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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.

Brad McManus was the first to touch down. His P-38 flipped over after his landing gear made contact with the ice (McManus was uninjured), so the other pilots made wheels-up belly landings. Harry Smith’s airplane was the last Lightning to land. In his logbook, a relieved Smith wrote of his P-38: “Best damn crate I ever damn saw.” The airplane was 62 days old and had flown a total of 72 hours.

The pilots had plenty of food and even a case of clandestine whiskey—and that was fortunate because it took more than a week for a rescue party to arrive and lead them to safety. Harry Smith destroyed his top-secret Identification Friend or Foe radio with a few shots from his .45-caliber pistol, and he and the rest of the men hiked 10 miles to the coast and a waiting boat while dog sleds carried their gear. Their adventure was over, the airplanes abandoned and forgotten. The lost squadron, it seemed, would be a minor footnote in a long war.

By the time the war ended, the United States had manufactured 300,000 aircraft. Slightly more than 10,000 were P-38s, a fighter that, in the years after McManus and Smith landed on the ice, became a legend. Lockheed’s first military aircraft to go into production, it was also the first single-seat, twin-engine fighter. In 1937 the Army Air Corps had sought designs for an interceptor that could reach 360 mph at 20,000 feet in six minutes. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard had designed a radical machine: a big all-metal airplane with twin tailbooms, each housing a liquid-cooled turbo-supercharged Allison V-12 engine powering counter-rotating propellers. In the nose, four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon gave the “fork-tailed-devil,” as the Germans called it, a devastating punch. Capable of slightly more than 400 mph, it was the fastest Allied airplane in the skies at the beginning of the war.

“Boy, was it a sweet airplane,” says Bud Holecheck, 78, who flew Lightnings in low-altitude strafing and dive-bombing runs during the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge. “If you got hit and lost an engine, no problem. You could do aerobatics on one engine. When we returned from a combat mission, we’d show off. We’d come in at 350 feet and instead of peeling up, we’d peel right in a snap roll and put it on the ground in 30 seconds. Some guys could do it in 20. You couldn’t do that in a P-51 or P-40. And you had so much firepower. When we’d come in on a locomotive, all five guns would hit at the same time. For pure aerial combat, the -51 has to be known as the best, but you put it together and the Lightning could do it all.” (At the end of the war, Holecheck flew a loop around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in a P-38.)

The lost squadron’s Brad McManus, now 85, echoes Holecheck. Two years after his rescue from the ice he finally made it to Europe, where he flew 85 missions, first in P-38s, then in P-51 Mustangs. “Everyone who ever flew a -38 loved it,” he says. “It was very smooth because the counter-rotating props eliminated torque, so you could roll and maneuver much better than [in] a Mustang. When it came time to transition from the -38 to the -51, no one wanted to.” But in combat, McManus admits, “the -51 was better. After we transitioned, our ratio of victories went up.

“If I had to fly one just for the pleasure,” says McManus, “I’d fly a -38, but if I had to fight the Germans, I’d want to be in a Mustang.”

Early P-38 versions had a few glitches: In high-speed dives they could become uncontrollable: “You’d get a lot of buffeting and couldn’t pull out,” says McManus. And with its small air intakes and complex cooling system, its engines could overheat. Later versions (there were 11 in all) featured dive flaps for better control during descents and enlargements of the intakes in the engine nacelles and at the side of the tail booms.

Although Lightnings served in every theater, the aircraft distinguished itself in the Pacific. With its long range (almost 2,600 miles in late models with drop tanks) and its ability to fly on one engine, it was perfect for a watery world of far-flung islands. Flying P-38s in the Pacific, Major Richard Bong and Major Thomas B. McGuire became the most prolific aces in World War II, with Bong scoring 40 kills and McGuire racking up 38. And on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1943, a flight of Lightnings scored a victory against the Japanese that assured the aircraft’s place in legend. After U.S. cryptographers learned how to decipher coded Japanese radio transmissions, 16 P-38s ambushed two Mitsubishi Betty bombers and their escort of six Zero fighters off the Pacific island of Bougainville. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was aboard one of the bombers, and Lightnings shot down both Bettys, killing Yamamoto.

