No Man Left Behind:
The Recovery of Glacier Girl
By Laura Relyea
On July 15, 1992, retired Pilot Brad McManus was in Greenland, standing tall on the icy tundra amidst fragments of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
On that same day 50 years earlier he and his fellow pilots of Operation Bolero had been forced to emergency land their squadron after poor weather compromised their mission. The American WWII Fighter squadron had been dispatched by Commanding General Henry H. Arnold to deliver the American fighter planes to the British Isles. Instead, the pilots were rescued and brought home.
Though all 25 of the pilots were rescued without injury, the planes were abandoned. They sat on the glacier for 20 years before information regarding their location was released. In the 1970’s, when military records were made available to the public, they became known as “The Lost Squadron.” Over the course of 2 decades 11 attempts were made to locate the unit — it seemed the planes had vanished.
By the time the P-38 Lightning was recovered in 1992 its original pilot, Harry Smith, had passed away. His friend and fellow pilot, Brad McManus, went in his place.
The Greenland Expedition Society
In 1981 Patrick Epps and Richard Taylor, both members of the Greenland Expedition Society, embarked on their first voyage to locate the squadron on the ice cap where it had been abandoned. For seven years they searched with Megnetometers and small radars to locate the planes, but turned up little more than empty fuel drums, jerry cans, a vinyl tub, and some abandoned lawn. It seemed their mission to find The Lost Squadron was hopeless.
But in 1988 their luck changed. This time they came back with crews to man two different subsurface radar systems. The technology didn’t fail them. The combination of the radar systems and estimates from previous efforts led them to the Lost Squadron relatively easily. All 8 planes — six P-38 Lightning’s and two B-17 Flying Fortresses — were pin-pointed in a matter of days.
Their struggle to find the planes was immediately justified: Greenland’s seemingly unchanging landscape was deceiving. Most excavation efforts had presumed that the planes would be just a dozen or so feet beneath the Glacier’s icy surface, but in the 46 years since the planes had been ditched, they had migrated almost 2 miles west and been buried beneath almost 268 deep.
Breaking the Ice
After decades of searching, finally locating the Squadron wasn’t quite as emotionally rewarding as the team had hoped. Finding the planes was one thing — digging them out was an entirely different challenge.
Luckily Epps and Taylor’s paths had crossed with Don Brooks in the interim. Brooks, the owner of a Georgian auto-parts chain and pressure washing company, Brooks Auto Parts, Inc., was an aviation enthusiast and advocate for recovering historical planes. His father, Elton Brooks, who had since passed, had been a B-17 pilot in World War II. Needless to say, the excavation of The Lost Squadron was his dream project.
Not only did Brooks become a backer of the operation, he had developed a prototype to aid in the excavation. His machine, what would come to be known as “the Gopher,” was a steamer capable of melting a shaft through the ice cap with an inventive combination of copper coils and hot water, sourced from his hot-water pressure washing company. The team returned to Greenland in a DC-3, financed by Brooks, and the 550lb. Super Gopher — a version of Brooks’ design, modified by team member Bobbie Bailey.
“The Gopher,” was a steamer capable of melting a shaft through the ice cap at a rate of 2' per hour with an inventive combination of copper coils and hot water.
The hefty Super Gopher was 5’ tall, 4’ wide and suspended above the ice with a chain and hoist. Its cone-shaped tip was enveloped in tubes of copper that pumped hot water. The heat from the lines certainly melted the ice, but only at a rate of 2’ per hour — they were going to be there for a while.
Slowly but surely the Gopher was lowered down below the surface of the ice, carving out a long, 4’ wide shaft as it went. Then, at long last, the generator hit something. “The tubing came up,” recalled Epps in a 1993 interview with the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. “It wasn’t a beer can — it was aircraft tubing. The second piece that came up was a piece of skin, a piece of metal — olive-drab metal.” They would later find that the metal was sourced from the wing of a B-17.
The team used hot-water pressure washers to build a cavern around the plane, pumping out the slush to the surface as they went along. 7 years and $1.5 million dollars into their efforts, the team finally had a B-17 in their sights. But once they were able to take a look at the plane, it became clear that too much damage had been done to the plane for it to be salvaged.
“If that doesn’t give you license to quit, there’s nothing in the world,” Richard Taylor said in the same 1993 interview. The tenacious crew could not be deterred. “Except we thought, ‘There are eight airplanes there. We probably hit the bad one.’”
