Fly Girl

The light in the hangar housing the P-38 was dim, but Bob Cardin, who had already spent a couple of months digging the World War II fighter plane out from under nearly 270 feet of snow and ice and another 10 weeks taking it apart, could see enough to know that his job was just beginning. He now realized that every piece of the plane—more than 35,000 in all—was damaged. Five decades of lying under the ever-growing, never-melting east Greenland ice cap had taken its toll.

Cardin had begun dismantling the P-38 shortly after it arrived in October 1992 in Middlesboro, Ky., the hometown of J. Roy Shoffner, the primary sponsor of the excavation project. His plan had been to continue disassembling the aircraft until he reached something that was not broken, but he and his team had yet to come upon any such piece.

After helping to complete the Herculean task of extracting the P-38, Cardin was given the opportunity to manage its restoration. The former Army helicopter pilot and lieutenant colonel had no experience with restoring World War II aircraft, but he nonetheless accepted for reasons that were practical as well as ethereal. “A, I had no job,” says Cardin, whose marriage eventually ended because his wife would not move with him from Atlanta to the small town in south central Kentucky. “And B, it felt like the right thing for me to do—for some reason. I don’t know why.”


Cardin and Shoffner had expected the restoration to take from 18 months to two years. They based their estimation on what they thought were similar endeavors, but, as both men were continually reminded, the task of restoring their P-38 was incomparable.


Still, Cardin claims that when it became clear that every piece would have to be repaired or replaced, he and his crew were hardly disheartened. “There was no despair whatsoever,” he says. “We were going to make her fly.”

They did make her fly, but it took them 10 years to do it.

The plane that would carry the Army Air Force identification number 17630 and would ultimately be christened Glacier Girl rolled off the production line at Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., plant on May 13, 1942, one of eight P-38 Lightnings the factory completed that day. The Lightning’s unusual design made it instantly recognizable to friend and enemy alike. The one-person cockpit, which emerged from between the wings, was flanked by a pair of nacelles that housed the plane’s twin engines. An elevator, a long horizontal piece of metal, joined the booms at the rear, leaving a square of sky between the wing and the tail.

The plane was swift enough to evade bullets from enemy fighter planes and artillery launched from the ground. It could also defend itself with the four .50-caliber machine guns and the 20 mm cannon built into its nose. The large white stars set in navy blue circles emblazoned on its wings and outer boom sides included red dots, or “meatballs,” painted at their centers, a decorative touch that soon was removed from all American warplanes. Certain Japanese warbirds featured a red circle in their insignia, and military officials did not want to risk confusion in the heat of battle. Under the skin, some of 17630’s components were adorned with graffiti drawn by the Lockheed line workers who assembled the plane.

The P-38 proved to be a remarkably versatile war machine. Capable of reconnaissance work, night fighting, and aerial assaults, it was dubbed “the fork-tailed devil” by enemies. Many formidable Allied flying aces established their reputations piloting this plane, and Isoruku Yamamoto, the admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, was killed when a P-38 pilot shot down the bomber in which he was traveling. The plane was originally intended to escort B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to their target destinations, a task 17630 was performing on July 15, 1942. It was participating in Operation Bolero, an effort to move warplanes across the Atlantic in anticipation of a Nazi invasion of England. To avoid drawing the attention of German U-boats, the American pilots took a northerly route across the ocean, refueling at bases in Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland.

On that July day, 17630 was part of a squadron of six P-38s and two B-17s attempting to fly from Greenland to Iceland, but stormy weather and temperatures cold enough to freeze aviation instruments forced the pilots to turn around and try to make it back to the base in Greenland. With their planes running out of fuel, the pilots decided to make emergency landings on the ice cap covering the east coast of Greenland.

