Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, C in C of RAF Transport Command was in charge of the bomber ferry flights across the Atlantic, and authorised experiments in the use of a Transatlantic glider service for freight and return of ferry crews from overseas. Few details were published in the UK press at the time for obvious reasons, but the co-pilot of the glider Sqn Ldr (later Wg Cdr) F.M.Gorbeil gave an account in 1974 to members of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, from which these details are taken.
The RAF aircraft used were Waco CG-4A Hadrian FR579, Douglas Dakota FD900 and Consolidated Catalina FP159, the last in case the glider had to cast off over the sea where it was hoped the Catalina might be able to land and rescue the crew. All three aircraft were on normal delivery flights.
To gain experience, preliminary flights were undertaken with the glider empty except for prescribed ballast, loads gradually being increased until the full permissible load could be carried. Longer flights were undertaken, and in mid-winter a full load was carried from Montreal to Newfoundland, Labrador and return, establishing a world non-stop record for military glider tugs of 880 miles. Later, a full-load over-water flight was made from Montreal to Nassau, and on the return a new record was set for a non¬stop flight between Nassau and Richmond, Virginia, a distance of 1,187 miles in 8hr 50min.
The Hadrian could be fitted with or without wheel brakes, the latter being used with wheels being dropped after launch, landing to be on skids. Two fully-qualified transatlantic captains were carried in the Hadrian, Sqn Ldr Gorbeil and Wg Cdr Richard Seyes, each having a full set of flying controls, but there was no auto-pilot. Communication with the Dakota was by a walkie-talkie radio, while the 350ft tow rope was of 11/16in nylon, attachment points on both aircraft being able to withstand a 20,000lb load.
The Dakota had a crew of four, captain Flt Lt WS Longhurst, co-pilot Flt Lt C.WN.
Thompson, flight engineer Plt Off R.H.
Wormington and radio officer Mr H.G.
Wightman. Standard 400-gallon long- range tanks were added increasing the fuel capacity to 1,900 gallons. Speed for the first 4/ hours was around 120mph, increasing to 140 mph as the weight decreased. With all this fuel, the Dakota’s _ _ . _ _ _ range was and weight increased from 22,500lb to 31,500lb.
Leg 1 of the crossing began on June 23,
1943, the Hadrian being loaded with vaccine, radio, aircraft and motor parts for Russia. The take-off was uneventful and initially weather was good. However, massive clouds later forced the aircraft to fly beneath them, where violent turbulence was encountered. Both glider pilots used all their strength but the Hadrian was still tossed around, its airspeed ranging from 95 to 165mph; the tow rope one minute being limp and the next taut, while temperature dropped below zero. Eventually, Goose Bay airfield was found and the glider cast loose from 1,000ft and landed.
Following a wait for suitable weather, Leg 2 began on June 27, the first long over¬ocean part to Greenland. Three squadrons of B-26 Marauders overtook the tow at over 200mph, and after passing the famous Sugarbowl Mountain, then came the task of landing the fully-loaded Hadrian on a narrow, steel-matted airfield hemmed in by mountains. Cutting loose at 7,000ft, it made a perfect landing, but examination of the tow rope showed one of three strands at each end almost worn through.
After re-splicing the rope, Leg 3 began following a comprehensive check by ground crews on June 30. Normal take-off from here was to become airborne just before the end of the strip, clearing icebergs by a few feet and climbing to around 12,000ft to avoid the tops of icefields. Atfull load in both aircraft,
‘ ” however, this was obviously impossible, so they flew out low over the sea, the Dakota leaving the ground about two feet from the end of the strip and the sea, with the Hadrian about 15ft higher – a grandstand seat! It took half an hour to reach 5,000ft, but because sufficient ► altitude to fly over the Greenland icecap could not be reached Cape Farewell had to be circled, adding 200 miles to the flight.
The Catalina was met at 5,000ft as arranged, and conditions became bumpy and foggy, forcing instrument flying – the glider crew’s vision being restricted to some 80ft of tow rope ahead, and icing began to form. Eventually, and slowly, the tow climbed through the clouds and on approach to Iceland they were advised that the Reykjavik weather was perfect. Some 45 minutes out, they were met by three USAAF fighters and escorted in, as the area was within reach of Luftwaffe long-range aircraft.
More repairs to the tow rope were needed, causing a delay in departure, but Leg 4, the final, was flown on July 1 over part of the Russian convoy route where enemy aircraft were common. Fighter escorts were requested for each end of this leg, but neither appeared. Four hours out, and with great relief, the Hebrides were sighted in perfect weather, but thick haze over the mainland obscured a balloon barrage, notice of which had not been given, necessitating the Dakota to make a rapid turn and passing over the Hadrian in the opposite direction!
Just after 1pm landings were made at Prestwick, and the viability of the flight had been proved. Lord Trenchard was pleased and congratulated A.C.M Bowhill, while The Aeroplane’s grouchy editor C.G. Grey said, “the RAF has still to explain what advantage was derived from towing the load instead of carrying it inside a Dakota with empty tanks.” He seems to have forgotten the Dakota was full of fuel and couldn’t carry anything else!
Afterwards, it was decided that the Hadrian would hang in the British National Museum. A few days after arrival at Prestwick it was collected by a ferry pilot for delivery to a southern aerodrome, but crashed on landing and was destroyed. Official records show that it had initially served with the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU) and then the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment
(AFEE) before being struck off charge on October 9, 1946. This does not appear to agree with the crash details above, but it could be several years in some cases before an aircraft was struck off charge after an accident.
Dakota FD900 served with 512, 511 and 575 Squadrons and 45 Group before hitting a B-24 on take-off at Lagens on March 21, 1945.
The Catalina was the longest lasting, serving with the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE), 302 Ferry Training Unit (FTU) and 413 and 262 Squadrons before being struck off charge on July 12, 1946.