco’s production improved, and in 1943 the company began turning out an average of 43 units per month; in 1944 the average reached 54. The average cost, less than $20,000 each, was also within the government’s budget parameters; only Ford produced gliders for less.

The Poor Inspection Quality of General Aircraft Corporation

Not all of the other glider makers were able to follow Waco’s lead. Companies with little or no aircraft-manufacturing experience were given the opportunity to succeed or fail, and the Army, hard pressed to deliver gliders, was at fault for not more carefully checking out the bona fides of companies that applied for government contracts.

A perfect example was General Aircraft Corporation of Astoria, Long Island, New York. The first contract for 75 gliders was let on March 26, 1942. In July, the order was increased by 154 units, and by another 284 in December, bringing the total to 513 CG-4As; it took a full year for General to fulfill the contract.

To demonstrate how desperate the government was for contractors, General was awarded yet another contract in September 1943 for an additional 500 CG-4As; again, it took a full year to fill the order. The price was high, though. The gliders in the first contract cost an average of $33,770 apiece, while those in the second ran about $28,000 each.

Adding to General’s woes was the fact that the company was held in low esteem by the government. The District Inspector General, after visiting the plant in early 1943, issued a scathing report that noted, among other problems, that the company was poorly managed, had unsatisfactory property accountability procedures, had incomprehensible general contract record keeping, and was doing a less than adequate job of inspecting the wooden and metal parts.

The report concluded that the company president, “having failed to discover and correct these shortcomings, displayed inadequate executive and administrative ability.” It took several months for the company to shape up; even then, it was hard for General to produce gliders for the agreed upon unit price of $20,000.

The $380,000 Gliders of Ward Furniture

Another of those firms that illustrates the rather haphazard way contracts were awarded was Porterfield Aircraft Company of Kansas City, Missouri. In actuality, there was no company; the contract was made with E.E. Porterfield, Jr. as an individual. After promising that he could build gliders, he then formed a company, hired a few employees who claimed to have aircraft manufacturing experience, and went into the glider business.