By Jug Varner
In the Navy we call them “sea stories.” I don't know what the Air Force calls them, maybe “air stories,” which may be appropriate in either case if you precede the term with the word “hot.” Of course, not all of them are full of hot air and embellished with age. Some are actually true, such as the one I am about to relate.
The WWII Army Air Force Glider Base there trained thousands of glider pilots and troops for the invasion of Nazi held Europe. The intended D-Day mission was classified at that time so none of the locals knew much about what really was going on. The thermals in that area were ideal for gliders — even the large plywood types that carried armed soldiers, a Jeep and other equipment.
In July 1943, fellow Naval Aviation Cadet Jack Edwards and I were home on leave in Lubbock before reporting to our next training duty station. For some reason (obviously relating to youth and stupidity) we got the bright idea to go out to the South Plains Glider base, as it was known locally, and see if we could go along on one of their training flights. We thought it would be fun and give us something unique to brag about to our “less experienced” cadet buddies.
Although the perplexed expression the on squadron commander's face must have meant he was thinking, “Why in the world would you want to ride in one of these flying coffins if you didn't have to,” neither of us picked up on that. We were too busy being “cool” — to use the vernacular of today's youth.
Surprisingly, he gave us the okay and soon we were strapped into the front seat of this large wooden crate with wings, known as the CG-4A. The ground crew had positioned it in line with and tethered to the Y-shaped towline pickup some distance ahead. A trusty C-47 tow aircraft was making its final approach to snare the towline and get us airborne.
Then, braced for the sudden jolt, it was “Off we go into the wild, blue yonder,” with an unobstructed view of every move the pilot and co-pilot made. They acted bored. We acted excited. The trainees acted nervous.
All of us were sweating from the summer heat until we got high enough to cool off a bit. Those thermals were doing their part during this bumpy ride above the flat cotton and grain fields of the Texas Panhandle, and at the proper altitude, the pilot gave the order to release the towline. It was about this time that we two fledgling Navy pilots realized there was no engine to give us a second chance if these bored Air Force guys made a bad approach to the landing strip. Then we noticed they were no longer bored.
Soaring silently, except for the rattling of equipment from the turbulent air, the pilot maneuvered the beast into its final approach pattern. At the appropriate moment the co-pilot reached down, grasped a metal rod, pulled it in place, and we started dropping like a rock. He had activated the “spoiler” — creating a hump along the top of the wings. This changed the airflow over the wing dramatically and greatly reduced its lift.
I suppose he changed it back to normal before we landed, but by then it seemed like we were inside a free-falling elevator, awaiting the crash. However, the landing turned out fairly well and I don't remember how many times we bounced, if at all.
Like a ride at the carnival, suddenly it was all over and the thrill was gone. I think the trainees considered the safe landing the biggest thrill of all. Then it was summer heat again as we sat on the runway awaiting a tow back to the flight line. It was good to be on terra firma again.
“How did you like it, would you like to go up again?” the commander asked when we got back. “Oh, it was a great experience and thank you very much for setting it up,” I said, turning to Jack.
“Yes, Sir,” Jack told him, “we really did enjoy the flight, but we have an appointment in town, so I don't think there's time for another ride today.”
If memory serves, the appointment was of the female variety, but whatever it was, it was an infinitely sounder decision than another ride in the CG-4A. It was great fun, but it was just ONE of those things!
Glider pilots are quick to point out that the “G” on their wings did not just stand for “Glider,” it also stood for “Guts.”
I say, “Amen to that.”