Envision yourself aboard a glider, being towed by another airplane, & your goal is to float noiselessly down behind enemy lines with a cargo of weapons, supplies & troops needed to secure victory in World War II. This simple idea sounds a bit like brilliant science fiction or, at best, an ill-conceived notion that is sure to end badly.
That notion was summed up on the National WWI Glider Pilots Association website, which quotes a former glider pilot:
“Imagine flying a motor-less, fabric-covered CG-4A glider, violently bouncing & jerking on a 11/16”-thick nylon rope 350 feet back of the C-47 tow plane. You see the nervous glider infantrymen behind you, some vomiting, many in prayer, as you hedge-hop along a tree-top level instinctively jumping up in your seat every time you hear bullets & flak tearing through the glider. You try not to think about the explosives aboard. It’s like flying a stick of dynamite through the gates of Hell.”
It’s not science fiction, & the proof of this program’s importance to WWII efforts is housed in the Silent Wings Museum, which stands on the outskirts of Lubbock, in one of the old Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport terminal buildings. I’ve driven past it too many times to count – never once giving it a second thought, but the beauty of our little corner of the world is it includes a wealth of history that has touched people throughout the world.
The U.S. Army & Navy toyed with gliders preceding WWII, but abandoned the idea before achieving any success. Once the U.S. became embroiled in the conflicts in Europe & the Pacific, broad-minded Army leaders turned to civilian sporting groups for guidance when resurrecting the glider issue. After buying up the entire stock of sailplanes in the country, their next hurdle was personnel. Thinking they could delve into the ranks of “power” pilots, leadership was disappointed to find those ranks sparse. Enlisted men with no flying experience & “washouts” from power aviation training became the target audience for training. They may have been considered the “D” list at the beginning, but by the close of hostilities, their bravery & expertise were unquestioned. Staying aloft was not the primary goal – it was piloting a soaring cargo trailer to the ground quickly & in one piece.
The U.S. War Department took over what was then known as the Lubbock Municipal Airfield in 1942 & created the South Plains Army Airfield. The facility eventually was considered the largest glider training facility in the world.
According the Glider Pilots Association, more than 5,000 individuals volunteered & were trained as glider pilots & earned the right to wear silver wings emblazoned with the letter “G” – which they claim also stood for “guts.” They first saw action in 1943 with the invasion of Sicily, also known as Operation Husky, & their losses were heavy by any standard. Undeterred, their exploits saw them float into the center of warfare – from France to the Philippines.
One of the most famous glider pilots was actor Jackie Coogan, who enlisted in the Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but eventually transferred to the Army Air Force so that his flying skills could be put to use. He received his initial training in Lubbock. In his civilian life, Coogan began his acting career as a child &, later in life, earned fame as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family” television series. Legislation protecting the earnings of child actors bears his name, the Coogan Act, after his parents squandered the majority of his acting proceeds – estimated between $3-4 million ($48-65 million in 2012 dollars).
Resurrecting the Past
The Glider Pilot Association was formed in 1971 to ensure the exploits of this relatively small military group were not forgotten. One of their first goals was to find a glider & restore it to its original state. This was no easy task, as the gliders were considered expendable & were often destroyed or abandoned after landing. Trekking all the way to Fresno, California, a glider was located atop a business. The refurbished glider was unveiled at a 1979 reunion in Dallas.
Subsequently, the first Silent Wings Museum opened in Terrell, Texas in 1984. Almost 15 years passed before it became evident that a more permanent home was needed to adequately preserve this special niche in history. Lubbock seemed a logical successor, as most pilots were trained in the Hub City. The Terrell site closed at the beginning of 2001, ownership of the museum was transferred to the City of Lubbock & almost two years later the new museum opened, with the restored glider as the focal point of its exhibits. The museum encompasses 40,000 square feet of space, including three galleries, a theater, library, archive & office space. The building’s original air traffic control tower sports a pair of glider pilot wings.
The exhibits are surprisingly accessible. Visitors can walk right up to & touch airplanes – even poke their heads inside. It was easy to imagine what it might have been like to step aboard a glider & what it was like in a training classroom. The thought that kept running through my mind was, “This was flying “old school” – Wright Brothers old school.” It must have taken extreme courage to trust fate like this.
The mission of the museum is:
The Silent Wings Museum, a public institution, preserves & promotes the history of the World War II military glider program by creating an environment for collecting, documenting, interpreting & exhibiting artifacts & information for public education & enjoyment.
Reflections on a Modern Tragedy
The heroes of World War II are sharing their exhibit space at the Silent Wings Museum for a very short time with heroes of a more recent era – NASA shuttle astronauts.
In mid-February, “Columbia: Honoring Heroes Rick Husband & Willie McCool” opened on the 10th anniversary of the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia as it broke up over Texas & Louisiana on February 1, 2003. It was a mere 16 minutes from its scheduled landing in Florida.
According to NASA, Columbia launched on January 16, 2003, & the crew worked in two alternating shifts, 24 hours a day, to conduct approximately 80 experiments. In addition to Crew Commander Rick Husband & Pilot Willie McCool, the seven-member crew was composed of Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark & Ilan Ramon.
