When Ford Stopped Building Woodies to Make WWII Gliders

Ronnie Schreiber

The story is well known how, during the Second World War, Ford Motor Company built an enormous factory in Michigan at Willow Run, near Ypsilanti, to build B-24 “Liberator” bombers. At its peak, the factory built one plane every hour. The application of American mass production methods to the making of war material was a key factor in the victory of the Allies. Neither Germany nor Japan could match the rate at which the United States produced tanks, jeeps, trucks, planes, and ships.

America didn’t build equipment exclusively for its own forces. President Franklin Roosevelt first used the term “Arsenal of Democracy” in a December 1940 radio address, almost a year before the U.S. entered the war, in reference to America supplying Britain, which by then was engaged in fighting Germany. American industry also supplied a large fraction of the tanks, trucks, and warplanes used by the USSR during WWII. So much so, in fact, that a couple of generations of Russians apparently used the term “Studebaker” as a generic term for medium-duty trucks.

Ronnie Schreiber

Although the facility at Willow Run was designed from the ground up to build warplanes, much of what became known as the Arsenal of Democracy involved converting America’s industrial capacity from consumer and industrial products to weapons and other military needs. The Nash automobile company made Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns using the same facility in which it built Kelvinator refrigerators. The Gibson guitar company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, switched from making guitars and amplifiers to making wooden parts for military gliders and electronic components for radar equipment.

While Willow Run and its B-24s are a well-documented part of the American war effort, Gibson and Ford cooperated in another, lesser known, exercise in military aviation that played a critical role in putting troops on the ground not only during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944 but also in other important Allied operations during the war. Those wooden parts that Gibson was making were shipped north, to Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the center of Ford Motor Company’s lumber operations. Ford was one of sixteen companies making what some have called America’s first stealth military aircraft, the Waco CG-4A military glider. Made of wood, steel tubing, and fabric, the CG-4A was both unarmed and unarmored, hence its second nickname: the flying coffin.

Ronnie Schreiber

We’ve examined Ford’s forestry and wood processing operations in the U.P. before, including our story about the development of Kingsford charcoal briquets. In short, during the Model T era, automobile manufacturing used a considerable amount of wood for floorboards, dashboards, wheel spokes, and body frames. Ford owned about a half million acres of forest in northern Michigan and set up a number of lumber mills in the U.P. and a large factory in Iron Mountain for turning that lumber into car parts.

With the introduction of all-steel bodies and wheels, the auto industry’s need for wood decreased. However, the plant in Iron Mountain remained open as Ford switched from buying bodies for its “woodie” station wagons from the Murray company to making them in-house in 1937. The Iron Mountain facility manufactured all of the wooden parts and panels for these vehicles and assembled them to steel bodies shipped from other Ford facilities.

Ford Motor CompanyRonnie Schreiber

In December 1942, one year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Iron Mountain factory started mass-producing Waco CG-4A gliders in Iron Mountain. If you want to get pedantic, technically speaking the factory did not initially produce many completed gliders. Instead, it built the gliders, dismantled them into various subassemblies and components, and then packed them into huge wooden crates (also likely produced at the Iron Mountain factory), five per glider, and shipped them closer to the front lines, where the gliders would be assembled. Eventually, completed gliders were created on-site, and Ford created a path through the woods to tow completed gliders with Ford tractors to the nearby airport for subsequent tows by C-47 cargo planes to training sites.

The Henry FordRonnie Schreiber

These same C-47s would typically tow the gliders in training and in combat, as well.

The Army did experiment with towing a single glider carrying medical equipment on a hop, skip, and jump route to England via Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland, but, of over 13,900 examples made, that one was the only CG-4A to fly across the Atlantic. It was a lot more fuel-efficient to ship the gliders by boat.

You might be wondering why any army would want to use defenseless gliders made of wood and fabric to insert troops into a combat zone. Why not paratroopers? The problem with dropping soldiers and equipment with parachutes is the military units get dispersed over a wide drop zone. Units must gather their men and equipment before starting to fight. If a unit shipped in one or more gliders, they and their equipment stay together.

Ronnie Schreiber

The German army had demonstrated the effectiveness of using gliders early in the war, and U.S. Army Air Corps General “Hap” Arnold embraced the idea. Assuming they made it to the landing zone, gliders could carry entire platoons into battle zones, ready to fight, as well as light vehicles like jeeps, and light artillery. As it turned out, after the first glider missions, in the cruel calculus of war, Army brass determined that using gliders produced no worse casualty rates than using paratroopers: Each was about 15 percent.

Ronnie Schreiber

Both the British and the Americans developed gliders. The U.S. chose a design from the Waco Aircraft Company, of Troy, Ohio. While some sources describe Waco (pronounced WAH-co, not WAY-co like the city in Texas) as a “niche manufacturer,” it was actually the leading American civil aviation company before WWII and produced a variety of biplanes.

Ronnie Schreiber

As with American Bantam, which won the Army’s competition to design the jeep only for Ford and Willys to make most of those 1/4 ton trucks, Waco designed the CG-4A but only made about 5 percent of the gliders produced during the war. Ford built 4190 gliders, a bit more than 25 percent of the total. Not only did Ford build the most CG-4As, it also built them at the lowest cost to the government.

