Glacier Girl and the Lost Squadron.
I tell the faqscinating true story of the P38 Lightning Fighter that was lost in Greenland along with a whole squadron in WWII.
Glacier Girl and the lost Squadron.
The lost squadron and Glacier girl.
In 1941 American was drawn into world war two, by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. America declared war against Japan. In retaliation to this declaration Germany declared war on the United States. Britain and America are very close politically and socially. America wanted to join in the European theatre of war, there first act was to set up an army air force that was based in Britain, which would allow America to launch aircraft against targets in Germany.
Ferry flights of aircraft left America from Presque Island in Main to Labrador then onto Greenland then to Iceland and finally arriving in Scotland. On July 7th 1942 a Squadron of aircraft left the United States bound for England, the squadron consisted of six P38 lightening fighters. The lightening fighter was very distinctive looking aircraft it was twin engine and a twin boom fuselage. Both engines were supercharged which gave the P38 a very high top speed and a high service ceiling.
The P38 was the first fighter to have the fuel range to escort bombers into Germany. Joining the six P38’s were two Boeing B17 heavy bombers, The B17 was a very capable high flying well defended bomber. The ferry operation was called “Operation Bolero”
There were 25 Army Air Force personnel in the flight. The squadron had an uneventful flight to Greenland where the flight landed and was refuelled. The squadron took off and headed for Iceland. An hour before the squadron was due to land in Reykjavik in Iceland the weather closed in with freezing cloud formations and drifting blizzards of snow.
The radio operators in the B17 Flying fortresses were unable to reach the airport in Iceland probably due to the appalling weather conditions. The decision was made to return to Greenland and wait out the snow storms. In the desperate weather conditions the squadron made its way back to Greenland once over land there was confusion as to where the airport lay, the squadron was lost!
The fuel supply was running low as the squadron peered through the gloom trying to locate the airport. In desperation the squadron decided to land on the snow and await rescue. The first P38 attempted a landing on the snow and ice with his landing gear locked down, the front landing strut dug into the ice and buckled which upturned the fighter onto its back! The pilot had to kick out his canopy and dig his way through the snow.
The remaining P38’s landed with wheels up which is called a belly landing. This technique worked and the pilots walked uninjured from their P38’s. The two Flying Fortresses circled burning off fuel and then they to did belly landings with no injury to the crews and minimal damage to the B17 bombers.
The radio operators signalled their positions to the airport which despatched a rescue team. When the weather cleared supplies were dropped by C47 transport aircraft and the emergency was over. The crews sheltered in their aircraft until a rescue team found them two days later. The aircrew shot the electrical equipment with their side arms in case German troops found the intact aircraft and stole their technology.
There was no attempt to salvage the brand new aircraft due to the remoteness of the crash site, the squadron became known as the “Lost Squadron” which referred to the fact there would be no attempt to salvage the aircraft.
The story now jumps ahead 40 years to 1981, an aircraft enthusiast called Richard Taylor wanted to salvage a P38 fighter and restore it to flight. He enlisted the help of Pat Epps an aircraft hanger owner. Together they formed the Greenland Expeditionary Society.
Due to the remoteness of the eight aircraft the team expected the WW2 aircraft to be under two feet of snow and due to the freezing conditions, they also expected the aircraft to be immaculately preserved with no corrosion. The first expedition failed to find the aircraft at all! Where had eight heavy aircraft gone to?
For the next seven years expeditions failed to find the aircraft, until in 1988 a deep penetration underground radar system found a positive hit. There was an aircraft under the ice however it was 250ft under the ice! And one mile away from the reported crash site. Over the 40 years snow had buried and reburied the aircraft and they became part of the ice-shelf and they moved when the ice flow moved, which accounted for the difficulty in locating such a big target.
A special drill was lowered that brought back some green painted aluminium, it was definitely an American ww2 aircraft. The team returned the next year with a specially created tool which melted the ice as it was lowered downwards. After a few days the wreckage of an aircraft was struck. The tool made a two feet wide shaft, an expedition member was lowered on a rope to inspect the aircraft. Once at the crash site the aircraft was identified as a B17 flying fortress.
Unfortunately the bomber had been crushed under the weight of hundreds of tonnes of ice for over 40 years. The massive B17 was flat as a pancake! There was no point in trying to salvage the aircraft as it was almost an unrecognisable heap of crushed aluminium.
The expedition was nearly aborted until it was decided that the sleek P38 Lightening was armour plated in some sections and was constructed to take G-forces and therefore its construction was far sturdier than the B17 bomber. A fellow aircraft enthusiast called Roy Shoffner invested $250,000 to recover a P38 from under 250ft of solid ice.
A fresh site was found and the special ice melting equipment was lowered once more at 250ft an aircraft was found. A team member was lowered by rope and confirmed it was a P38 and although it was crushed it was in far better shape than the B17. A huge cave was carved out of the ice 250ft down. The cave gave enough working room to dissemble the fighter and winch sections to the surface.
The heavy engines were salvaged first along with .50 calibre machine guns and 20mm cannons. The 20mm cannon looked unmarked and was test fired onsite, it blew a hole in a barrel full of water it decimated the barrel completely, the cannon was as good as the day it left the factory and the ammunition still worked! The total cost of recovering the aircraft from under the ice was $600,000 and that is before any restoration work commenced!
Bob Cardin was chosen to restore the aircraft now renamed as “Glacier Girl” to flight status. The Smithsonian museum, volunteered blue prints and manuals on the P38 Lightening. The restoration task was enormous much of the fuselage was crushed and had to be reworked or fabricated from new. Several professional restorers volunteered to help restore the P38.
The restoration took 10 years! The final cost of the rebuild isn’t for public knowledge but I suspect in will be in the millions of dollars. On October 26th 1992 “Glacier Girl” took to the air in the hands of Steve Hinton one of the most experienced war-bird pilots in the world. 20,000 people turned up at the aerodrome to see “Glacier Girl” take to the air after 50 years. The pilot said the aircraft flew like a dream!
“Glacier Girl” is widely known as the most authentic P38 flying in the world a tribute to Roy Shoffner’s passion and financial backing, and Bon Cardin’s unswerving and professional restoration. “Glacier Girl” can be seen at air-shows across the U.S.