"Glacier Girl" Avstry #13

Robert L. Cardin, tells us the history of the Lost Squadron, about how Glacier Girl was rescued from the ice of Greenland and returned to flying condition.

Published Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2012

Direct link to m4a audio file of show. Recommended (right-click to download/save).

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Show Notes

Robert Cardin: Well, on July 15th of 1942, a group of six P-38s and two B-17 bombers left sondrestrom, back then it was called BW8--2:00 in the morning, and they were going to fly across Greenland, go to Reykjavik, Iceland, get gas, and continue on into England for redeployment within the 8th Air Force to fight the Germans. And, mostly likely, Glacier Girl would've ended up in Tunisia. Glacier Girl, back then, was just a regular P-38 flown by a guy named Harry Smith. It was part of Operation Bolero, and Operation Bolero had several flights that were flown, and this was the second and third combined flights. It was called Tomcat Green and Tomcat Yellow. They actually formed up in Prescott, Maine, flew a Gooseberry labrador and then onto Greenland. When they were flying across Greenland, ran into bad weather, and they got lost. They continued to fly using what we call dead reckoning, and when they get close to where they thought they would be near Iceland, they call off the landing instructions. They receive back a coded message. Back then all of the messages--the weather things--they didn't have radios like we had. A lot of it was done in code. Anyway, they received back a coded message that the airport was closed because of ice fog. They believed that, although the airport was not closed, it was open. But, anyway, they believed it so they proceeded to their alternate airport, which was Nos Sasquatch--back then it was called BW1. There was an airstrip there and, again, they're still flying in the clouds, still flying time, distance, and heading. And when they got close to where they felt that they could land there at BW1, they call off the landing instructions. They receive the same coded message that the airport was close. At that point, the team leader of the flight, he decided that the best thing to do would be return to base, return back to BW8 and wait till better weather and then continue on with their flight. Prior to this day when they were, you know, flying around over the glacier in the clouds they had had many episodes of bad weather in trying to get to Greenland, so this was not an unusual thing for them to return to base and wait for better weather. So, anyway, they turned to the northwest and started to fly towards BW8. After a few more hours, the clouds started to break up and the planes dropped below the cloud. At this point they realized that they were in trouble, that the ocean was on the wrong side of Greenland and that they were on the east coast of Greenland rather than the west coast of Greenland. So they chatted among themselves and they decided that stay together as a group and go ahead and find a suitable landing area in Greenland and just land on a glacier. When the crews received their permission briefing, they were told that it may be possible to land on a glacier but nobody had ever done it that they knew of and so they didn't exactly know what was going on. So, anyway, Brad McManis, he was the first pilot to land on the ice cap. He put his landing gear down and kind of did like a touch and go on the glacier. He said it felt pretty hard and thought that the best thing to do would be to leave the gear down, land, and try to save the airplane. But when Brad did his landing, touched down, everything seemed to be normal, kept his nose wheel off the ice, off the snow, and then when the airspeed got to where he couldn't keep the nose landing gear wheel off the snow, it was lowered onto it. And at that point there, it dug in. The airplane stopped immediately and it flipped over on its back. Brad was able to get out. He was not injured. The other pilots had seen this, realized that the best thing to do would be to land with the landing gear up, so they all did belly landings. This was July 15th of 1942--largest forced landing in Air Force history. Six P-38s, two B-17 bombers, and 25 men all marooned on a glacier. Glacier Girl was flown by a pilot called Harry Smith. And Harry had the presence of mind--he was the only pilot to do that--he had the presence of mind to shut the engines off and feather the propellors so that, when he landed, there was no damage done to either the engines or the propellors. When we did an analysis of the aircraft and trying to figure out what airplane we wanted to go get during the recovery, we looked at all the pictures, and we found that Glacier Girl, this P-38 that was flown by Harry Smith, was in the best shape, so that's why we picked it. So when get on the ice cap for our expedition we locate all the airplanes, and because we have aerial photographs of where the planes are in relationship to each other, we go ahead and, once we locate all the planes, we know which one is which so then we know where Glacier Girl is so we could go ahead and probe down and touch the airplane. Expedition--I actually started in the preplanning phase where, after we identified which aircraft we were going after, we had to come with a concept to the operation. In other words, what are we going to do, and figure out how we're going to do it, and what we're going to do it with. That process started on the 18th day of February of '92, and that continued through to the 16th of April where we left Douglas, Georgia and went to McGuire Air Force base to load 38,000 pounds of equipment onto Air Force C-141s and go from McGuire to Sondrestrom, Greenland. We