Ronnie Schreiber

You could say the CG-4A was a successful design, but the soldiers tasked with assembling them in the field might have disagreed. The CG-4A was made up of more than 70,000 parts. With 16 companies manufacturing the gliders, and even more subcontractors like Gibson making parts, some of those parts didn’t always fit, despite the use of blueprints.

Ronnie Schreiber

Ford employed about 4500 workers in the facility at Iron Mountain during the war. While the plant never achieved Willow Run’s rate of production, those workers were able to produce eight gliders a day on average, working three shifts around the clock.

The Waco CG-4A was not a small aircraft. Made of steel tubing, which looks to be about an inch or so in diameter, and a floor of honeycombed plywood, the fuselage of the CG-4A was 48 feet long and covered in fabric. The wings, which spanned 83.5 feet, were made of wooden spars covered with doped fabric. The cockpit was covered with thin, flexible panels of mahogany, similar to the construction method that Ford had been using for door panels on its woodies. The glider wore two fixed main wheels and a tail wheel, plus hardwood skids, which came in handy: Landings in rough terrain often ripped off the wheels.

The wooden landing skids were made by the Gibson guitar company in Kalamazoo.Ronnie Schreiber

Weighing about two tons unladen, the glider could carry its own weight in cargo. In addition to the pilot and co-pilot, it could carry a platoon of 13 fully equipped men. Like modern military transport planes, the entire front end of the CG-4A, including the cockpit, was hinged so it could swing up to allow the loading of a jeep or 75mm howitzer with their crews. The Army also prepared trailers sized to fit the gliders with prepackaged ordinance repair shops, field kitchens, and field hospitals. Since the glider could land on unprepared fields, some aircraft carried small bulldozers that could be used to prepare landing strips for powered aircraft that followed the gliders. Others carried the metal grating used for some landing strips.

Because of the CG-4A’s light weight, ground crews could maneuver them by hand, using lift handles integrated into the steel framework of the fuselage.

Ronnie Schreiber

Top speed was 150 mph, though the usual towing speed was 125. The tow rope was made up of 350 feet of 11/16-inch braided nylon cord. Wrapped around the tow rope was an electrical umbilical cable that allowed the crews of the two aircraft to communicate. A lever above the pilots’ heads released the cable. Once free of the tow plane, the CG-4A’s gliding speed was 72 mph. Although CG-4A has been described as having the “glide ratio of a brick,” and though it definitely couldn’t soar like a sailplane, it had a much better glide ratio than the Piper Cub, which was widely used for training and reconnaissance by the U.S. Army Air Corps and is generally considered easy to fly. Most of the gliders were treated as disposable but the Allies did develop a system for C-47s to come in low and slow and snag a tow rope to recover them.

While civilian sailplanes soar silently, the CG-4A was a noisy environment for the pilots and troops. The fabric skin of the aircraft provided no insulation from the howling of the wind noise, the roar of the C-47’s engines, and or the explosion of enemy anti-aircraft shells. Obviously, the fabric and wood provided no protection from those shells’ charges and shrapnel, either. There was one unsuccessful attempt to put some armor on a particular general’s glider, but that effort to protect him only led to his demise: The added weight made that glider unstable, and it crashed.

Ronnie Schreiber

The pilots had just four basic instruments. Because the gauges were sourced from powered aircraft whose vibrations normally kept the needles from sticking, pilots had to keep tapping at the gauges to keep them reading at least somewhat accurately. The pilots did not have parachutes, though some would sit on top of flak jackets to protect themselves from upcoming fire.

Ronnie Schreiber

Though the CG-4A could glide for miles if released at a high enough altitude, they were typically released at just 600. That low height meant that glider pilots had only about a minute and a half to locate a suitable landing spot and put the glider down into it.

Ronnie Schreiber

While many gliders never made it to the landing zones, the descent of a CG-4A was a bit of a controlled crash landing and some pilots and crews also didn’t survive hitting the ground. Still, as mentioned above, the Army considered the CG-4A enough of a success that it was used in more than a half dozen campaigns during the war, including Operation Market Garden, the invasion of Sicily, and on D-Day. Over 300 CG-4As were used in the Normandy invasion, along with about 200 British-made Horsa gliders. About one thousand of the 6000 American glider pilots trained during the war participated in D-Day. Though the environment inside the gliders was noisy while they were being towed, the fact that they flew silently and could be released some distance from the landing areas made them America’s first stealthy aircraft.

Model of a proposed larger military glider.Ronnie Schreiber

The CG-4A was considered successful enough that the Army commissioned models and prototypes of larger gliders. One model, the 30-man CG-13A glider, did indeed make it to production in 1944, with 132 of them built, 85 by Ford, presumably in Iron Mountain. They were used in both the Pacific and European theaters. In the era before helicopter technology was developed enough to make air cavalry or other pinpoint insertions of troops possible, the glider was about the only way to put whole units on the battlefield from above.