This event scarred the American psyche, & that point is well documented in the exhibit. More important, though, is recognizing Husband & McCool, their ties to West Texas & how two seemingly ordinary young men went about becoming legends. (I somehow hope this exhibit sets a young person on the road to achieving more than they ever dream possible.)
Evelyn Husband-Thompson, Husband’s widow, donated approximately 100 boxes of memorabilia to the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University. This academic research archive meticulously combed through the material to select items that would strike a chord with visitors. According the Amarillo Globe News, poignant objects include a photograph from an unprocessed roll of film that caught the Columbia crew in a floating formation. Also, it is mind-boggling that forces that ripped a spacecraft apart had little or no effect on a tiny, packaged contact lens or only slight damage to a signed CD of James Taylor’s “Greatest Hits,” both carried into orbit by Husband.
Also contributing to the Collection’s efforts were McCool’s parents, Barry & Audrey, who reside in Lubbock. Their son was a 1979 graduate of Coronado High, who went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in applied science in 1983. He received a Master of Science degree in computer science from the University of Maryland two years later & a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1992. McCool was selected to join NASA in 1996, & he made one shuttle flight – STS-107 Columbia. He logged 15 days, 22 hours & 20 minutes in space.
Husband was born & raised in Amarillo, where he graduated from Amarillo High in 1975. He traveled south the Lubbock, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1980. He rounded out his education with a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from California State University, Fresno, in 1990. He was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate in 1994. He eventually flew in two shuttle missions. The first was STS-96 Discovery, May 27-June 6, 1999. The second was the ill-fated Columbia mission. He totaled 24 days, 51 hours & 33 minutes in space.
The Texas Tech association I find most intriguing happened on January 28, 1977. This marked Husband’s first date with his future wife, Evelyn, who also graduated from Tech. She chose that anniversary to grant media interviews regarding the anniversary of her husband’s death. The Amarillo Globe News again captured the essence of her sentiments – it “bookended” her relationship with her husband. I can’t even begin to imagine the gut-wrenching grief of recognizing the beginning & ending of a life with the most important person in your life falling within a scant few days of each other.
“We work really hard to live in the present & look forward to the future. And I have to find that place in my gut to be able to talk about it without the devastation….But Rick was worth it,” Husband-Thompson said.
When asked if she had reached a milestone, she said, “I’ve learned to not be afraid of the grief.”
She remarried in 2008, & both of her children, Laura & Matthew, are pursuing their education & making their own on mark on the world.
Sharing the Grief
As a person on the sideline of history, there are moments that are so completely riveting, that witnesses of that history will always remember where they were & what they were doing at that particular instance in time – Columbia is definitely one of those moments.
One close friend remembers that Saturday morning at home & having to call her husband, who was at the site where he was building a home in Lubbock, & having to tell him what had happened.
Another friend was preparing to bowl in a city tournament in Amarillo. Her sister & a friend spent the night at her house, & she remembers sitting stunned in her living room, in her pajamas, unable to move. “I kept thinking this couldn’t be happening again,” she said. She was with her sister years before when Challenger exploded. “I decided then that I didn’t want to be near my sister when a shuttle was preparing to launch, in flight or landing.”
Oddly, her sister ended up having a unique experience regarding the Columbia disaster. She was the head police dispatcher in the small town where my husband grew up. Someone had phoned in possible shuttle debris in the days following the shuttle’s disintegration over Texas. The government representative on the other end of the phone found it challenging to locate the small Texas Panhandle town. He couldn’t even locate Amarillo or Clovis, New Mexico, leading her to believe there was not much of a chance he was going to find Friona easily.
The one thing I hope guests of Woodrow House Bed & Breakfast & visitors to the Lubbock area realize is the opportunity to view this material related to Columbia is finite, & it may never be made available to the general public again. Scholars will have access &, from that point, their interpretation of the collection will paint the picture of Evelyn Husband-Thompson’s donation & that of Willie McCool’s parents.
Treat yourself to a glimpse of World War II history &, through March 17, honor the memory of the brave men & women who dared to explore space & were willing to give their lives in the process.
Silent Wings Museum
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday: 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
General Admission: $5
Senior Citizens (60+): $3
Children (7-17): $2
Students (with ID): $2
Children 6 & Under, Museum Members & Active Duty Military Members (in uniform): Free
To reserve a tour, contact the Education Coordinator at (806)-775-3059 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two weeks notice required for guided tours.
National Glider Pilots Association, Inc.
Other West Texas WWII Museums
CAF Airpower Museum
Hangar 25 Air Museum
Big Spring, Texas
Texas Air Museum
National WWII WASP Museum
12th Armored Division Museum
Woodrow House Bed & Breakfast
David & Dawn Fleming, Owners/Innkeepers
2629 19th Street
(At corner of Boston Avenue across from Texas Tech University)
Lubbock, Texas 79410
Toll Free: 800-687-5236