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 5 of 7)
Some of the society’s greatest technological innovations came not from experts in Arctic airplane reclamation—if there is such a thing—but from the eclectic group of investors and volunteers Epps and Taylor assembled. Don Brooks, owner of a chain of auto part shops and an air compress company, as well as the expedition’s trusty DC-3, developed a concept for melting a four-food-wide shaft in the ice. His company built the original Thermal Meltdown Generator—dubbed the Gopher. The 550-pound cone—it looks something like the nosecone of a missile--is wrapped with copper tubing, through which hot liquid circulates. Another expedition member, Bobbie Bailey, owner of a compressor re-manufacturing factory, designed and fabricated an improved version of the Gopher, known as the Super Gopher. She was also the designer of a coring device that, during a 1989 expedition, reached down through the ice and retrieved physical proof that the airplanes were there—a necessary condition for retaining the society’s salvage rights.
Pat Epps remembers this as one of the most exciting moments of the expeditions. Previously, the only proof that they’d actually found the airplanes were blips on a radar. Then they send the coring device tunneling down to where the B-17 "Big Stoop" was believed to lie. "The tubing came up," Epps recalls, his voice still reflecting the awe of the moment. "It wasn’t a beer can. Aircraft tubing. The second piece that came up was a piece of skin, a piece of metal—olive-drab metal."
It wasn’t until the following year that the Super Gopher actually tunneled its way down to Big Stoop. And that day, the expedition met one of its biggest disappointments. The team discovered that the B-17 had been badly crushed by the weight of the ice above it.
"Now, if that doesn’t give you license to quit, there’s nothing in the world," Richard Taylor says. "Except we thought, There are eight airplanes there. We probably hit the bad one. We talked ourselves into it: We hit the bad one."
Reasoning that the smaller, more sturdily built P-38s would be in better condition, the team members set the sights of their next expedition on Harry Smith’s Lightning, the only one shown in 1942 photographs to have survived with its propellers both intact and unbent, probably because Smith had feathered them before landing.
Unfortunately, the society, which had spent about $1.5 million to get to that point, didn’t have enough money for a return trip to Greenland. The next year came and went with no expedition at all. Then Roy Shoffner came along with the necessary $500,000 for the 1992 expedition. It seemed a good omen that the trip would put them on the ice cap at the exact 50-year anniversary of the crash landing.
When expedition members recall their work to liberate the P-38 from the clutches of the ice, they talk about mainly about two things. They talk about the incredible kick of seeing an 11-year effort finally pay off. And they talk about The Hole, the shaft in the ice through which the adventurers descended and pieces of airplane rose (see "Cold Mining")
Imagine dangling inside an icy tunnel so narrow you can’t stretch out your arms. The trip down to the airplane takes 20 minutes. You hear the clanking of the chain hoist and watch the opening at the top of The Hole get smaller and smaller until you can’t see it at all. When you look below, the tunnel seems endless. And when you look straight ahead you see bands of clear blue ice representing year after year of Arctic winters and summers. It was a test of nerve all the camp faced, and all passed—though not, understandably, without initial hesitation.