Never Say Die
Taylor and Epps reasoned that the heartier P-38’s would be found more intact. In two years the team secured an additional $500,000 in funding and put the Super Gopher back to work. It was 1992. The team was now 11 years into their recovery efforts.
Using the findings from their 1988 efforts, the team went straight to work on recovering one of the P-38’s. The Super Gopher tunneled down 268’, suspended by a chain hoist. As the team followed its descent through endless sheets of ice they made their way back through half a century by way of an incredibly narrow tunnel. Once they reached the P-38 the team used pressurized steam to make another cavern around the plane. The Super Gopher was hoisted back up and set aside.
Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were decommissioned after World War II, after being the primary fighting plane until the development of the P-51D Mustang. These six P-38 Lightnings were part of the Bolero plan, developed by the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. Arnold, which sought to establish a significant air force in Great Britain in preparation for Roundup.
The 94th Fighter Squadron was comprised of six P-38 fighters and two B-17 Bombers. Their mission began smoothly enough, but soon after reaching Greenland the team’s visibility was scanty at best. To make matters worse, a storm rolled in — one that came with fierce and disorienting winds. The 25-person team was forced to emergency land.
The stranded Air Force Pilots hid inside the two B-17’s for 9 days. On the third day supplies were dropped. McManus recalled the feeling of leaving the planes behind, “There’s a bonding that occurs between a young pilot and his own plane, and when you left you were saying goodbye to it in a sense, and that was a very sentimental moment.”
Little did he know that 50 years later he would return to see the planes brought back to life.
A Lazarus Story
The team that made their way down the shaft busied themselves breaking down the P-38 so that it could be brought back up in pieces. Deep below the surface, the cold, dark cavern was treacherous. Ice fell from the ceiling onto the team as they excavated — luckily the fragile cavern did not cave in.
In order to exhume the plane, the recovery crew first had to dismantle it, piece by piece, and hoist each portion up to the surface, a process that took approximately 4 months. For the most part, each portion was manageable in size. But the center section of the fighter plane, which weighed 7,000 pounds and could not be broken down further, required that the shaft be widened significantly. Eventually, once the tunnel was widened enough, the team set to lifting the hefty center section with a manually operated hoist — lifting efforts that took 48-hours of around-the-clock hoisting to complete. When the section finally reached the surface, Brad McManus was there to greet it. The team then fashioned a makeshift sling, which was attached to a helicopter carrying it off of the glacier.
The disassembled fighter was eventually shipped to Roy Shoffner’s private hangar in Cumberland Gap for reconstruction. By the time the entirety of the plane had reached U.S. soil $2 million dollars had been spent in its excavation — and that was before renovations.
Still, the Society’s “never say die” attitude did not falter. Though the ice had certainly taken its toll on the plane, they carried on with reconstructing it, efforts which took an additional nine years. Glacier Girl first took to the sky again on October 26, 2002, officially becoming one of only 6 P-38’s still operating in the world.
But the real bittersweet ending didn’t come around until 2007. Nearly 65 years after Glacier Girl’s original mission was aborted, she finally made her flight from New Jersey to England. Naturally, McManus was there beside her too, in a P-51 Mustang. Reportedly he commented to USA Today that it was “a thrill to know this is occurring and to think they are actually going to fly it over the same route that we flew in 1942.” Only this time Glacier Girl reached her destination without a 50+ year delay.
Glacier Girl is now housed with Lewis Air Legends in San Antonio, Texas. Acquired by the organization in 2006, they tout on their website, “The only thing to rival the wonder of Glacier Girl’s story is to see the rare bird roaring over the field.”
You Can Help: The amazing imagery you see here showcasing the Glacier Girl recovery efforts was generously provided to Wire Rope Exchange by Luciano A. Sapienza of the Fallen American Veterans Association, a 501-c3 Non-Governmental organization focused on honoring the military’s vow to “leave no man behind.” The organization was founded by surviving family members of three U.S. Service Personnel who were declared Missing In Action.
“We do this for the families. We do this for closure,” Mr. Sapienza explained. FAVF’s expertise is in deep glacier search and recovery, but their projects have taken them to a wide range of hostile environments, including Greenland, Antarctica, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam.
Currently, the FAVF has 9 projects underway in Greenland, the Antarctic, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Their operations depend largely on donations made by companies and individuals who support their cause. Some of their largest product needs are rigging supplies and equipment. If you or your company is interested in making a tax-deductible donation visit their website at FAVF.us.