Glacier Girl

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

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

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.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus