During the summer of 1942, one of World War II’s most fascinating sagas took place on the icy slopes of Greenland. A flight of World War II airplanes were being flown to England from the United States in support of the war in Europe. In the early morning of July 15, a flight of two B-17 Bombers and six P-38 Fighters departed from Presque Isle Air Base in Maine headed for England. The planes were to join operation Bolero, code name for the growing allied force that would someday liberate occupied Europe from Hitler’s armies.
As the planes streamed over the barren landscape, they flew into a massive storm system near Iceland. In an attempt to avoid the storm, they climbed higher. But the cloud cover thickened, ice formed on the wings, and the inadequately protected pilots began to suffer from the severe cold.
In desperation, the flight turned back for the safety of Greenland. But, again, they ran into storms. With fuel running low, the planes broke through the heavy cloud cover. However, when the flight established its location, the crews realized they were far from their base and would not have enough fuel to reach safety. Their only chance for survival was to crash land on the glacial wastes of Greenland.
Since the icecap appeared to be smooth, flat and hard, the first plane to attempt landing, a P-38, came in with its wheels down. Although the plane flipped over, the pilot , 1Lt Brad McManus, sustained only minor injuries. Amazingly, all remaining aircraft got down without significant injuries to any of the men. It was the largest forced landing in Air Force history — including six P-38s, two B-17s and 25 crew members. They were stranded ten miles south of the Arctic Circle. Fortunately, after eleven days the men were rescued and the airplanes abandoned.
Lost & Found
During the years following the war’s end, thirteen expeditions have been launched to recover The Lost Squadron. It took ten years and a number of fundraising efforts to locate the site of the Lost Squadron on the mammoth Greenland Inland Ice Cap. First, the planes had moved a mile closer to the sea than their original WW II location due to cold flow on the glacier. Second, the depth that the planes were now buried came as a surprise, and required outside help from radio sounding experts to penetrate the depth of a 27 story building.
A system using a steam probe with 300 feet of hose was developed to verify the locations by probing until contact with a plane was made. Next, a “gopher” device was developed to melt a man-hole four feet in diameter, at the rate of about two feet per hour, to the plane some 268 feet below the surface.
Appropriately, in the summer of 1992, exactly 50 years after that fateful day, success was achieved. On August 1, 1992 at 2:32 p.m., after four months of laborious work, a seven member team surfaced the first and only P-38 and christened her “Glacier Girl”.
Upon her return to the United States, she soon found her home in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Located at the Middlesoboro-Bell County Airport, she is being restored to flyable condition by a team of restoration experts.
Restoring Glacier Girl
After resurrecting a plane from 268 feet of ice, how do you begin the restoration process? Fortunately, the plane’s owner, J. Roy Shoffner, found an expert in the field – Bob Cardin. Cardin has spearheaded the recovery and restoration efforts of Glacier Girl since 1992.
A 53-year old native of Rhode Island, Cardin has degrees in education and military science. His extensive experience in the aviation field began in the Vietnam War, where he served as a helicopter pilot. After his return to the U.S., Cardin worked his way up through the military ranks to Lieutenant Colonel and served as an instructor-pilot and an advisor to the New Hampshire Air National Guard. Most recently, he worked for Mallen Industries, a textile company, as Chief Pilot.
In resurrecting Glacier Girl, Cardin’s goal was to keep as many parts in tact as possible. Consequently, the WWII P-38 fighter plane was removed piece-by-piece from the glacier. Due to the pressures of heavy snows, then summer melt water, and eventual encapsulation in solid ice, many parts had to be straightened, rebuilt, or replaced to restore them to flyable condition.
According to Cardin, the biggest challenge in rebuilding Glacier Girl, as in any vintage airplane, is finding old parts. After conducting tireless research and hundreds of phone calls, Cardin has been able to track down many original parts for the P-38. He estimates that when Glacier Girl flies again, it will contain approximately 80 percent of her original parts.
Glacier Girl’s Future
“Glacier Girl will be one of the most perfect warbird restorations ever,” said Cardin. “Many other restored planes consist of just a few original parts, and a variety of brand-new and adapted components. Not this plane. Since it was virtually brand-new when it crash landed, it was in very good condition when it was recovered. And we’ve rebuilt the plane with only the highest of standards.”
Glacier Girl is one of approximately ten planes of its kind known to exist (more than 10,000 were produced during World War II). In addition, the plane is one of only four that is in flying condition.
Plans for Glacier Girl include a tour of the country, accompanied by displays and exhibits about World War II and the history of aviation. In addition, Shoffner plans on retracing Glacier Girl’s flight path through the Northeastern Arctic to complete the flight from West Greenland to Iceland, and from Iceland to Scotland, as was ordered by the Bolero Command in July, 1942.