|THE LOST SQUADRON
THE RECOVERY OF P-38 "GLACIER GIRL"
P-38 Photo by Wayland Mayo.
On Tuesday, July 7, 1942, a squadron of new aircraft was on it's way from Presque Isle, Maine, to Labrador, Greenland, to Iceland, then to Scotland. This was operation Bolero, and consisted of six P-38's and two B-17's. The group involved 25 men from the Army Air Force 94th Fighter Force. The flight to Greenland where they refueled was uneventful. Airborne again they were on their way to Iceland. At twelve thousand feet as they crossed the Greenland ice cap layers of heavy clouds rolled in. Only an hour from Reykjavik, Iceland, weather deteriorated. The B-17 radio operator was unable to raise either Reykjavik or a weather plane flying ahead of them. With the P-38's in icing conditions and weather becoming more dense it was decided to return to the western side of Greenland. After flying through dense clouds for an hour and a half they sighted the coastal mountains of the east coast of Greenland. There was an unconfirmed mixup of weather reports of the BW-1 base at the southern tip and the BW-8 base where they were headed. The possibility exist that the weather at their original destination was O.K. and they could have proceeded as planned. However the decision to land was made based on insufficient fuel supply . McManus in his P-38 was first to land. He went in wheels down. Big mistake. The front gear buckled and dug into the ice flipping the plane upside down. McManus managed to kick and dig his way out as the cockpit filled with smoke. One by one the other five P-38's slid to a successful landing with gear up. The two B-17's circled expending their remaining fuel, then made successful gear up landings. All crewmembers were safe.
After the successful landings their next problem was one of survival and rescue. Radio operators sent out position reports, and three days later two C-47's dropped supplies and their worries were over. Preparations were made to move out, as they gathered their gear and waited for the rescue team. They fired their .45's into electronic equipment and instruments in case Nazi scavengers found the planes. The rescue team arrived, and they struggled for hours through the snow and ice to finally reach the beach. Hours later the Coast Guard Cutter Northland picked them up and took them to BW-1 at the southern tip. After debriefing they were returned to the U.S. The squadron wasn't really lost, just abandoned.
Several years later when treasure hunters arrived they found all the planes had vanished. No one saw them for almost 40 years. In 1981 A pilot taxied his Lear Jet up to Pat Epp's hangar, and Epps commented what a beautiful airplane. The pilot replied " yes, but I have always wanted a P-38". Epps called his friend Richard Taylor and asked was he ready to make a trip to Greenland. They formed the Greenland Expedition Society and headed to Greenland to retrieve the aircraft. They would dig them out, brush them off and fly them out, right? Well not exactly. They thought the planes were under a few feet of snow. To their surprise not one plane was visible, they were nowhere to be found. Even the metal detector produced nothing. Frustrated, they left. Both returned a few months later for a second try. This time it was the dangerously unpredictable weather that had covered their equipment with snow and ice, making any progress impossible. They had no alternative but to leave again. Five years passed with two teams trying without finding anything. Running short of money they decided to charge volunteers five thousand dollars each to be a part of the search team. The 1986 mission failed again, with money flowing down the drain. By this time both men were ready to give up and quit the project. They tried another plan, to sell one eighth of a P-38 for twenty five thousand dollars. In 1988 they returned with a sub-serface radar device that could detect objects beneath the ice. Mounted on a sled it was pulled repeatedly over a square mile area with no results. Finally, just when they were ready to quit for the last time, the scope picked up an object. Gordon Scott sent down the steam probe 100', then 200', then at over 250' down it hit something. As luck would have it extremely bad weather rolled in again ruining once again their chances of recovering anything. They were forced to leave. A year later in 1989 they returned with a core drill. They sank it down to the 250' depth and it struck something, apparently metal. It drilled through, and when pulled up there was a piece of aircraft aluminum in the bit. This created excitement and enthusiasm for the weary group, they had actually found one of the planes. The find was over a mile from the original crash site. It seemed impossible but the squadron of planes had not only moved over a mile, but had sunk down over 250 feet in solid ice. Now how do you get an airplane up through 250 feet of solid ice?
They returned with skilled crews to attempt the recovery. Gordon Scott was the Expedition team leader. They brought with them a device called the "Super Gopher", looking much like a giant plumb bob. A thermal meltdown generator was used that melts the ice by circulating hot water through copper tubing coiled around the outside. The four foot wide device was supported over the shaft by a steel A frame. It was lowered at a rate of two feet per hour. Of course the shaft it was drilling would quickly fill up with water so a hose coupled to a submersible pump took care of that, pumping out the water from the melt off. Weather again interrupted the operation with temperatures dropping to below zero and snow burying everything. Work stopped, survival was more important. It was so bad some of the members thought they were going to die. Even after it cleared once again the crew had to spend days digging out the huge snow banks.
