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.
"I thought about that for a year. Sort of mental preparation," Richard Taylor says. "I’d be in an office building in downtown Atlanta. I’d go to put my nose up to the glass and I’d look down and you’re on the 25th floor and you see a manhole cover from a sewer. Well, that’s the dimension: you think, I’m going down a tube that wide, 25 stories deep. I had to be scared to death. Ain’t no question. But when the moment comes, for whatever reason it’s not there. You get in there. You know you’ve got something to do. You know you’ve got to go."
The atmosphere inside Pat Epps’ aircraft maintenance hangar in Atlanta is giddy this balmy autumn night. There’s an impromptu party, and the guest of honor is Harry Smith’s P-38. Bathed in greenish light, the components of the still-disassembled aircraft lie in rough approximation of where they should be—though the wings are upside down and the large center section is being placed aboard a ship in Denmark. The airplane serves as the backdrop for a round of speech-making, and each speaker assumes a casually heroic pose—gesticulating with one arm, resting the other elbow on the P-38’s horizontal stabilizer. The chunk of old metal rocks precariously aboard its sawhorse perch.
Epps and company have been assured by experts that the aircraft is restorable, and to a novice’s eyes, it does look good. The canopy was crushed by the ice, and in places the aircraft’s skin shows evidence of having borne tremendous weight. But as Roy Shoffner, who will be funding the restoration, points out, "It’s got all the parts. That’s what makes it so nice. If you want to restore Grandfather’s old Model T that’s in the barn, it’s hard to do. But this one was only two months old when it was put on the ice and all the pieces were there."
Pat Epps interrupts: "Roy, I put you on the spot because I told everybody it’s going to be flying at the Oshkosh two years from now."
But Shoffner quickly responds, "Oh that’s easy. Yeah, we’ll do that."
The future of the Greenland Expedition Society seems less certain. The society doesn’t yet have funding for another expedition, and Epps is anxious to relinquish his position as society president. "I’ve been gone too long, neglecting my business too much," he says. "I need to turn to that."
At this point the society and its backers have spent some $2 million, and the restoration of the P-38 should cost another $500,000, so perhaps its wishful thinking when Epps estimated what the airplane will bring. " I think with the story and everything, it must be a $3 million plane," he says. Bruce Goessling, an aircraft dealer in Chino, California, who’s restored two P-38s, places the value of a flying P-38 at $750,000 to $1 million. But he acknowledges that the society might be able to make much more if they reach the right group of investors.
In an effort to raise the airplane’s profile, Epps speculates that the society will fly the airplane around a little before auctioning it, including making its promised appearance at Oshkosh in 1994. Portions of the aircraft, as much as could be fit aboard the expedition’s DC-3, already drew large crowds of admirers when they appeared at Oshkosh last summer.
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.