As a former combat pilot, Charlie Summers can admire the courage of the men who willingly flew engineless planes into combat during World War II.

Over the years, the 78-year-old Vietnam veteran has become a de facto historian of the 39 men he found who flew gliders behind enemy lines.

Four pilots that he knows of died in combat. At least two others were captured and released after the war. He is not sure exactly how many are still alive today.

During World War II, South Dakotan glider pilots were part of at least five operations carrying men and supplies behind enemy lines including at Normandy, in Southern France, and in the Netherlands.

Part of what made them extraordinary was their willingness to accept the risks.

"We were in a risky business all right, but a lot of us had it as bad or worse than us," said Lynus Ryan, 95, of Custer, a retired civil engineer who flew glider missions in Normandy and Holland.

"Everybody is scared. You don’t know what is going to happen and you always expect the worst," he said.

"The paratroopers were right ahead of us. They could carry a weapon, but not much to fight with. But the gliders, we could bring in supplies. That was something they really needed. They needed transport, they needed weapons," Ryan said.

The skill necessary to land safely set them apart from other combat pilots, according to Summers.

"They had a real esprit de corps," he said. "It's pretty challenging. The one landing you make has to be right on the money."

There is very little Summers cannot land himself. He said he has flown everything from airplanes, helicopters, gyro planes and hot air balloons.

Everything, he said, except the Goodyear blimp.

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"He's a pilot's pilot in some way. People are kind of drawn to him, because he knows his stuff," said Brad Morgan, head of the Black Hills Veterans Writing Group, which asked him to speak on Saturday.

A glider is a perfect vehicle for an aviation enthusiast like Summers, who owns two gliders he reconstructed.

They were relatively cheap to purchase. He bought one in parts in a "basket case" in Alabama and another from an insurance company at between $1,500 to $2,000 each, then reassembled and fixed them up.

Summers thinks he could sell each for a few thousand dollars more than what he paid, but like a car enthusiast, he has gotten a little too fond of them.

He named one after a South Dakotan World War II glider pilot he finally met a few years back.

The pilot's modest attitude was typical for veterans of their era.

"They didn't think they had done anything unusual," he said.

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