The Gopher continued it's downward plunge, coming to rest on an object. A huge four foot wide shaft over 250 feet down led to something, but what? Some crewmembers must go down the dangerous shaft, let down by hand cranked cables. The first sight of the object was a propeller. It was a B-17. Taylor and Epps lowered to inspect the plane. The entire plane was crushed almost beyond recognition under the tons of pressure. It was beyond repair. They considered the entire project had finally come to an end. After long discussions it was thought maybe a P-38 being smaller could have withstood the pressure better then the B-17. They were facing emotionally and financially draining heartbreaking problems. They were out of money and Epps business had failed. What next?
A savior. In Feb. of 1992 Roy Shoffner put up 250,000 dollars to continue the operation. Bob Cardin would head the operation. There was trouble and dissatisfaction brewing, and Scott was getting to be a problem. After three weeks of work the team still had not reached the P-38. The Gopher continued it's downward journey, and three days later it hit something. They had finally found a P-38, all in one piece, and not as badly crushed as the B-17. After careful deliberation it was decided to bring it up, for better or worse. This required a cave like room to be carved out around the airplane so the crew had room to dismantle it. The first items to be brought up were the four .50 cal. machine guns and the 20mm cannon. Surprisingly enough they were all in operating condition. They actually fired the cannon, blowing up a barrel. High water pressure had cleared all the ice from the plane, and the process of dismantling it began. The Gopher was moved over and new holes drilled enlarging the shaft considerably. After all bringing up the engines and wing sections was quite a job. The dissention among the crew continued, and Scott seemed to be the cause of it. He was replaced. After five expeditions and seven years he was through. In 1992 the huge center section had to be brought up. Pat Epps and some of the crew left, leaving a crew of seven to bring up the center section. Epps had developed an apathetic attitude toward Shoffner, even though Shoffner had now put up over 600,000 dollars. If not for him the project would have been history.
Now it is time to bring up the center section. It is 21 feet long and weighs over 7,000 pounds. There is worry that the frame support and cables will not stand the strain. It takes eight days to pull it up. A helicopter transports it to a waiting ship: destination, Middlesboro, Kentucky. It will end up in Roy Shoffner's hangar. Finally all of the parts of the plane are there. The job does not seem possible. Every single piece must be rebuilt or replaced. How long would it take and who had the ability to perform such a restoration? Where would the unlimited amount of money come from? Epps and Taylor agreed to split the cost, but would have to raise the money. Shoffner would pay for everything until Epps and Taylor could come up with the money. Bob Cardin was hired to take complete charge of the restoration. Repair or replace, his decision. The Smithsonian was able to supply microfilm, Photocopies of AF manuals, and an extensive restoration library. Some help came in from professional volunteers. There were hundreds of hydraulic lines, pumps, wrinkled sheet metal, instruments, control cables, and the engines had to be rebuilt. Epps and Taylor could not come up with the money, and made a settlement with Shoffner, who was now the sole owner of the P-38 now called "Glacier Girl". Year after year passed with Cardin working diligently on the plane. Even Shoffner cannot come up with a final cost of the project. Cardin worked ten years restoring Glacier Girl. Now complete it was the most authentic P-38 in the world.
In August 2002, Steve Hinton, one of the most experienced warplane pilots in the world, flew in to agree to be the test pilot for Glacier Girl. It was a magnificent sight when Glacier Girl was rolled out of the hangar. Steve Hinton climbed into the cockpit, fired up the engines, it was time to make the taxi test.There was a drop in the hydraulic pressure so he shut it down. He suggested the hydraulic pumps be replaced with a later type. They scheduled the actual test flight in October, two months away. The pumps were changed, and a final thorough going over was done. The plane was ready. On October 26, 2002, Steve Hinton returned to make the first test flight. Over 20,000 people showed up at the small airport to see this dramatic event. Epps and Taylor were there, as was Gordon Scott. Hinton, who is a very cool pilot, climbed into the cockpit, taxied out, ran up the engines, and made a beautiful smooth take off. There was a photo chase plane waiting to fly along side the P-38. What a beautiful sight that brought tears to everyone's eyes. After circling the field a few times Steve brought the rare and graceful masterpiece in for a perfect landing. It was a dramatic, nostalgic happening , with everyone cheering. What a happy and wonderful ending for this seemingly impossible story.
COMMENTS: A grateful thumbs up for Bob Cardin for his perseverance in creating this
Written by Wayland Mayo, website historian.