Glacier Girl – P-38 Lightning Warbird – Its Recovery and Restoration

The Loss and Recovery of a Warbird – Historical Background to the Lost Squadron

P-38J Lightning aircraft in formation over Europe, June 1944

P-38 Lightning aircraft in formation over Europe, June 1944. Courtesy U.S. Air Force

 

In 1942, a squadron of U.S. B-17 bombers and P-38 Lightning fighters , part of the 475th Fighter Group, fell prey to poor weather and navigational error, with the entire squadron crash landing onto the Greenland Ice cap.  These planes were intended to be flown to bases in Great Britain and then used against Nazi Germany in World War II.  The story of the recovery and restoration of  “Glacier Girl,” a P-38 Lockheed Lightning fighter, is a lesson in World War II aircraft technology,  arctic recovery techniques, and masterful project management in the ultimately successful warbird restoration effort.

One of the P-38 fighters flipped over on the Greenland Ice Cap

One of the Lost Squadron P-38 fighters flipped over on the Greenland Ice Cap. Courtesy U.S. Air Force

As chronicled in David Hayes’ 1994 book “The Lost Squadron: A True Story,” an intrepid group of adventurers, arctic experts, and angel investors were able to extract a single P-38 Lightning fighter plane from its burial under 250 feet of glacial ice, in 1992.   The enormity of this task only became apparent after years of prior failures in locating and retrieving the plane.  Because of  its 50 year entombment in ice, the recovered P-38 was dubbed “Glacier Girl.”

Lost Squadron P-38 Lightning after crash landing - 1942

Lost Squadron P-38 Lightning after crash landing - 1942. Courtesy U.S. Air Force

Online, one can find a wealth of information on “Glacier Girl.”  In an excellent review of the recovery effort involved, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum covered the story of Glacier Girl in its  July 2007 issue of Air and Space Magazine.  In addition, a good online video review of the many problems encountered in recovering Glacier Girl can be found at http://wn.com/SAVING_THE_GLACIER_GIRL_FROM_WORLD_WAR_II.

The History Channel created an excellent video documentary on the Lost Squadron in 2002.  Entitled  “The Hunt for the Lost Squadron,” this 70 minute documentary, created in 2002, includes interviews with many of the people involved in the recovery effort.  I highly recommend this video for Glacier Girl buffs.  Included in this documentary are several interviews with David Hayes, the author of  “The Lost Squadron: A True Story“.

The Hunt for the Lost Squadron - History Channel

The Hunt for the Lost Squadron - History Channel - 2002

The multi-year recovery effort for Glacier Girl

There is an excellent online  P-38 fighter volunteer association at http://p38assn.org . For a detailed history of what happened to The Lost Squadron, and early attempts to recover these planes, see  http://p38assn.org/glacier-girl.htm

P-38 Lightning in World War II

P-38 Lightning in World War II. Courtesy Popular Science, April 1942

Glacier Girl is now at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California.

Intermission – A trio of Glacier Girl videos

The immense task of retrieving Glacier Girl and restoring this example of a prime U.S. fighter plane of World War II, is summarized in the video below.

After the extraordinary task of recovering “Glacier Girl”, a 100% makeover restoration was done on Glacier Girl, and the first flight of this restored World War II fighter is shown in the following video:

Here is a video from 2007, showing Glacier Girl as she is now restored, at Planes of Fame Museum:

What was involved in the recovery of Glacier Girl?

Once the P-38 Lightning was located under the ice surface, an ingenious heated probe had to be used to bore several holes through solid ice, using a hot conical tip and fluid release system.  Eventually, enough holes were drilled, allowing the large center section to be winched up slowly through a large oblong hole.

What were the conditions of the P-38 upon reaching the plane 250 feet below the surface? Much of the plane was intact, but some parts of the plane had cracked and crumpled from the overlying pressure of the ice.

Upon winching up all the dis-assembled pieces of  Glacier Girl, and then transport of the center fuselage, wings, twin booms and engines back to the U.S., the restoration effort could begin, in 1992.

The Glacier Girl restoration effort

After the retrieval of Glacier Girl from Greenland, the restoration work proved to be an enormous undertaking. In all, the restoration effort took 9 years to accomplish. Although much of the plane escaped severe damage from the crushing ice cap, many sheet metal pieces had to be fabricated as replacement parts.  For example, the cockpit had to be completely disassembled and put back together again, using blueprint drawings obtained from the Smithsonian.  Dozens of cockpit assembly pieces had to be either salvaged or made up completely new in order to restore the World War II era cockpit.

After  Glacier Girl was  restored to airworthy condition in Middlesboro, KY,  it was sold to Rod Lewis of San Antonio, TX, and it now currently resides at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA. Here is a recent photo of the restored plane.

Three Strategically Important U.S. Aircraft: P-51B Mustang, P-38 Lightning "Glacier Girl" and A-10 Thunderbolt II

U.S. Aircraft: P-51B Mustang, P-38 Lightning "Glacier Girl" and A-10 Thunderbolt II. Courtesy U.S. Air Force

Conclusions about the restored Glacier Girl

A full formal accounting of Glacier Girl is provided at http://www.warbirdregistry.org/p38registry/p38-417630.html.

What is my take-away from this history of the P-38 Lightning and its restoration?  First, this aircraft was designed by Hall Hibbard and the legendary Kelly Johnson, and was one of the earliest of Kelly Johnson’s  many successful aircraft designs.  Kelly Johnson was one of the most prolific and talented  aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation. The P-38 Lightning was at its most effective in the Pacific theater, due to its ability to provide close air support of ground troops, and its capability of flying long distances, a necessity in the Pacific.   Indeed, the P-38 famously was the aircraft used on the mission to kill Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on Bougainville Island in Papua, New Guinea in April, 1943.  This mission required a long, secret flight to Bougainville,  followed by a sudden, intense air strike by several P-38 formations on the small Japanese formation transporting Admiral Yamamoto.

In terms of aircraft technology, the modern day Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II is its most recent technological descendant.  Maintenance costs were a problem with the P-38 Lightning.  It was found at the time the P-51 Mustang was easier to maintain and also performed slightly better, so was used more extensively as the War progressed.  Likewise, any restoration attempt now is an expensive and time consuming proposition. Indeed, only three P-38 aircraft are currently flying, including Glacier Girl, currently at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino.

In my prior post on the B-29 “FiFi”, I noted the fact that the engines used in the 1940′s were straining the limits of then current technology, around 70 years ago.  Likewise here, it is fascinating to see the changes that advancing technology has brought to a top line fighter from 70 years ago, the P-38 Lockheed Lightning, up to the modern day Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II.  Some observers conclude the A-10 Thunderbolt is a glorified flying Gatling Gun.  Although this is probably true, one must conclude it is a descendant of some original design principles developed from the line-of-sight 20 caliber nose-mounted machine guns of the P-38 Lightning.

Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II.

Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II. Courtesy U.S. Air Force

by Steve Adams – May, 2012

P-38 Lockheed lightning gun and ammo detail. Airplane on static display at the the Classic Jets Fighter Museum, Parafield airport, Adelaide, South Australia

P-38 Lockheed lightning gun and ammo detail. Airplane on static display at the the Classic Jets Fighter Museum, Parafield airport, Adelaide, South Australia. Credit: Peripitus

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