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Glacier Girl

The Lockheed P-38 saved from an icy tomb is now the star attraction in a previously quiet Kentucky town.

BOB CARDIN IS AS PRICKLY AND NO-NONSENSE as a piece of barbed wire. He is short and powerfully built, with a gravelly voice and a tough, working-class Rhode Island accent. He gets to work at seven every morning, seven days a week, and doesn’t go home until the job is done. I once saw him cut the back of his hand on a piece of sheet metal and he didn’t flinch. He has no sense of humor. I have never seen him laugh. But at the Dayton Air Show I saw him go soft as a puppy.

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He was standing in front of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning named Glacier Girl. A long time ago, Cardin’s boss, J. Roy Shoffner, invested in a project to recover the P-38, which was buried beneath 268 feet of ice in southeastern Greenland. It was an audacious treasure hunt that had been going on for 13 years by the time Shoffner got involved, and he needed a tough guy to make it happen. Against the odds, Cardin and a well-equipped recovery crew pulled the fighter out on August 1, 1992 (“Iced Lightning,” Dec. 1992/Jan. 1993). The P-38 was delivered to Shoffner’s hangar in a little place called Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cardin set to work. Years passed. Millions of dollars were spent. Not a few people, including both men’s wives, wondered if Cardin and Shoffner were crazy. But almost 10 years to the day after the warbird emerged from its icy tomb, the Lightning finally took wing. And nine months later, Cardin’s prize was there at Dayton, spotless, surrounded by thousands of admirers. For the four days of the show, they crowded around Cardin and Glacier Girl 12 hours a day as if the gruff 56-year-old pilot and the 61-year-old airplane were Britney Spears and Madonna.

“Wow!” shouted a teenager.

“Sir, I’ve got to shake your hand,” said a man, grabbing Cardin’s tough brown mitt.

“You’ve done a wonderful thing!”

“Thank you for bringing this plane out here,” called another.

And suddenly Bob Cardin couldn’t help himself. He was smiling. “Hi folks!” he blurted. “It’s a beautiful day!”

“When I watch people look at the plane and then see the excitement that comes in their eyes when they recognize it,” he told me, “that’s when it’s all worth it.”

By now, Glacier Girl’s story is mythic. It was July 1942, seven months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and U.S. factories were cranking out hundreds of aircraft a day. Getting them to the war wasn’t easy. They could be shipped by sea, but Nazi Germany’s submarines were sinking Allied vessels at an alarming rate. The obvious solution was to fly them, but in those days fighters didn’t have the range to make the journey non-stop. So the U.S. Army Air Forces came up with Operation Bolero, a bold plan to ferry aircraft in stages, refueling at four newly constructed bases: Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; and Reykjavik, Iceland. Flying to these bases was tricky, though. The high latitudes played havoc with compasses and radios. And when the weather closed in, landing at airstrips in long, mountain-ringed fjords like Narsarsuaq was impossible.

On July 7, in the second flight of Operation Bolero, two formations, each consisting of four P-38s and a B-17, left Goose Bay, bound for Narsarsuaq (code-named Bluie West One), Reykjavik, and then Scotland. Over the next few days, weather separated the two formations, named Tomcat Green and Tomcat Yellow, but on July 15 they rejoined in Greenland and took wing for Reykjavik, minus two P-38s suffering mechanical failure. Once again, fierce storms blocked their way, so the eight airplanes headed back to Greenland, but by now their intended base was hidden by a heavy overcast. The pilots of Tomcat Green and Yellow had to land while they still had fuel to do so, through whatever hole in the clouds they could find. One by one, the airplanes came down on the ice cap that covers most of Greenland.

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