Exhuming the Glacier Girl

Ransom Riggs

People seem to be endlessly fascinated by stories about missing planes and sunken ships. I'm something of a hard sell in this area, but found the saga of the "Lost Squadron" irresistibly fascinating. It's a long story -- check out Damn Interesting for an in-depth rendering -- but the basic facts are this: a squadron of fighter planes was flying over Greenland toward Iceland during WWII. Poor visibility on the way forced them to fly above the clouds at around 12,000 feet, which when you're not flying in the relative luxury of a modern DC-10, can get pretty darn cold. Numb, disoriented and with the weather only getting worse, the pilots were forced to make an emergency landing -- on the ice sheets of Greenland.

Unharmed but chilly, the men were finally rescued ten days later by a dogsled team, and left their planes behind to be salvaged at a later date. That date never came, and after awhile the location of the squadron -- two B-17 bombers and six P-38 fighters -- became unknown. Between 1977 and 1990, eleven different teams tried and failed to locate and salvage the planes, to no avail. Finally, in 1988, members of the Greenland Expedition Society bored holes in the icecap to find the planes -- under an astounding 268 feet of ice and three miles from the original crash site, thanks to glacial drift.

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After tunneling a shaft to reach one of the B-17s (by melting the ice, not boring through it), the team found little more than crushed wreckage: its frame hadn't been able to withstand the ice's intense pressure. The P-38s, however, had been considerably more rugged planes, and so they tried again -- and this time hit aviation history gold. Dubbed "Glacier Girl," the P-38 they discovered was in rough shape, to be sure, but it was salvageable, and they removed it piece by piece and took it back to the U.S. Over nine years the airframe was transformed from a wad of crushed remains into a beautiful, working airplane. She flew again on 26 October 2002, in front of a crowd of over 20,000 people.