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 7 of 7)
Earl Toole, who believes himself to be the only living member of the 1942 rescue party, is in Epps’ hangar tonight. Toole has made something of a full-time hobby of documenting the history of the rescue. For this gathering, he has brought a diorama he made: Styrofoam icebergs, tiny B-17s and P-38s all correctly arrayed, and tinier figures, accompanied by a dogsled, trekking toward a boat on the coast. At Oshkosh last summer, "people would come up to me, their faces all lit up, and ask, ‘Were you one of the pilots?’ When I told them no, they’d just say "Oh" and walk away," he says in good-natured resignation.
None of those pilots is able to be in Atlanta tonight. But it’s hard to look at the P-38 without feeling the presence of at least one of them. As Don Brooks and the expedition’s chief engineer, Neil Estes, reverently walk around their find, Brooks points to one of the tail booms, where two Lockheed workers signed their names when the aircraft was being assembled. Then he lifts a nearby hatch, revealing the airplane’s Identification Friend or Foe transmitter, which the youthful Harry Smith shot full of holes with his .45-caliber pistol before abandoning the P-38. "He definitely left the aircraft with a thought of recovery," Estes is quick to point out. "It took a while," he adds with pride, "but here we are. We’ve got it."
How They Did It
Using a steam probe, an eight-foot-long steel rod trailing 300 feet of steel-reinforced rubber hose, the team located the airplane. They ran 264 feet of one-inch steel pipe down the hole made by the probe and erected an I-beam truss on the surface above. From the truss, a cone-shaped heater with a hole in the center—the Super Gopher—was lowered by an electric winch at he rate of two to four feet per hour. Guided by the pipe, it melted a shaft four feet in diameter. A bilge pump removed the meltwater.
Using a hot-water cannon, the crew carved out a 50-food-wide cavern around the P-38, which they took apart and sent piece by piece to the surface. They had to sink five shafts to excavate a hole wide enough to lift the last piece of the airplane, the 17-foot-long, three-ton center section. It came up on August 1, 1992, three months after the expedition had begun.
For the story of Glacier Girl’s restoration and first flight, see Air & Space/Smithsonian, March 2004.