Silent Flight

by Flight-Lieutenant John Pudney

RAF Trains Army Pilots of Britain's Airborne Divisions At School for Gliders

No better example of Service cooperation exists than the Glider Training School. The Royal Air Force does the teaching and soldiers wearing the plum-colored berets of the Army Airborne Divisions are the pupils. To both Services gliding is relatively new. but it has already been recognized as a weapon of aggressive warfare which is speedily being developed through close collaboration of the two branches. The school is turning fully-trained soldiers who have volunteered for flying duties into experienced glider pilots, capable of flying noiselessly with a "live" load into enemy territory.

Soldiers come to the school when they have already flown from fifty to seventy hours in power-driven aircraft. Turning them into experienced glider pilots takes only a short time. In the first few weeks they become familiar with the technique of the towed takeoff, first solo, cross-country gliding and landing at other airdromes. They qualify for their Army Wings as soon as the RAF is satisfied with their proficiency.

In the latter part of the course they undertake night flying, release at very low altitudes, formation flying and, finally, the carrying of "live" loads of fully-armed troops. Such practice gives them full confidence for the time when they will be released from the towing plane say at ten thousand feet, ten to fifteen miles away from the military objective which is to be attacked. They will be able to fly noiselessly to their target.

There have been few failures to qualify in the glider school because the soldiers are already trained in aircraft flight when they arrive. The RAF instructors, most of them operational pilots or prewar glider experts, all agree upon the high quality of these enthusiastic Army volunteers.

Gliding brings the hazards of sailing into a two-dimensional element. Piloting a glider is strenuous, as it is very heavy on the controls. At the glider school I visited, all the training is carried on in Hotspurs — the smallest operational gliders built, designed for a single operation rather than for prolonged service against the enemy. The Hotspur is made entirely of wood, with a small undercarriage which is meant to be jettisoned after takeoff in order to facilitate landing in a small space in enemy territory. For this purpose there is a strong skid which runs like a ship's keel beneath the fuselage.

For training purposes, the wheels are never jettisoned, but with this one exception the troops carry out their training under the same conditions as those in which they will fly on operations.

Gliding has brought new life to one or two good old English words. For instance, the "tow-path" is the runway across the grass reserved for the towed take-off and the landing of the gliders. At the leeward end of it the Hotspurs are lined up ready for takeoff, having been brought into that position by the fast tractors which take the place of normal taxiing. The towing aircraft are known as "tugs," and often are obsolescent fighter aircraft. Before the gliders take off, their tow ropes are laid out in lines on the grass ready for attachment.

Entering a glider is not unlike getting into a large and expensive toy auto at an exclusive toy shop. But the Hotspur is stronger than it looks and soon it is whizzing across the airdrome behind the fighter towing plane. It takes the air before the towing aircraft leaves the ground. Like a toy that is being pulled along rather quickly by a child, the glider is inclined to yaw from side to side during this process.

We climbed several thousand feet and but for the rush of wind and a certain amount of bumpiness it seemed quiet and gentle. It is an important part of the glider pilot's training to learn to know the precise moment at which to operate the lever which casts off the tow rope. As we cast off, it felt as if brakes had been applied to a bicycle. The aircraft appeared almost to stand still just below the clouds. There was much the same motion as that of a small sailing boat in a moderate sea. After the relatively high speed of the towing aircraft the air speed seemed to be negligible.

The landing is effected by coming in cross wind to a few hundred feet, then turning into the wind, using full flaps. We did about seventy miles an hour as we came in to land, and since the Hotspur is not fitted with brakes, we bumped on the skid in order to slow up. Finally we waited at a standstill for a tractor to come and remove us from the tow-path.

This in itself is one of the problems of a school such as this, where gliding goes on all day. A fleet of tractors must always be kept ready to remove gliders from the landing areas. An area must be reserved, too, for the dropping of tow ropes from tugs before they come in to land, and yet another area must be used for the landing of the tugs themselves and for the other power-driven craft associated with the base. All this calls for exceptional airdrome organization.

It is said that the tug pilot's job is one of the most tedious flying duties in the RAF, but as the glider fleet is being increased, many new tug pilots need to be trained. When the glider fleet goes into operation it will be responsible for flying constant streams of motorless aircraft to enemy occupied territory, a job which will be a vital part of the operations. While the instructors are training new pilots in the gliders, other instructors are training new pilots for the tugs.

Many of the glider pilot instructors are RAF operational pilots who have fought in famous squadrons and cannot now undertake strenuous operational duties, owing to some slight limitation such as inability to fly at extreme altitudes or structural limitations which would prevent them from operating with highest efficiency.

This article was originally published in the September, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 3, pp 40-41.
The original article includes 4 photos.
Photos credited to British Information Service.