Lt. Joseph Bradley McManus, a member of the 94th Fighter Squadron, First Fighter Group, was the first to set down his P-38. “I was the youngest, the tail-end Charlie, and when you’re at the tail, you tend to use more gas,” recalls McManus, now 86 and living in Pennsylvania. “I’d been in the air for 8 hours and 20 minutes without seeing land or ocean. I saw the sun shining clearly on an area of the ice cap. It looked level, like concrete. I thought, ‘I’d better go in now while I still had a chance to control my plane,’ and I told the others I was going down.”

Although he knew it would be safest to try sliding the plane across the snow and ice, McManus lowered the landing gear. “I thought that if I could get the plane on the ground with the wheels down, they could fly in some gasoline, and we could fly the plane out again,” he says. “But that was when I was 23 years old. Later on, you know that it’s better not to take that risk.”

When the nose gear made contact with the snow, it broke through the surface of the ice, flipping the plane. Though his P-38 was traveling at 70 mph at the time of the crash, McManus escaped with only a superficial puncture wound to his arm. Having witnessed McManus’ crash and learned from his example, the other pilots landed their planes wheels-up. Lt. Harry Smith, pilot of P-38 17630, was the last to touch down, landing his plane with enough care to avoid even dinging the propeller blades. “It’s one thing to land a plane like a sled,” says McManus. “Not only did he land it like a sled, but he cut the engines on approach. He did it deliberately to save the props and the engine. That was his way. The assumption that he made was if they could get gas to us, he could raise it up and fly it out. He was the only one whose engines were not stopped by the propellers chopping into the ice.”

With limited supplies and only the B-17s for shelter, the pilots and the B-17 crew members, 25 men in all, feared that the successful landings had only delayed the inevitable. “We really had no hope,” recalls McManus, “but on the third day, a plane flew over. From that point on, it was like LaGuardia.” Although airdrops of food and medical supplies arrived, it took the rescue party another week to reach the crash site. The group passed the time by playing cards, using discarded parachutes to windsurf across the ice, and photographing themselves with McManus’ Kodak camera. When the rescuers arrived, the men gathered their belongings, salvaged what equipment they could, and destroyed what they could not to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, should the crash site be discovered.

The site was discovered, almost 50 years later, on May 15, 1992, and by then, P-38 17630 and the other planes were buried under 268 feet of ice and snow. In the half century that had passed since the planes were abandoned as part of the largest emergency landing in history, their legend had grown; they had become known as the Lost Squadron. The expedition team sought Smith’s plane in particular, knowing that it was probably in the best shape. But they had a challenge ahead of them if they were going to recover the plane in time for the 50th anniversary of the landing.

The expedition was principally funded by Shoffner, a Kentucky businessman and avid pilot then in his mid-60s. Convinced by a presentation from Pat Epps, an Atlanta man who, with his partner Richard Taylor, had led several expeditions to search for the planes, Shoffner was looking forward to not only recovering but also resurrecting one of the long-lost P-38s. A tool known as a “gopher,” essentially a drill powered by hot water and gravity, melted a vertical shaft to the entombed plane at a rate of 2 feet per hour. Several adjoining shafts were drilled to allow the team to dismantle the plane into manageable sections and winch them to the surface.

Epps hired Cardin to be the project manager of the 1992 expedition, the 13th that Epps and Taylor had embarked upon since 1980. Sharing a tent on the ice cap in Greenland, Shoffner and Cardin discovered that they were kindred spirits. “I like to finish what I start,” says Shoffner, now 76. “My role up there, my only objective, was to get the plane up. Because [Cardin and I] shared the same quarters, we were able to discuss problems and solutions. We wanted to be successful more than anything else.”

In July, two months after the project began, Epps left the excavation site to attend the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) show in Oshkosh, Wis., taking with him recovered pieces of the plane. He was hoping to garner media attention for the recovery effort and generate funds for the P-38’s restoration. One crucial piece of the plane, the 2-ton, 17-by-25-foot center section that contained the cockpit, was still in the ice. Epps felt that it was best to keep the EAA appointment and leave the task of raising the section to the crew of seven who remained in Greenland. “I would rather have had it all up on the surface before I left, but it did not happen,” Epps says. “It was off the bottom coming up [when I left]. All they had to do was bring it 190 feet up. It was difficult, no question, but there were plenty of people left to do the job.”

