Glacier Girl

WWII P-38 Lightning marks 20 years since recovery from Greenland glacier

Story by Randy Roughton

© Louis A. Sapienza

In 1981, with their equipment covered in ice and snow, two Atlanta men prepared to fly home in disappointment after a second expedition to retrieve a squadron of World War II airplanes buried in a Greenland icecap. But then Pat Epps and Richard Taylor heard Norman Vaughn whistling. The 76-year-old had participated in an equipment salvage operation by dogsled after the airplanes had to land on the icecap almost 40 years earlier. Taylor couldn’t believe Vaughn’s chipper mood while they were forced to leave the icecap no closer to finding the lost squadron than when they landed.

“I said, ‘Norman, don’t you understand? We failed at this thing,’” Taylor said.

“He stood at attention and said, ‘We didn’t fail. We went as far as man can go. We went into the teeth of the gale, and the only way we fail is if we quit.’

“I thought there was a lesson there. If you don’t quit, you never fail.”

Eleven years and five more expeditions later, Epps’ and Taylor’s Greenland Expedition Society crews raised four .50-caliber machine guns and a .20 mm cannon from a P-38 Lightning, a World War II American fighter aircraft, that had been under ice for 50 years. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the raising of the plane that became known as Glacier Girl.

In July 1992, crew members raised the P-38 piece-by-piece through an icy tunnel from beneath 265 feet of ice. The late Roy Shoffner, who also supplied major financial backing for the 1992 expedition, restored the P-38 in Middlesboro, Ky., and on Oct. 26, 2002, Glacier Girl flew for the first time in 60 years. Rod Lewis, founder of Lewis Energy Group, bought the historic plane and gave the P-38 its new home at Lewis Energy in San Antonio. A California recovery team is still working to retrieve the five remaining P-38s, using a Russian-built Antonov AN-2, the short takeoff and landing PZL 104 Wilga 80 and a radar detection probe.

During World War II, the P-38 was invaluable in the Pacific, with a range that allowed it to fly long distances and return safely to base. The Japanese described the plane as two airplanes with one pilot, while the Germans called it “der gabelschwanzteufel,” or the fork-tailed devil. P-38s were involved in the April 18, 1943 mission that shot down and killed Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

On July 15, 1942, the Army Air Forces 94th Fighter Force’s six fighters and two bombers were forced to land on the Greenland glacier. The planes were part of Operation Bolero, a massive buildup and movement of Allied aircraft from the United States to Europe. The squadron flew a day earlier from Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada to Sondre Storm on the western coast of Greenland. They were flying over Greenland’s ice-capped mountains and the Denmark Strait and were headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, and eventually to Scotland. But the weather turned foul quickly, with temperatures falling to below minus-10, and the planes had to land on Greenland’s frozen glacier.

An Army Air Force ski and dogsled team rescued the 25 crew members huddled inside the two B-17 Flying Fortresses three days later, but the eight planes remained for five decades, covered by ice and snow.

In August 1980, Epps and Taylor heard about the lost squadron in a bar at a remote land strip during a stop on the way home from buzzing around the Arctic in a single-engine plane. Other pilots thought the two were crazy, but Epps, an Air Force veteran and 1998 Gathering of Eagles honoree, and Taylor, a U.S. Army Airborne during the Korean War, are both self-ordained adventurers. They thought nothing of taking a one-engine plane in extreme climates, even going as far as rolling the North Pole.

When Epps and Taylor began discussing the idea of resurrecting the lost squadron, they had no idea it would take seven expeditions and 11 years, let alone more than $2 million to bring up just one plane.

“[The airplanes] would be sitting on top of the ice. All we had to do was brush the snow off of them and bring them up,” Epps said. “We were totally convinced we were going to fly them all off the icecap. I was stuck to the project like Br’er Rabbit got stuck to Tar Baby.”

Epps began negotiating with Russ Rajani and Roy Degan, who had salvage rights to the planes. The men first brought the story to Epps in 1978, but he wasn’t interested then.

“That’s not my kind of business,” he told them. “I’m not into war birds. I service business aircraft, sell them gas and sell them hangar space.”

But a wealthy visitor to Epps Air Service at Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in the spring of 1981 galvanized his interest in the planes, more specifically the P-38s. A new Learjet 25 pulled on the ramp, and Epps made a point of telling its owner how much he admired his plane.

“Yes,” Charlie Gay told him, “but I’ve always wanted a P-38.”

“He unwittingly started our search for the lost squadron,” Epps said.