And then one day they were gone—nearly 10,000 P-38s. By 1945 the first jets were taking wing; in 1947 Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound. Lightnings, like Hellcats, B-17 Fortresses, and B-24 Liberators, were just so much scrap metal. They were blown up, melted down, and bulldozed. Bud Holecheck remembers watching row upon row of P-38s lined up for target practice at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. By 1980 there were only 25 Lightnings left, less than 10 still flyable. Today they are among the rarest objects on Earth.

All of which is why it was a little jarring to encounter Glacier Girl in its hangar-cum-museum at a tiny airport in the Appalachian town of Middlesboro, looking like it just popped off the assembly line. Every rivet was perfect, the canopy shined, the wheel wells were clean enough to lick. It was the day before the start of the 2003 Dayton Air Show, at which Glacier Girl would compete for the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Award, and Bob Cardin and the airplane’s pilot, Steve Hinton, president of the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California, were giving Glacier Girl a final once-over before Hinton flew it to Dayton. “What a bird!” said Hinton. “That’s as nice as you can make an airplane.” Hinton was circling the airplane while also browsing through memorabilia from its original flight and documentation of its now-famous recovery.

Nothing about it was simple. The region of Greenland where the six P-38s and two B-17s were abandoned gets prodigious amounts of snowfall that never melt. By the time Atlanta businessmen Pat Epps and Richard Taylor first went looking for the lost squadron in 1980, it was long buried. It took 12 years, 13 expeditions, nearly a million dollars, ground-penetrating radar, and a soap opera of clashing personalities to find the airplanes. The B-17s were flattened, but Harry Smith’s Lightning appeared to be in remarkable condition. Constantly short of funds, Epps and Taylor joined forces with Shoffner, a Kentucky businessman, who invested $350,000 in the final expedition to bring Glacier Girl up. Cardin, a former helicopter pilot in Vietnam who’d called Epps looking for a job as a corporate pilot, managed the 1992 expedition that extracted the P-38—in pieces. Though the story is long and convoluted, when Epps and Taylor couldn’t raise additional funds, the airplane’s ownership fell to Shoffner, who asked Cardin to come to Middlesboro to oversee its restoration.

Eighteen months and $600,000. That’s what Cardin thought it would take to do the job when a truck dropped off the partially disassembled airplane at Shoffner’s hangar. On the plus side, Cardin had the only P-38F in the world, and for a half-century-old warbird, it was unusually complete. The glacier had preserved it all: the guns, engines, and propellers, with not a bolt or rivet missing. On the negative side, says Cardin, “every single piece of the airplane was broken. We got the plane here and found out how little we knew about P-38s. We had no idea what we were doing.”

Middlesboro was hardly a center of skilled aviation mechanics—“There ain’t no opera there” is the way Shoffner puts it—and progress was slow. No more than four full-time mechanics ever worked at once, and usually it was one or two. And unlike restoration projects that use large volunteer teams, only a few volunteers, like Ed White, were allowed in. A U.S. Department of Energy chemist who made the 80-mile round trip from his home in Tennessee more than 600 times, White helped with the restoration while documenting it in 3,000 photographs. “Most of the volunteers [who initially showed up] didn’t have enough skill and took too much training,” says Cardin. “I never would have gotten it done with them.”

Virtually every piece of Glacier Girl was taken apart until there was nothing standing but the main wing spar. Working from a set of Lockheed plans obtained from the Smithsonian Institution, Cardin stripped to bare metal whatever could be repaired—ribs, skin, fittings—and bathed these parts in a corrosion inhibitor, then primed and painted them.

