A Waco’s Happy Ending
How an abandoned World War II glider found love in Long Island.
WANTED: Waco CG-4 Troop Glider - any airframe components, any condition...
THUS BEGAN A SMALL ADVERTISEMENT I placed in a January 1987 issue of the tabloid Trade-A-Plane. I had no idea that the advertisement would send me on a journey that would last 15 years.
I was (and still am) the curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, founded in 1979 to “collect, preserve and interpret the aerospace heritage of Long Island.” That mandate is a bigger job than it might sound like: More than 50 manufacturers have produced air- and spacecraft here continually since 1909. Over the years, we have been able to acquire over 60 craft, nearly all of them local products. But sadly, most of the wide variety of aircraft produced here either no longer exist or are now so rare that we can’t afford to acquire an example.
One of those rare aircraft is the Waco CG-4 troop glider. Early in World War II, the Germans had had success using gliders to land troops in combat zones, so the U.S. Army decided to develop a similar corps for itself. Glider transport had two advantages over parachuting: The soldiers ended up concentrated near a target, rather than spread over the countryside, and the gliders could also be used to transport cargo.
In response to the Army’s decision, the Waco Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio, probably best known for its open-cockpit biplanes, designed the CG-4 in late 1941.Weighing 2,400 pounds and having an 83-foot wingspan, the glider was ungainly but robust. In addition to two pilots, each CG-4 could transport 13 troops and all of their gear, or a jeep or light artillery.
Though the war planners found the gliders efficient, the men who actually participated in glider missions found the experience arduous. A Douglas C-47 transport towed the glider on a 350-foot nylon rope; a typical tow would last several hours and be flown at about 100 mph and 1,500 feet. Low-altitude turbulence wore out the C-47 pilots and made the troops in the glider airsick. The landing zone had no air traffic control; once over the zone, the glider pilot would release his craft at about 400 feet, in order to minimize the time that the unarmored glider would be vulnerable to enemy gunners on the ground. In addition, when a large number of gliders were released over a relatively small landing zone, they would sometimes crash into one another, or into trees or other objects.
Nonetheless, the gliders achieved some remarkable successes. During the D-Day invasion, 513 gliders were landed in Normandy, France, and only 11 percent of the troops inside were killed or injured during the landings.
The pilots of these remarkable craft were often students who had washed out of fighter or bomber training. They were, however, trained well enough to make at least one successful landing. Similarly, the gliders themselves were considered throwaway aircraft, used once and rarely retrieved. Of the nearly 15,000 built, only five or six survive.
This aircraft had always intrigued me, and I felt I had to have one for our collection. Of the 16 companies that had produced CG-4s, two had been located here on Long Island—General Aircraft in Queens and Dade Brothers in Mineola, together producing about 1,000. In fact, our museum’s founder was Dade Brothers’ George Dade, and he continually prodded me to locate a glider carcass to restore. After a couple of years of fruitless phone calls and letter writing, I placed my ad in Trade-A-Plane.
I failed to receive a single letter in response. Considering how few had survived the war, I was not surprised. However, about a month later, someone who had seen the ad called me. An airline pilot, whose name I’m sad to say I’ve forgotten, told me that as he was driving outside the small village of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, near the Pocono Mountains, he thought he saw the bones of a troop glider lying in a farmer’s field. I was astonished—not just that he had made the effort to call me, but that he had actually identified the remains as a CG-4.
Before the week was out, George Dade and I were headed west toward Pennsylvania, not knowing exactly what side of town the farm was on or even who owned it.
After a drive of just over three hours, gradually transitioning from the suburbs of New York City to the fertile farmland of eastern Pennsylvania, we passed a sign stating “Nazareth 1 mile.” We began to keep our eyes peeled.
Suddenly my jaw dropped and I slammed on the brake. About 100 feet to the right lay the complete nose and main fuselage section of a Waco CG-4 troop transport glider.
We pulled over, got out, and walked to the nearby farmhouse. A knock on the door brought forth an ancient farmer, who was amazed to learn that someone had traveled all the way from New York just to look at his pile of rusted scrap. It turned out that the farmer (who no longer farmed) had purchased the glider as war surplus in 1946 for $75 from an Army depot in Pennsylvania. He had no interest in the aircraft, only in the three large and sturdy crates it came in, which he turned into chicken coops. As for the glider, he dumped it in the field, where it rusted away for the next 40 years. Gradually it became covered in weeds, and as its fabric skin deteriorated, small trees sprouted and grew through its steel-tube frame.
A sale price of $150 was quickly agreed upon. I suspect the farmer thought he had really hoodwinked a couple of slick New Yorkers—not only were we willing to take away his pile of junk, we would even pay him good money to do it.
Walking around the bones of the glider that day, I realized the restoration would be a major project, requiring many years. The parts were badly rusted. Where some of the fittings had touched the ground, corrosion had completely eaten them away. On occasion, when the farmer had needed a piece of metal tubing, he’d simply walked over and sawed a section out of the glider’s skeleton. The tail and wings were gone, as were other critical components. Amazingly, the nameplate of the manufacturer, Ford, was still firmly affixed to the fuselage’s rusted doorframe.
Fortunately, it turned out that the farmer had for some reason stored some of the more interesting glider parts in his barn loft. We climbed up a rickety ladder and quickly discovered wooden troop benches, pilots’ seats, back rests, instruments, wheels, tires, landing gear struts, and several other items.
