The ‘Snatch Method’ Was One Crazy Way to Make a Glider Fly
During World War II, speeding aircraft snatched gliders off the ground
Somewhere in Normandy a few weeks after D-Day, Pvt. 1st Class Donald Huard had the ride of his life.
A U.S. Army medic, Huard had volunteered to fly from a Royal Air Force base near the Blandford Camp military hospital complex in southern England on a glider mission that transported medical supplies and medical personnel to field hospitals in France.
Hundreds of casualties a day were pouring into Allied hospitals because of the aftermath of Operation Overlord and the subsequent push into France. Gliders, one of the forgotten aerial workhorses of World War II, were normally aircraft that went on a one-way trip.
Not that day, Huard said.
“I saw men stretch out the glider’s tether,” Huard told War Is Boring. “One end was attached to the nose of the glider, the other end was split and attached to something that looked like a big volleyball net. We were ordered to get on board the glider after we helped load the wounded.”
The next thing he knew, Huard heard the roar of an approaching, low-flying C-47. Using a tail-hook mechanism, the aircraft snagged the net as it hung between two supports and yanked the British Horsa glider into the air.
“It was, ‘Whoosh! Zoom!’” Huard said, making hand gestures describing the action. “We were up in the air like a bat out of Hell.”
The Allies called it the “snatch method” of glider retrieval. It might seem like one of the more crazy schemes of World War II. Today, the use of gliders by both the Third Reich and the Allies is all but forgotten.
But at the time, gliders were a clever method of using existing manufacturing methods to produce aircraft capable of moving both men and material onto the battlefield — and quickly.
Manufacturers made the American CG4-A Waco out an extremely strong frame of steel tubing covered with canvas. The British Horsa glider was almost entirely made of plywood. But they weren’t the first gliders used during the war, according to Donald Abbe, curator of the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Texas.
Nazi Germany successfully used gliders for a number of airborne operations well before the United States entered the war. The U.S. military followed the Third Reich’s lead.
By 1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces developed one of the most essential strategies for the upcoming invasion of occupied Europe, Abbe said. The strategy was vertical envelopment — the practice of dropping tens of thousands of airborne troops behind enemy lines to engage the Germans.
“These planned airborne operations could not succeed without some way to deliver heavy materials the paratroopers would need as they went in,” Abbe said.
Gliders could land the jeeps, artillery, ammo, medical teams, machine gunners and mortar squads needed to support Allied paratroopers once they were on the ground. They also frequently delivered troops, including during the famous D-Day assault by members of the British 6th Airborne Division on the Pegasus Bridge between Caen and Ouistreham.
After being towed by powerful aircraft — such as bombers that served as tugs — gliders dropped their tethers and landed in open fields. This was a real advantage in an age before transport helicopters. “Gliders put people or material right where they were needed no matter where that need happened to be,” Abbe said.
But it was a one-way trip — and you didn’t get a second chance to choose a landing spot. That could be dangerous.
“Anytime a human is more than two or three feet above ground, it is dangerous, and even more hazardous if they are also moving up to 150 miles per hour regardless of what they are in,” said Charles Day, a military historian and the national secretary of the National World War II Glider Pilots Association.
“Without power to prolong flight, the glider was limited to going down. So, depending on altitude at cut-off from the tug, the pilot had only a couple of minutes to select his landing spot and fly the glider to the ground.”
However, most landings were successful. In fact, gliders frequently landed in a condition that left them perfectly flyable. Soon, military planners wondered whether the USAAF could pack grounded gliders with wounded troops and somehow take off again.
Enter the snatch method. Day said the origins of the retrieval system date back to a technique used by aircraft to grab mail bags from the ground using low-flying aircraft.
American and British gliders both weighed about 8,000 pounds — heavy, but not impossible to snatch into the sky by a powerful aircraft like the Dakota that would have to fly less than 20 feet off the ground at about 120 miles per hour.
The Dakota pilot flew the plane so the pick-up hook would shoot between ground poles that held the nylon pickup loop. The poles were 12 feet tall, spaced 20 feet apart. The glider awaiting pickup was placed off to the side and behind the pickup poles so that the path of the C-47 was not directly above the glider.
To reduce the stress on the glider, the pick-up hook was attached to a winch. The winch was like a giant fishing reel with more than 1,000 feet of 3/8-inch diameter steel-wire rope as the line.
Once the hook engaged the pick-up loop, the cable on the winch unwound but maintained enough tension to begin pulling the glider along the ground. The glider then accelerated to take-off speed. The whole process was fast, but just slow enough to prevent the glider from being torn apart.
“In less than seven seconds from the moment of contact the glider would be flying at the same speed as the C-47 as the steel cable played out approximately 600 feet,” Day said.
The stress on the passengers were also minimal. During those few seconds, the G-force on the glider was only seven-tenths of a single G. “Today there are many amusement rides that exert more than 4 Gs on the riders,” Day added.
U.S airborne forces continued to use gliders until 1948. By then, helicopters were more reliable, possessing all-weather flying capability and respectable cargo capacity in larger models.
But Huard’s flight on a glider snatched from the ground — the second of two glider flights that he performed during his wartime service — was his last.
“That was enough for me,” he said.
He never volunteered for another glider mission.
Huard remained in the U.S. Army until 1946, serving in the European, Pacific, and American theaters of operation before receiving his honorable discharge. He applied to Officer’s Candidate School but was turned down because of poor eyesight.
Donald Huard died on June 25, 2015. He was 90 years old.