But since P-38s were so rare, replacements for the multitude of unrepairable parts were scarce. Either they had to be manufactured from scratch or unearthed in nationwide searches and complex trades. The magnesium alloy drums that operated the rudder and ailerons, for instance, were corroded beyond repair, and Cardin didn’t have drawings for them. “I sweated and worried and didn’t know how I would duplicate them,” he says. “But then I went out to California searching for parts, and a guy had tons of odd stuff, including a set of drums. I paid $5,000 for all the parts, but I would have paid that just for those pieces.”

Five of the six propeller blades were nearly perfect, but Cardin needed a sixth and didn’t know where to look. In his search for tires, though, he had found four, including two with special treads for takeoffs and landings on sand and dirt—just the kind of tires once found on the P-38 now displayed at the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in Superior, Wisconsin. So Cardin traded the two tires to the museum in exchange for one of the prop blades from the Bong center’s airplane. All six blades were refinished by San Antonio Propeller in Texas, and when volunteer Richard Buchanan drove to pick them up, he found them packed and ready to transport—but on a rickety trailer, their tips sticking out the back. “I was just waiting to get rear-ended and my heart was in my mouth the whole way home,” says Buchanan. When he stopped at a hotel on one night, he recruited a policeman to cruise by the parking lot every hour to make sure the propellers were safe.

Glacier Girl’s landing gear was packed off to B.F. Goodrich Aerospace in England, which restored it gratis. The Allison engines were shipped to JRS Enterprises in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Bill Moja rebuilt them at cost.

As the restoration inched forward, the legend grew. The hangar was open to anyone who wanted to stop by, and eventually 50,000 people a year were coming through. “We kept saying ‘Two more years, two more years,’ ” says Cardin. On September 6, 2000, he fired up the engines for the first time. “That was the day the airplane came alive,” he says. “Until then it was just a bunch of parts.”

Finally, almost 10 years after the airplane arrived in Middlesboro, it was time. Glacier Girl (Cardin, Shoffner, and the rest of the recovery team came up with the name as they drank a bottle of Scotch in celebration of extracting the P-38 on August 1, 1992) was finished, restored with 80 percent of its original parts, at a cost of some $4 million. Shoffner, a former U.S. Air Force F-89 pilot with 5,000 hours in 15 kinds of aircraft, had loved P-38s since he was a kid, and he’d long dreamed of flying Glacier Girl. But the airplane’s insurers would approve only Planes of Fame’s Steve Hinton as pilot; Hinton has logged 10,000 hours in a plethora of aircraft, including 300 hours in P-38s. On October 26, 2002, Hinton, a lanky, loose-limbed 51-year-old, ran the engines up, checked the landing gear, tightened a few fittings, and just like that, with nary a high-speed taxi test, roared into the skies over Middlesboro. Perhaps even more remarkable, 25,000 people from around the country, double the entire town’s population, showed up, clapping and cheering as Hinton winged over the tiny airport.

But that flight, and a brief appearance at the Salute to Veterans airshow in Columbia, Missouri, were merely dress rehearsals for the debut at Dayton. In preparation for his hour-long flight there, Hinton eyed Glacier Girl closely. He checked the nose wheel’s shimmy dampener and main strut extensions for leaking fluids, examined the prop governor, and waggled the flight control surfaces—“just the usual preflight stuff,” he says. But every few moments he paused and simply admired the airplane. “These Lightnings have so many great stories and they’re so unique-looking,” he says. “When they were first made, they looked like they were from outer space, and they mesmerized people. They sound unique too: muffled and smooth instead of growling. Just look at it. It’s pure Lockheed. Every surface is shapely and twisting and complicated. Look at the wheel doors. The hinges are curved and complex, full of bushings and cotter pins and washers and bolts, all to make the doors swing out and away. It’s an engineering marvel, and you won’t see anything like that on a foreign airplane at all.”

By late morning, the low gray clouds clinging to the green mountains encircling the airport had dissipated. Hinton put fresh batteries in his hand-held GPS navigation aid (the only modern gear in Glacier Girl is the radio), and Cardin’s assistant, Jeff Cupp, and volunteer Richard Buchanan slowly pushed the propellers through a couple of revolutions to work some oil through the engine. All morning, folks had been coming in from down the road and throughout the country: Bud Holecheck was here from Baltimore, Maryland, and Charles and Glenna Dillow had just ridden from Florida on their Honda Gold Wing motorcycle.

“Get some fire bottles [fire extinguishers],” snapped Cardin, as Hinton climbed into the cockpit.

“Clear on the left?” yelled Hinton.

“Clear,” shouted Cardin.

The left engine’s propeller spun and black smoke poured from the exhaust as the engine caught and roared to life. Hinton’s description was spot-on: The V-12 emitted a smooth, powerful purr, not the throaty belching of radial air-cooled engines. Moments later, the right engine fired up, and as Hinton revved both engines, the 60-year-old machine bounced and strained against its chocks.

In its hangar, Glacier Girl seemed a museum piece, almost quaint. Roaring out into the sunlight, however, it was a big, menacing, powerful machine, taking us back to Harry Smith’s belly landing on the ice, Richard Bong’s kills over the Pacific, Bud Holecheck’s strafing runs over Belgium—a time when good and evil were clearly defined and the whole nation was bent to a noble task.

Hinton taxied to the end of runway, turned around, and took off, leaping into the air. He banked left, circled, and swept low at 350 mph before heading to Dayton.

Holecheck blinked back tears, wiped his eyes, and uttered a single word: “Sweet.”

Despite the tens of thousands of people who have streamed through Glacier Girl’s hangar over the past decade, despite the television documentaries, news stories, and newspaper articles that followed the airplane’s fortunes, Bob Cardin was so focused on restoring the P-38 that he hardly noticed all the attention. At Dayton, that changed. Just as he had done in Middlesboro, he was up at dawn every day, pacing around Glacier Girl long before the gates opened. The Rolls-Royce trophy typically goes to the airplane whose restoration has best preserved authenticity, so Cardin laid out everything, including Glacier Girl’s seatbelt, tool kit, a can of Harry Smith’s tobacco, and his helmet—all found with the airplane deep in the glacier. He also plunked down 18 volumes of photographs documenting the restoration process. “This is the only World War II fighter flying today with its original engines and props and guns,” he said, ever arguing his case as if he was still not sure anyone would notice his airplane.

By 8:30 a.m. people started to stream by under a cloudless blue sky; by nine they were a hundred deep in front of the P-38, a crowd that never thinned in four days. “Is this the one they dug out of the glacier?” a man called out.

“Wonder what this airplane thought when it first saw the light of day,” yelled a boy.

Suddenly Cardin’s defenses fell, and there he was, a man transformed. “Two hundred and sixty-eight feet straight down!” he sang, working the crowd like a carnival barker.

Within a few hours the Rolls-Royce judges arrived. They peered into Glacier Girl’s cockpit, examined the wheel wells, jotted notes on their clipboards, and whispered to one another. By Sunday, thousands of people had gazed at the P-38, Cardin’s voice was hoarse, and the results were in: Glacier Girl had won the 2003 Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy, as well as the National Aviation Hall of Fame People’s Choice Award, voted for by the airshow crowd. Shoffner, now using a wheelchair, was delighted. “Bob had motivation and I had determination,” he said, “but had I known beforehand what it would take, I probably would have been scared to death. I’d still love to fly her. Maybe some day I’ll climb in and just forget to apply the brakes!”

Five months after Dayton, with Glacier Girl restored and flying at last, you’d think Cardin might finally retire, or at least take a vacation. Not a chance. “This fall we had over 500 people a day in the hangar, and we’re working on completing a new museum next door,” he says. “When it gets warm, I’m gonna fire the engines up and then we’re going to do some airshows next year. I’m staying with this. There’s still too much to do.”

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