Cardin was stunned and disappointed by Epps’ decision to leave. He could not understand why Epps would depart before the entire plane was safely on the surface. As he and Shoffner watched the DC-3 carrying Epps disappear into the sky, they had a brief, efficient conversation. “I turned to Roy, and I said this when I didn’t know him as well as I do now: ‘I don’t think Epps cares to get the plane up.’ Roy said, ‘Would you get the plane up for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”

Several days later, after the crew members had hoisted the center section to the surface, they toasted their achievement with shots of Chivas Regal and settled on a name for the recovered P-38: Glacier Girl.

In 1995, Epps and Taylor’s company, the Greenland Expedition Society (GES), agreed to sell its 50 percent share of the P-38 to Shoffner. But long before that, the Kentuckian had been convinced that Cardin, based on his performance in Greenland, could manage Glacier Girl’s restoration. “He was strictly about one thing: getting straight to the objective,” Shoffner says. “Some people didn’t like that about him at the time, but I knew he had the qualities to do the work that had to be done.”

Glacier girl flew again on October 26, 2002, two days shy of the 10th anniversary of its arrival in Middlesboro. An estimated crowd of 25,000—more than double the town’s population—witnessed the flight. Among the gathering were McManus and Epps. (Harry Smith died in 1981.) Steve Hinton, president of the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, Calif., and a vintage aircraft pilot with more than 300 hours of experience in P-38s, flew the plane.

“Restorations this extensive have been done before, but not with a P-38,” Hinton says. “The quality of the restoration is near perfect. Their goal was to restore it to its original condition, and they did it as well as they possibly could.” Indeed, almost 80 percent of the plane consists of original parts, and the spirit of 1942 has been infused into even the most minute details; a small amount of air from the original tires was pumped into the new tires before they were filled with nitrogen. The Lockheed workers’ graffiti was left untouched when the parts were repaired and reinstalled, and the pieces featuring the meatball insignia were set aside for preservation. “We felt it best to have them in the original form,” says Cardin. “It’s better to complete the story.”

Displayed at the entrance to the hangar, which has been transformed into a museum, is an unrestored landing gear door that perhaps best illustrates the enormity of the task that confronted Cardin and his team when they began the project. Decades of pressure created by accumulating glacial ice had crumpled its aluminum skin as though it were a discarded soda can.

“It was quite a challenge,” recalls Keith Geary, who spent four and a half years working 60-hour weeks on Glacier Girl during the first half of its restoration. “Every piece in the plane was bent or broken. We had a couple of mechanics come and go because of it. Some realized that they had gotten in over their heads, and quit.”

In July 2003, Glacier Girl earned two prizes at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational: the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy, given to the competition’s most authentic and historically accurate plane, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame People’s Choice Award Trophy, awarded to the plane that receives the most votes from attendees.Glacier Girl has flown more than 20 times since October 2002, adding almost 30 hours to its total flight time. Just two months removed from the factory in Burbank, P-38 17630 had accumulated only 72 hours of flight time when Smith laid it down on the ice.

Having spent $6.9 million to recover and restore a single P-38, Shoffner has no plans to return to Greenland to retrieve more planes. Epps, now 70, does not wish to try again either, saying that it is “someone else’s turn.”

Cardin, meanwhile, watches over Glacier Girl, and with the zeal of a convert and the pride of a father, he welcomes the estimated 50,000 visitors who arrive at the Middlesboro museum annually. “Glacier Girl is important, not just to me, but to the American people,” he says. “It’s important to have the museum, and it’s important for me to be here, and be part of the story. It seems like the right thing to do.” 

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