The Lockheed P-38 saved from an icy tomb is now the star attraction in a previously quiet Kentucky town.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 3 of 6)
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.