Image source: eBay. CG-4A pilot’s manual.Ronnie Schreiber

Although almost 14,000 CG-4A gliders were made, just seven are known to survive. After the war, Olaf and Beatrice Blomquist of Iron Mountain bought a glider fuselage for $75 from the Ford plant in their hometown. They in turn sold it to their nephew Vernon Anderson, who used it as a hunting cabin and a play house for his kids. In 2005, the Anderson family donated it to the Menominee Range Historical Foundation. The donation generated enough interest to fund the glider’s restoration and the construction of the World War II Glider and Military Museum to house it in Iron Mountain. Clyde Unger, of Spread Eagle, Wisconsin, spent five and a half years and over 15,000 hours of labor performing the restoration, which was completed in 2011.

Ronnie Schreiber

In addition to the restored glider, the museum is full of all sorts of artifacts of the gliders’ manufacturing in Iron Mountain, including component parts, historical photos, tools, blueprints, and even one of those tiny bulldozers. Some items in the collection were recovered long after the war by farmers in Holland and France who found remnants of gliders buried in their fields.

Ronnie Schreiber

The museum also has a collection of items related to the Iron Mountain factory’s original purpose, not the least of which is a beautifully restored 1939 Ford V-8 Deluxe “Woodie” Wagon, all decked out for a picnic including a barbecue with Kingsford charcoal. Fitting!

Ronnie Schreiber

After the war, the plant in Iron Mountain returned to making wooden-bodied cars, including the 1946 Ford Sportsman convertible also on display at the museum.

At your own barbecue this Memorial Day, please take a moment to remember the people who made those gliders in a car factory in northern Michigan, the men who flew into harm’s way on those gliders, and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy our barbecues in freedom.

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect additional details surrounding the Iron Mountain facility’s production of completed gliders, as well as the production of the larger CG-13A.)



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    Small thing to add. I used to fly to Aberdeen SD which was a training base for the glider units. The wings that glider pilots pinned on had a “G” in the center. The pilots said it stood for “guts”. Not gonna argue that.

    I remember my father telling me how he used lumber from surplus glider crates to build our first home. After returning from the Pacific in WWII (Bronze Star, Purple Heart) he was eventually stationed at Fort Dix as a Company Commander (Captain) preparing troops for the Korean Conflict. He was building our first house on the side near Dix during leaves and free time and was able to acquire surplus lumber at little or no cost from obsolete glider crates. The gliders were destroyed but the lumber was available for salvage. It was transported to the job site by him and his buddies using deuce and a half’s. We lived in officers quarters and even though only a few years old I remember riding with them a few times to move the lumber to the home site. I always found it interesting the crates were worth more than the gliders at that time.

    What an appropriate day to read this article! My uncle received a Bronze Star for his work in planning the glider portion of the D-Day attack. Thank you for this!

    Very cool story on these things. It’s amazing what we could accomplish so quickly when we were united.

    How true! Given the current state of our broken country you can’t help wondering if we could pull together again if faced with such a challenge today…

    Fords involvement in aviation goes all the way back to the early 20th century. In the teens Henry I became friends with Glenn Curtis. ( Curtis actually suggested building Model Ts with a modified version of his V-8 aviation engine ) Ford, and his lawyer, helped Curtis in his lawsuit with the Wright brothers and other wealthy investors who had a monopoly on aircraft production. Ford had gone for years through much the same proceedings in the Selden patent suit. One might also speculate that he was motivated by the idea of getting into aircraft production himself. Enter the Ford Tri-Motor not so long after with its Curtis Wright radials. Oddly enough, that would result in another patent infringement suit by Junkers who claimed Ford had copied their design, which was true. Post WW II Ford remained involved in military aviation applications in what would finally become (and end as ) Ford Aerospace. They were involved in a number defense contracts,notably the Sidewinder air to air missile program. After being sold it was then finally acquired by Lockheed Martin. Never knew about the gliders and till now.

    There was also the Ford Flivver, a tiny single seat airplane intended to be “Model T of the air” but described by Charles Lindbergh as “one of the worst aircraft he ever flew”. Henry Ford killed the project when the prototype crashed, killing the test pilot.
    Regarding Ford Aerospace, the domestic auto industry was deeply involved in the space effort. Chrysler built the engines for the Saturn V rocket. GM designed the Lunar Rover and its AC division made the Apollo guidance computer. Ford’s Philco electronics division built Mission Control in Houston.

    Remnants of a Waco CG-4A’s fuselage are on display at the Warbirds Museum in Nampa, Idaho.

    Great story! Brave souls who flew the gliders. If I remember, correctly, the causality rate was high in the number of lives lost & those injured when the gliders landed. Cannot imagine a Jeep or artillery piece in the rear of the craft with soldiers in front having to sustain a landing.

    As Tony Doughty says, what a perfect story for Memorial Day. Readers may be interested to see the Fighting Falcon Museum in Greenville, MI, which has a replica CG-4A and also covers the Gibson connection, the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, MI which has a CG-4A attached to a C-47, and the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, TX (formerly in Terrell, TX until 2001) which is dedicated to gliders and has a terrific CG-4A exhibit.

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