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American Glider Pilots - WWII

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Start of the Glider Pilot Programs in WWII

Glider pilots one day before D-Day

Pictured are various American glider pilots one day before D-Day. The aircraft are C-47 Skytrains. U.S. Army photo.

The German's effective use of gliders beginning in 1940, caused the Allies to see the value of a glider program to deliver their men and equipment behind enemy lines.

The British glider program was started in 1940 and the American program started in February of 1941, with the United States having about 197 gliders and less than 365 glider pilots by the middle of 1941, while Germany at the time had 300,000 glider pilots.1 This large number was due in part because Germany had large numbers of national glider clubs having been prohibited from using powered aircraft by the treaty of Versailles. But by June, 1942, the American glider program included some 6,000 pilots.

Shortages of volunteers in the glider program

The American glider pilot program was all volunteer, and as the need for glider pilots increased, the requirements for eligibility into the program decreased, eventually opening up even to civilians with a pilot license. Yet by the time of the Normandy invasion there was still a great shortage of American glider pilots and many copilots were chosen from glider infantryman or paratroopers with basically no pilot training. Many of these 'copilots' were reported to have taken over the controls when something happened to the glider's pilot.2

Photo of glider wings of a WWII glider pilot

Glider wings badge with the large G in the center of the wings.

Glider Wings Badge and "Guts"

The casualty rate for World War II glider pilots was “one of the highest of any combat specialty” because of the hazards in battle and training accidents3. While under fire, the glider pilot had to crash land his glider behind enemy lines, into an area filled with obstacles intended to thwart his landing. Within seconds after releasing the tow rope, the glider would be down, giving little time to select a landing place. Gliders were often called 'flying coffins', and glider pilots reportedly told those who asked, that the letter 'G' (for glider) on their pilot wings badge actually stood for 'guts'.

During Operation Overlord, Allied glider landings took place the night before D-Day. The gliders were sent to diverse targets which lay varying distances from the coast in Normandy. American glider landings were more scattered than the British landings, but were effective because they confused the Germans as to where the attack was taking place.

Success of the Glider Pilots


Although combat fighting was not a planned role for the American glider pilot, landing behind enemy lines often necessitated his joining ranks with the infantry. This was handled differently by the British, who formed the Glider Pilot Regiment in which the men were trained to fight as infantrymen in addition to completing glider pilot training.

Despite the fact that the American glider program started well behind that of the Germans, it went on to produce highly skilled pilots, who were quite successful in bringing men, weapons and supplies into combat.

1 J. Norman Grim. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of U.S. WW II Glider Pilots. Bloomington, IN : AuthorHouse, 2009, p. 2.

2 Gerard M. Devlin, Silent Wings: The Saga of the U.S. Army and Marine Combat Glider Pilots During World War II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 178.

3 S. W. Maynes. The "G" is for guts : an American glider pilot's story. Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge, 2006.