A Waco’s Happy Ending

How an abandoned World War II glider found love in Long Island.

Images of the glider in flight (here, a CG-4 prototype) don’t capture the human drama of a CG-4 mission, as the museum’s finished display does. (NASM Neg. #2002-3809)
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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.

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