Glacier Girl: The Back Story
How it got trapped in the ice, and how it got out.
- By airspacemag.com
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 4 of 7)
This past July 15, fifty years to the day after his crash landing, Brad McManus found himself standing once again on the ice cap. "I must say, it hadn’t changed a bit. It was the same exactly as it was when we were there," he says.
Richard Taylor echoes this observation: "It’s totally featureless. It doesn’t change." But when Taylor and Epps formed the Greenland Expedition Society in 1981 and traveled that year to the coordinates the B-17 crew members had recorded, they discovered change did come to the ice cap. The airplanes abandoned there 39 years earlier were nowhere in sight.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the airplanes would be buried under a good deal of ice. But no one was prepared for how much. "That year the tail wasn’t sticking out, so they were ten feet under," Pat Epps says, recalling the team’s confidence. But they didn’t find them on their second visit to Greenland later that year, or their third, or their fourth.
In the meantime, however, the Danish government had granted the Greenland Expedition Society exclusive salvage rights to the airplanes; Roy Degan and his partner had allowed theirs to expire, concluding that the warbirds were irretrievably lost.
Still Epps, Taylor, and ever-growing group of volunteers remained undeterred. They continued to research the problem, and in 1988 arrived on the ice cap armed with two different sophisticated sub-surface radar systems and crews to operate them.
Within days, the radar teams had pinpointed the exact location of all eight airplanes. And it immediately became obvious why they hadn’t been located earlier. The shifting ice had carried the airplanes about two miles from their original location. And a high-pressure steam probe revealed that they lay beneath 264 feet of solid ice.
Roy Shoffner had followed the society’s adventures from afar, and he became intrigued by the engineering problem of salvaging an airplane from beneath all that ice. It became his favorite topic of conversation among friends and business associates. "Someone would come by and I’d say, ‘All right, how would you get that airplane out? And I’d get their views." Word got back to the society that he was interested, and eventually Shoffner agreed to sponsor a 1992 expedition and accompany expedition members to the ice cap.
Shoffner is typical of the type of individual the society’s efforts have attracted: he’s a long-time pilot, having flown in the service, in business, and for pleasure. And he’s a wealthy man—a retired manufacturer of plastic pipe—with the resources to live what many other people can only dream. Equally important, he’s an inventive thinker with an adventurous streak.