So in 1981, Epps and Taylor went with Rajani and Degan on the first Greenland expedition with a pair of rented magnetometers, which detect iron and steel beneath the surface. However, they were surprised to see no signs of the planes, and a second trip that year was marked by bad weather that covered their equipment with ice and snow, although the 1981 expedition provided Vaughn’s inspiration to keep trying.

Two more expeditions followed in 1986 and 1988, when GES hired Austin Kovacs of the Cold Regions Research Laboratory and Dr. Helgi Bjornesson, a geophysicist with the Science Institute at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Bjornesson had developed his own ground penetrating radar and told Epps and Taylor the planes were 5,000 feet from where they’d thought and 80 meters beneath the surface. They’d moved more than a mile from where they landed in 1942.

“When Helgi said the planes were 80 meters deep, I said you mean 80 feet?” Taylor said. “He said, ‘I know the difference between feet and meters.’ He was right, and that was really disheartening. We found the planes, but they were unbelievably deep. But having found them gave us credibility, and we had the first tangible evidence they were there.”

In 1989, the GES team had a twin-engine airplane for the first time with Don Brooks’ Douglas DC-3 with skis. Bobbie Bailey of Our Way Inc., designed, fabricated and packaged the probes, casing, drill shaft and keyhole saws that enabled the crew to retrieve pieces of the B-17 about 250 feet deep. Brooks built a 4-foot device called a thermal meltdown generator that melts the ice by circulating hot water through copper tubing coiled around it. The device allowed the crew to bore a hole through the ice to the planes. But its lack of a guidance system led to the device that became known as the Gopher.

They reached the B-17 the following year when they joined forces with Angelo and Remo Pizzagalli’s construction crew from Burlington, Vt. Bailey designed and fabricated the Gopher that allowed them to reach the plane, but they found the B-17 too damaged to retrieve. Still, the 1990 expedition left Epps and Taylor encouraged.

“The 1990 expedition was the pinnacle of all the work that we did because at that point, when we went back, we knew the right radar to use, and we found the planes in an hour, where before, it had taken us five years,” Taylor said.

“In 1990, we got down to the B-17, and the top of it was crushed down 5 feet. We thought at the time it was disappointing. But from my perspective, we had solved the technical problems. We had met and solved the scientific challenges and gotten down to the plane.”

Financing was a major problem throughout the first six expeditions, which cost about $1.3 million, Epps said. So GES struck a deal for the 1992 expedition with Shoffner, who was an Air Force F-89 Scorpion pilot in Alaska during the late 1950s. He eventually paid 70 percent of the cost of the 1992 expedition, and they would split whatever they brought up from the ice.

Bailey designed a third Gopher, which helped the crew raise Glacier Girl during the four-month expedition. Crew members had to carve a cave-like room around the plane so they could dismantle it before bringing it to the surface. Bob Cardin was the expedition’s project manager and supervised the raising of the 21-foot, 7,000-pound fuselage section with Shoffner after Epps had left with parts of the P-38 for Oshkosh, Wis., to raise more funds. Cardin christened the plane Glacier Girl over a bottle of Regal the day they brought the plane to the surface. A helicopter flew the center section of the P-38 to Kulusuk, Greenland. It was taken by barge to Denmark, then to Malmo, Sweden, before a cargo ship took it to Savannah, Ga.

Cardin also served as the project manager for Glacier Girl’s restoration after GES sold their share of the plane to Shoffner. He once called the P-38 “maybe the finest restoration of any war bird ever done.”

“This was a total team effort,” said Cardin, now a flight operations director for Lewis Energy. “No one person could have done that. We went to Greenland to preserve a nice part of our heritage. If someone doesn’t preserve the war machines that were used to preserve our freedom, when all of our veterans are gone, there won’t be anyone there to tell the story.”

  • Robert Bruce Allen

    I admire the men who retrieved Glacier Girl. I feel it was a great fet of bravery and indurance. I and several of my biker buddies visited Glacier Girl, in Middlesboro, before she was completed and were very impressed. We made another ride afew years later, (my Glacier Girl hat was in shambles and I needed a new hat), but Glacier Girl was gone, as was their little museum. Needless to say, I never did get my new hat. I hope to see her again at one of the air shows… You folks are great. Thanks Bruce Allen, St Marys, Ohio and Punta Gorda FL.

  • Elaine

    Who are the crew members on all of these excursions? and Who were the pilots who transported the crew members on these recovery excursions?