Glacier Girl: The Back Story

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

Glacier Girl in flight. (William Zuk)
Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 3)

Within days, the radar teams had pinpointed the exact location of all eight airplanes. And it immediately became obvious why they hadn’t been located earlier. The shifting ice had carried the airplanes about two miles from their original location. And a high-pressure steam probe revealed that they lay beneath 264 feet of solid ice.

Roy Shoffner had followed the society’s adventures from afar, and he became intrigued by the engineering problem of salvaging an airplane from beneath all that ice. It became his favorite topic of conversation among friends and business associates. "Someone would come by and I’d say, ‘All right, how would you get that airplane out? And I’d get their views." Word got back to the society that he was interested, and eventually Shoffner agreed to sponsor a 1992 expedition and accompany expedition members to the ice cap.

Shoffner is typical of the type of individual the society’s efforts have attracted: he’s a long-time pilot, having flown in the service, in business, and for pleasure. And he’s a wealthy man—a retired manufacturer of plastic pipe—with the resources to live what many other people can only dream. Equally important, he’s an inventive thinker with an adventurous streak.

Some of the society’s greatest technological innovations came not from experts in Arctic airplane reclamation—if there is such a thing—but from the eclectic group of investors and volunteers Epps and Taylor assembled. Don Brooks, owner of a chain of auto part shops and an air compress company, as well as the expedition’s trusty DC-3, developed a concept for melting a four-food-wide shaft in the ice. His company built the original Thermal Meltdown Generator—dubbed the Gopher. The 550-pound cone—it looks something like the nosecone of a missile--is wrapped with copper tubing, through which hot liquid circulates. Another expedition member, Bobbie Bailey, owner of a compressor re-manufacturing factory, designed and fabricated an improved version of the Gopher, known as the Super Gopher. She was also the designer of a coring device that, during a 1989 expedition, reached down through the ice and retrieved physical proof that the airplanes were there—a necessary condition for retaining the society’s salvage rights.

Pat Epps remembers this as one of the most exciting moments of the expeditions. Previously, the only proof that they’d actually found the airplanes were blips on a radar. Then they send the coring device tunneling down to where the B-17 "Big Stoop" was believed to lie. "The tubing came up," Epps recalls, his voice still reflecting the awe of the moment. "It wasn’t a beer can. Aircraft tubing. The second piece that came up was a piece of skin, a piece of metal—olive-drab metal."

It wasn’t until the following year that the Super Gopher actually tunneled its way down to Big Stoop. And that day, the expedition met one of its biggest disappointments. The team discovered that the B-17 had been badly crushed by the weight of the ice above it.

"Now, if that doesn’t give you license to quit, there’s nothing in the world," Richard Taylor says. "Except we thought, There are eight airplanes there. We probably hit the bad one. We talked ourselves into it: We hit the bad one."

Reasoning that the smaller, more sturdily built P-38s would be in better condition, the team members set the sights of their next expedition on Harry Smith’s Lightning, the only one shown in 1942 photographs to have survived with its propellers both intact and unbent, probably because Smith had feathered them before landing.

Unfortunately, the society, which had spent about $1.5 million to get to that point, didn’t have enough money for a return trip to Greenland. The next year came and went with no expedition at all. Then Roy Shoffner came along with the necessary $500,000 for the 1992 expedition. It seemed a good omen that the trip would put them on the ice cap at the exact 50-year anniversary of the crash landing.

When expedition members recall their work to liberate the P-38 from the clutches of the ice, they talk about mainly about two things. They talk about the incredible kick of seeing an 11-year effort finally pay off. And they talk about The Hole, the shaft in the ice through which the adventurers descended and pieces of airplane rose (see "Cold Mining")


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