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Glacier Girl: The Back Story

How it got trapped in the ice, and how it got out.

When Carl Rudder told his story to Roy Degan some 35 years later, Degan became intrigued by the prospect of attempting to reclaim the warbirds from the ice. In 1978 he and a partner asked Pat Epps about using his facility to restore them. They later secured salvage rights to the aircraft.

"I told him it’s not my game," Epps says. "I’m into Learjets and Bonanzas and these other things, and I’m not interested in these warplanes at all." But time and experience have a way of changing one’s mind—that and in this case a chance encounter Epps had with a wealthy aviator who mentioned that he’d like to buy a P-38. Suddenly the idea seemed worth a closer look. In 1980 Epps and Taylor decided that their next adventure would be to the Greenland ice cap.

"Our thoughts were that the tails would be sticking out of the snow," Taylor says with a grin. "We’d sweep snow off the wings and shovel them out a little bit, crank the planes up, and fly them home. Of course, it didn’t happen."

 

The name "Greenland" is a misnomer if ever there was one. Legend has it that Eric the Red, who discovered it around A.D. 900, gave it the misleading name in order to lure Norwegian and Icelandic settlers to its rocky shores. A protectorate of the Kingdom of Denmark, the island resembles an ice-filled bowl. Over the years, the massive ice cap—10,000 feet deep in places and covering almost seven-eighths of Greenland’s surface—has pushed the center of the island below sea level. There the constant snows melt or are compressed into sheets of ice that move steadily outward toward the island’s mountainous fringe.

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.

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