arrived in Greenland 20th of April and had a week there waiting for the main body to come. Once the main body came in the DC-3, we proceeded out to the glacier, landed on the glacier on May 8th of 1992, dropped off the small team, and their job was to locate the airplanes using radar. While that was going on, we were making logistical arrangements to move all this equipment from sondrestrom, which is on the west coast of Greenland, to the base camp at Kulusuk, which is on the east coast. And we did that using Air Force C-130 aircraft provided by the New York National Guard. Now, these airplanes were equipped with skis, although we didn't use the skis. We never landed on a glacier. We actually just used the wheels and landed at the airstrip in Kulusuk. We went from kulusuk to the ice cap using twin engine DC-3 and also twin engine Donaire skis. Both airplanes are on skis. We used wheels at Kulusuk. Tried landing on the ice cap, we lowered the skis and land the skis. We brought up 38,000 pounds of supplies and equipment, 6,000 pounds of food. The plan was to be there May, June, and half of July. The plan was to be off on July 15th, 1992. We actually stayed on the glacier till August 22nd, and that's the last day we were on the ice cap. After we recovered the airplane, we did have the airplane up on the surface on August 1st, 1992. It took awhile to coordinate the helicopter that we had to use to take the airplane off the ice. We melted down to the airplane and then we melted a cave around it using hot water. Then we sent a team down and we took it apart piece by piece. The biggest piece weighed 7,000 pounds. It was 20 feet across, and it took us four or five, maybe six days, to take it in the bottom of the hull, turn the hull, and then bring it up the shaft that we had created. And the shaft was, from the surface down to the airplane, it was 5 feet wide and 20 feet long. When we got it to the surface, like I said, on August 1st, we had a Sikorsky helicopter come in and pick it up and take it to our base camp in Kulusuk. From there we put it on a ship and we sailed it off Denmark, then Sweden, then a container ship to Savannah, Georgia. The ship came in sometime in mid-October, and, after we coordinated with the trucking company to move it from Savannah to Middlesbrough, Kentucky, which took a couple of weeks to have some cradles made to hold the airplane and such, the airplane actually arrived in Middlesbrough for restoration on October 26th of 1992. And up till that point we probably spent around 640,000 dollars. We thought it'd take about a million bucks to fix the airplane up to flyable condition. So that was still well within the budget of what we thought we'd be able to do. So since we wanted to fly the airplane, our plan was pretty simple. We just wanted to take it apart, see if we could find anymore broken stuff. From there we'll fix the broken pieces and make them air worthy, put them all back together, and go flying. Well, after we took all the broken stuff off the airplane we had nothing left. It was totally disassembled. This is mid-January of 1993. So, at that point there, we just decided we'd just start fixing one piece at a time, and get a lot of pieces fixed, put them all together, and make a component of a lot of components, put them together--eventually we'll end up with a flyable airplane. We thought it'd take two or three years when we first started. I would answer questions all the time. "How long?" I'd say, "Two or three years," and after five or six years I was still saying, "Two or three years," and then finally we were getting closer so then I went down to 18 months. I said 18 months for two or three years, and then finally we'd get down a little bit closer, and then it'd be 12 months. And then eventually of October of 2002, we were ready to fly. The restoration of the aircraft took a long time--took 10 years. One of the reasons why it took so long is we spent a lot of attention to detail and making sure that the airplane was as authentic as it could be, and, since we had a complete airplane, and it was more or less a time capsule--it had all the pieces--you know, we felt that it was very important to keep everything, preserve everything, as best we could. So we were able to save about 80 percent of the airplane. In other words, the airplane that flew that first time in October of 2002 was, 80 percent of that was in a glacier for 50 years. The pilot of the first flown aircraft was Steve Henton from Chino, California. First flight lasted about 20 minutes, and there was 20,000 people there in Middlesbrough to watch him fly. It was a pretty historic day. It was a lot of fun--a lot of tension.

J.R. Warmkessel: When you went down in that tunnel and saw that airplane for the first time--50 years in the ice--what did it look like?

Robert Cardin: It looked just like an airplane. Yeah, everybody was rescued. They were debriefed. The latitude and the longitude of the aircraft in the afteraction and we had access to that.

J.R. Warmkessel: So you knew pretty direct where it was.

Robert Cardin: We had the latitude and longitude of the airplanes. They were first located in 1983, and from '83 to '92, when we went, the exact location of the aircraft was known. The glacier moves, oh, about 100 feet a year, so if your data was a year old then you'd look 100 feet the way...

J.R. Warmkessel: Downhill.

Robert Cardin: Downhill, so to speak. If it was two years, you looked 200 feet away. We had a very specialized radar set that was a modified ground penetrating radar that was modified to look through ice to find items such as metal, and that's how the airplanes were located.

Direct link to mp3 audio file of show (right-click to download/save).

Show Notes