Glacier Girl: The P-38F Lightning That Was Rescued From Beneath The Ice

Sep 13, 2023 1 comments

During the Second World War, the United States initiated a massive movement of aircrafts and ground troops across the Atlantic and into the United Kingdom in preparation for the invasion of Northwestern Europe. As part of this movement, on July 15, 1942, a formation consisting of six P-38s and two B-17s departed Greenland on the third leg of their journey to Iceland. Off the eastern coast of Greenland, the flight ran into bad weather and it was decided to abort this leg and turn back to Greenland.

As they approached the eastern coast of Greenland, the weather worsened, but they pressed on, hoping to get back to the base on the western coast of Greenland. However, a navigational error on the B-17 led the formation far off course. After eight hours of flying with dwindling fuel supplies, the crew ultimately made an emergency landing on the eastern coast of Greenland. They were forced to abandon their aircraft, but fortunately, the entire crew safely returned to their base.

Lockheed P-38E Lightning "Glacier Girl", in Chino, California. This aircraft was trapped 50 years under the ice sheet of Greenland. Photo credit: Greg Goebel/Wikimedia Commons

Fifty years later, one of the P-38s was excavated from nearly 80 meters of ice by members of the Greenland Expedition Society and restored to flying conditions. The airplane was nicknamed Glacier Girl.

The search for the missing airplanes began as early as 1977, with twelve different teams on the lead but none was able to locate and recover the aircraft. The turning point came in 1988 when the Greenland Expedition Society (GES) located the squadron with an ice scope. Shifting ice patterns had taken the planes three miles from their original location. A high-pressure steam probe revealed that they lay beneath 264 feet of solid ice.

In 1990, the crew returned with a device of their creation, which they called the Thermal Meltdown Generator, or the “Super Gopher”. The Gopher consisted of a 550-pound cone wrapped with copper tubing, through which hot water was circulated. The cone was pressed down on the ice to melt it and the melted ice water pumped out to leave a clear four-foot-diameter hole. The team first tunneled down to one of the B-17s, but found the Flying Fortress was completely crushed. So they turned their attention to the P-38s, reasoning that the smaller, more sturdily built P-38s would be in better condition.

Under the ice and ready to be hoisted to the top.

By then the society had spent about $1.5 million and had run out of funds. Then Roy Shoffner, a Kentucky businessman, came along with the necessary funds to continue the expedition.

In 1992, the team melted a hole 25 stories deep in order to reach the plane. Then they began the long, dangerous process of extracting the plane, piece by piece. To hoist the hefty three-ton center section to the surface, they had to expand the shaft and set up a specially operated manual hoist. Lowering each worker to the aircraft took about 20 minutes, and it required three days of continuous hand-cranking to bring up the final piece. The last section finally emerged on August 1, 1992, surprisingly in remarkably good condition.

The transformation of the crushed and twisted metal back into an aircraft known as "Glacier Girl" was an epic endeavor that spanned nine years. On October 26, 2002, an audience of over twenty thousand spectators gathered to witness her taxiing down the runway for her inaugural public flight since her lengthy slumber within the ice. It stood as a testament to one of the most exceptional restoration efforts ever accomplished.

The Glacier Girl at an air show at Langley Air Force Base. Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker/Wikimedia Commons

# Glacier Girl: The Back Story, Smithsonian Magazine
# P-38F LIGHTNING, Lewis Vintage Collection
# P-38 Glacier Girl, Military Aircraft Historian


  1. I wonder how they're going to restore the ice that they melted in the process, which the world needs more urgently than an old fossil-burner that's good for nothing but bringing death and destruction ...


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