Abandoned beneath 300 feet of glacial ice, an A.O. Smith boiler will soon be honored for its role in freeing the aptly-named Glacier Girl, a World War II fighter that made an emergency landing in Greenland on July 15, 1942. The crew was safely rescued. But the glacier quickly entombed the plane as ice accumulated at about 7 feet a year, meanwhile moving it slowly and relentlessly toward the sea. In the ensuing years, thirteen parties tried to find her and bring her back.
A newly donated boiler will make up part of the display being built at the Lost Squadron Museum, in Middlesboro, KY. The display will show how an ice mining technique was eventually used to extract the plane, according to Bob Cardin, who managed the recovery operation and who’s now putting together the exhibit. In addition to the boiler, the display will show the business end of the mining operation, the so-called Super Gopher, a 4-foot diameter nose cone that melted its way through the Greenland ice cap at a glacial pace of 4 feet an hour.
It took 14 weeks to bring the plane up, and another ten years to return the eleven recovered sections to airworthiness. Glacier Girl flew again on October 26, 2002, and flies periodically today, Cardin says. The recovery team first located the plane with radar, then sunk a pilot hole down through the ice. The Super Gopher followed this hole, eventually boring a 4-foot diameter path to the aircraft. Once there, the recovery team blasted a 50 foot wide cavern around the plane using a water cannon and hot water supplied by the boiler. By boring four more tunnels alongside the first, the team made a route wide enough to pass sections of the plane to the surface. The largest part weighed some 7,000 lbs., Cardin says.
Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson designed the original P-38 Lightning which first flew in 1939. By the time production ceased in 1945 nearly 10,000 craft had been built. Experts believe less than a dozen P-38s remain airworthy today. The plane represented a significant departure from conventional fighter designs of the day because of its twin engines and double tail booms which earned it the nickname “Fork-tailed Devil.”
After many years in a cold, dark grave, the P-38 fighter Glacier Girl flies again over Kentucky.
PHOTO CREDIT: CHARLES STITES
The plane the team discovered was much the worse for wear, Cardin says, the result of a slow, grinding journey in the clutches of the ice pack. The glacier in Greenland moves about a hundred feet a year, he says. Still, Glacier Girl proved to be remarkably better preserved than another airplane, the larger B-17 known as Big Stoop. This was the first airplane the team located and drilled down to, only to be turned away by the devastation the craft had suffered in the throes of the ice cap.
A piece-by-piece slide show of the restoration
Pictures of the recovery ops below ice
Info on the A.O. Smith water heater used for in the recovery
Reach Paul Sharke at