The icy rescue of the P-38 'Glacier Girl'

Monday, November 12, 2007

McCook's Mike Nothnagle makes his living running trains, but he has a passion for airplanes -- all kinds of planes. For a number of years he has traveled west for the National Air Races at Reno, Nev., and has gotten acquainted with a number of the racing pilots and officials putting on the races. There are always interesting booths set up for book sellers with books about aviation history. 2007 was no exception, with a new book about the Lost Squadron of World War II. What made the 2007 Air Show special was that one of the planes, a P-38 fighter plane, from that Lost Squadron was at Reno, and actually flew a few exhibition laps around the race course, and was a part of the US Military Heritage Flight at the Reno Air Races.

When the United States entered the war in Europe, after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States made a determined effort to deliver food, arms, and men to England, first as a defensive effort against an expected attack against Great Britain by the Nazis, then as a staging area for airplanes for massive bombing raids on Hitler's homeland, and finally as a build-up for the D-Day invasion of the continent, with England as the launching ground.

In 1942 General Hap Arnold, the Commander of the Army Air Corps devised a plan for ferrying warplanes to England. In a super-secret operation, named Bolero, whole squadrons of fighter planes and bombers flew from the United States to England, with refueling stops in Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland. The plan worked well, and many much needed planes were ferried in this way to England without incident. However, this changed in July of 1942, when a Squadron consisting of two B-17 Bombers and six P-38 fighters set out on their flight to England.

All went well to Labrador, and at the refueling station on the west coast of Greenland. The planes crossed the icecap of northern Greenland, flying at 12,000', but east of Greenland they ran into a very heavy bank of clouds. Attempts to fly above the storm seemed to be successful, though the temperature inside the planes dropped to minus 10 degrees F. 90 minutes out of Iceland the storm worsened and the Commander of the Squadron made the decision to turn back to Greenland and land at the base where they had recently refueled.

The planes of the squadron made their way back to Greenland, but erratic compass headings and lack of sufficient fuel forced a crash-landing on the eastern side of the Greenland, far from the refueling station to which they were headed. The first plane tried to land wheels down and flipped over in the attempt. The rest of the planes, bombers and fighters, made crash landings, wheels up. Miraculously, there were no casualties, and the men were able to cope with their environment until they were rescued days later, by teams of dog sleds, which took the survivors through 17 miles of crevassed-crossed snowfields to the coast, where a Coast Guard Cutter waited.

All of the men of the squadron eventually returned to active duty. For more than 50 years, the planes of the Lost Squadron rested at the site of the crash, unseen, but not forgotten. Then in 1992 an entrepreneur, Roy Shoffner led a successful expedition (the 10th such expedition, dating back to 1977) to rescue one of the planes of that ill fated mission from its icy grave. The 1992 expedition found that the planes were resting under some 268' of solid ice (equivalent to the height of a 23 story building), built up since 1942 (How does that fit in with our reports of global warming?) The 1992 expedition to Greenland consisted of some 40 workers and a cost of more than $350,000.

The device chosen to reach the plane(s) was a "Gopher Thermal Meltdown Generator," which melted ice by circulating hot water from a collector and pumping it through copper tubing coiled around the outside of the machine, creating a 4'-wide hole. It melted into the ice at a rate of about 2' per hour. The water created was pumped out through a hose coupled to a submersible pump. The operation to reach the planes took about a month to complete.

Once the planes were reached, men armed with steam hoses carved a cave around the planes for working space. It was determined that the planes were perfectly preserved in ice, but some of the planes, especially the two bombers, were too badly damaged by the crash landing to be saved. It was decided to bring one of the P-38s to the surface, by first completely dismantled the plane. They found that the instrument panel was intact, and the machine guns were able to be fired when they were brought to the surface.

Most of the lifting of parts to the surface was accomplished by one manually operated winch, which required four turns to lift 1/4th inch. It required great strength to operate the winch, but also allowed the workers to be extremely careful, both to avoid damaging the parts being hoisted by banging into the ice walls, and also they could make sure that the airplane part being lifted did not fall back into the hole.

Once the parts of the P-38 were rescued from the icy depths they were transported to Mr. Shoffner's hanger in Middlesboro Ky., for the reassembly process. Each part was carefully inspected. If damaged in any way it was replaced. Reassembly of the plane took 10 years, and countless dollars. But in October 2002 the reconstruction was complete and Glacier Girl (as the plane was christened) flew once more, with pilot Steve Hinton at the controls. From 2002 to 2007 the plane was rarely flown, and was housed in the Lost Squadron museum in Middlesboro. However, in 2005 Roy Shoffner passed away and his children felt that they were unable to continue the museum.

In 2006, Ray Lewis, a pilot and president of the Lewis Energy Group of San Antonio, bought "Glacier Girl" from the Shoffner family and since that time has made it a feature of Air Shows, including the Reno show.

The P-38 was one of the outstanding fighter planes of World War II. During the war the Lockeed Corp., turned out some 10,000 of the planes. At the beginning of the war it was bigger, faster and could climb higher than any other U.S. warplane in production. It was the only fighter plane in manufacture at the time of Pearl Harbor to still be in production at the end of World War II.

At war's end it accounted for more Japanese aircraft destroyed than any other U.S. plane.

Richard I. Bong and Thomas B. McGuire Jr., America's top aces and 15 other American aces in World War II all piloted P-38s. Yes, the P-38 did its part in winning the war of the skies in World War II. Of the 10,000 P-38s built during World War II only four are in flying condition today.

We are indebted to Ray Lewis and Roy Shoffner, as well as other historically minded entrepreneurs for seeing fit to preserve this bit of aviation history for all of us. Plans are in the works for the Glacier Girl to complete the journey to England, following the same route that she began 65 years ago, in 1942.

In the meantime, watch for the P-38, Glacier Girl, hopefully appearing at your neighborhood Air Show sometime in the near future.

Source: The Lost Squadron, by David Haynes

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