I quickly made plans to return within the week. Our museum has a corps of volunteers, most of whom are retirees from local aerospace companies or the airlines, and many of whom served in World War II, and I recruited six to help retrieve the glider. I also borrowed a flatbed truck and rounded up an assortment of hand tools. During the next few days, I actually worried that some other museum might come along and scoop the glider up.
To my relief, when we arrived, it looked just as it had when we’d left it. We ended up putting in a long day’s work, cutting down the ingrown trees and slowly easing the rusted hulk in one piece onto the truck. Our volunteers were tickled by my repeated warnings not to scratch anything (I was only half jesting).
Upon unloading the glider at the museum, I attacked the project from two angles. I assembled a crew of about 15 volunteers, who, although questioning my sanity at first, cheerfully agreed to spend several years of their lives working on the project. We also contacted the National Air and Space Museum and obtained copies of the CG-4 “Erection and Maintenance Manual,” as well as printouts of the microfilmed blueprints. With these in hand, I was able to compile a list of the parts we needed—a very long list.
Early on, we decided to restore the glider with only one of its enormous wings. For one thing, that would save a lot of time and money. In addition, we wanted to exhibit the glider as a cutaway, so not having a wing on the cutaway side would enable visitors to view the interior. The decision exemplified a philosophy we had developed at the museum. Rather than just lining up aircraft and putting labels in front of them, as many aviation museums do, we tried to bring them to life. For example, we exhibit our early aircraft in a re-creation of a 1911 air meet, our World War II naval aircraft on an carrier flight deck scene, and our Apollo Lunar Module on a faux lunar surface. I thought that visitors could understand the CG-4 and its mission best if they were able to see it suspended as if in flight and packed with troops, as it would have looked on D-Day. The cutaway side would reveal not only the glider’s internal structure but also a full load of troops and their gear.
Over the next three or four years I conducted a tedious search for CG-4 components, contacting museums, organizations, and collectors from coast to coast. More parts turned up than I expected. A warehouse in Iron Mountain, Michigan, turned out to have a complete and even rust-free tail section. The owner agreed to donate it, and shortly afterward it arrived in New York strapped to the top of a minivan. Complete and original wing spars were found in an old glider factory in Hudsonville, Michigan, and we purchased them for $225. The Silent Wings Glider Museum, then in Terrell, Texas (it since moved to Lubbock), proved extremely helpful. It has its own CG-4 and, happy to see another restored, generously allowed our volunteers to pick through its storage area, where they turned up a treasure trove of wing ribs, tail parts, and many critical metal fittings. Soon the parts were headed for New York in a rented truck. And the Kalamazoo Aviation Museum in Michigan, also in the throes of a CG-4 restoration, agreed to swap its duplicate parts for ours. The trade provided us enough original parts to build all the missing tail surfaces.
Over the years, we made steady progress. A new wooden floor had to be fabricated—quite a substantial undertaking. The fuselage was straightened, sandblasted, repaired, and repainted. Then the steel-tube structure was covered with cotton fabric, which we brushed with dope, a fabric-tightening compound. The tail surfaces were covered with thin plywood and fabric. We had learned that our glider, built late in the war, had never been sent overseas (hence its survival), but for education purposes, we decided to paint it with D-Day markings.
By far the largest and most tedious part of the restoration was the wing. We were fortunate to have obtained original spars, some ribs, and all the metal fittings we would need. Nonetheless, re-creating that wing just went on and on. The wooden truss-like ribs were complicated, and we had to make a lot of them. When the frame was finally complete, we had to cover it completely with dozens of thin plywood sheets. And then the wing had to be covered entirely with cotton fabric—seemingly acres of it—which then, like the fabric on the fuselage and tail, had to be doped and painted.
After that, it was time for the finishing touches. A local artist applied nose art, copied from a photograph we had of a CG-4 that flew on D-Day. For our 15 mannequins, we had to spend over $10,000—as much as we’d spent on the acquisition and restoration of the aircraft itself! We also were able to locate original and reproduction World War II gear and weapons so we could make the mannequins look as realistic as possible.
At long last, some seven years later, our glider was complete. We sent valuable leftover parts back to the Silent Wings Glider Museum and also to the Yankee Air Force Museum in Belleville, Michigan, which had embarked on a CG-4 restoration of its own.
Because we were constructing a new museum building, we could not display our CG-4 immediately. We wrapped it up and put it in temporary storage. Now we had only one critical problem left to solve: How do we suspend the large and heavy glider, especially since its structural integrity was questionable? When new, the CG-4s were robust, but this one had been extensively restored, and most of the steel components were at one time severely corroded. Attaching cables directly to the glider could pull it apart. We hired a structural engineer, one recently retired from Grumman and familiar with aircraft materials. He devised an internal steel skeleton; the glider was bolted around it and suspension cables were attached to its top. The skeleton is able to carry the entire load safely and as unobtrusively as possible.
Last April, prior to the opening of the expanded and renovated Cradle of Aviation Museum, the Waco CG-4 glider was gently raised up and hung in position. We were surprised to see that it had turned out to be quite a majestic-looking aircraft. It was a tribute not only to those who built and flew these craft but also to those who lovingly restored this particular example decades later.
Today it hangs next to an elevated walkway from which visitors can study its cutaway side. The copilot can be seen reaching up for the tow release handle. One airsick soldier is being berated by his buddy, while an old lieutenant shouts last-minute instructions to his young platoon. The Waco glider will be forever flying, filled with soldiers caught in a moment of nervous excitement just before landing on D-Day.