MIDDLESBORO - It's mostly a matter of paperwork now that Steve Hinton has been selected as pilot, before the Glacier Girl can head down the runway and, for the first time in 60 years, sail off into the wild blue yonder.
When that glorious day arrives, Clyde Royse will be here to see it happen. Royse, 81, has made the four-hour pilgrimage from his home in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati 15 times to update himself on the progress of the Glacier Girl's restoration. With each visit, Royse gets a lump in his throat. She has that effect on the old veterans who come here from across America to reminisce and pay their respects. Royse, retired from Cincinnati's city maintenance division, made his first trip in 1992, shortly after the plane was salvaged a section at a time from under 268 feet of glacial ice in Greenland. He'd seen a report about her recovery on the Discovery Channel.
During World War II, he was assigned to a Railway Operating Battalion with the U.S. Army. In Africa, Royse remembers P-38s like the Glacier Girl protecting the harbors, escorting B-17 bombers and eventually helping to turn the tide of the war. Back in her day, Royse says, there was something big at stake. It's why she was created, and everyone knew it. The P-38 was more than just a plane; she was a symbol of courage and determination and American know-how. If not for the P-38, Royse says, we'd probably be holding this conversation in German or maybe Japanese. Indeed, it was a P-38 that shot down Admiral Yamamoto, the man who engineered the invasion of Pearl Harbor.
Then when you take into account the tale of this particular P-38 - from her role in the legendary Lost Squadron to her recovery from beneath a half century of accumulated snow and ice to her complete restoration - Royse is betting old soldiers from all over will be on hand when the Glacier Girl takes to the skies again late this summer. ''I know I'll be here,'' he says. ''I got a son and two grandsons who can drive me down if I ain't able.'' The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor when Lockheed put the P-38 into production. The Luftwaffe was hammering London when the first P-38s rolled off the line. Designed with two tail booms and twin 1,225-horsepower engines, the new plane could fly 400 mph - faster than any other plane at that time. Four 50-caliber machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon were mounted in the nose, so that the shells of that awesome artillery, able to punch holes through an enemy's engine block, followed precisely the pilot's path of vision.
In summer '42, six brand new P-38s accompanied a pair of B-17 bombers on a flight from the United States to England. They were to fly into history as the Lost Squadron. Near Iceland, they encountered a massive storm system. With ice building on their wings, their fuel running low and the clouds growing thicker, the pilots turned back for the safety of the Army's air base in Greenland. Still far from their base, they were forced to crash land in the frozen wasteland. The first P-38 deployed its landing gears and flipped over. The pilot was unhurt, but the pilots who followed him learned from his mistake and brought their planes down on their bellies. They were 10 miles south of the Arctic Circle. One of them, Lt. Harry Smith, piloting the plane that would half a century later be dubbed the Glacier Girl, had the presence of mind to shut down his engines and feather back his propellers before landing. All the planes landed without any serious injuries to the 25 pilots and crewmen. It was the largest forced landing in Air Force history. It took 11 days to locate and rescue all 25 fliers. The planes were left behind. When the first snow fell, they disappeared from view.
Twelve expeditions attempted to find the planes of the Lost Squadron. The first, staged in 1981 by an Atlanta-based group calling itself the Greenland Expedition Society, used radar and succeeded in pinpointing the planes' locations, roughly at the depth of a 27-story office building, at a point in the glacier where the ice was 2,500 feet thick. The glacier had moved the planes a mile closer to the sea. In 1990, the Greenland Expedition Society melted a shaft in the ice to one of the B-17s, only to find it had been crushed under the pressure of all that ice. A thirteenth expedition was undertaken in 1992. Roy Shoffner of Middlesboro put up the money. As a boy, he'd read about the P-38's contribution to the effort in World War II. He imagined himself flying one into battle. When his turn came, he piloted an F-89 Scorpion in the Korean War - the Defense Department had scrapped the P-38. Shoffner had done well for himself after Korea. He owned the Middlesboro Federal Bank, the local supermarket, the KFC. He recruited Bob Cardin, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who had helped engineer the GES expedition, which had salvage rights to the Lost Squadron but no money. Shoffner had the money. He wanted to bring up a P-38. The trick was to find which of the six P-38s had sustained the least damage. Working with photos the Lost Squadron crewmen took on the ice while waiting to be rescued, Cardin's team decided to go for the one Lt. Smith had flown. They knew from Smith's account that the plane had been landed without damaging a key piece of gear - the propellers.
A steam-heated probe attached to a 300-foot hose was developed to verify the locations of each plane. With the coordinates to Lt. Smith's plane in hand, a larger ''gopher'' device was created to melt a shaft in the ice large enough for a man to descend on a rope to the plane. The device looked like a giant toy top, four feet in diameter, with a point at the business end. Using a system of steam-heated copper tubing powered by a 900,000-BTU boiler, the gopher melted its way down through the ice at the rate of two feet per hour. It took a week to reach its target. Four more shafts were created, one next to the other, creating a slot in the ice that was five feet wide, 20 feet long. Crews descended to the plane below and chipped away at the ice around it. Then they disassembled the plane and hoisted it up through the slot in pieces. The recovery of the Glacier Girl took 14 weeks. Shoffner spent $648,000 taking the crew to Greenland and shipping her back to Kentucky. It would take an additional $2.4 million and most of a decade to restore her to flyable condition. That fall, the Glacier Girl was lying in pieces on the floor of a hangar at the Middlesboro-Bell County Airport. Cardin had left his wife and his home in Atlanta to accept Shoffner's offer to oversee the plane's restoration. ''At first, I considered it just a continuation of the work I'd been doing, something I wanted to see through to the finish,'' Cardin said. ''Then people began coming to see her. They just started showing up. From all over. It was like the movie, where if you build it, the people will come. ''And I began to understand how much this plane meant to them. ''For me, this is much more than a job now. It's an opportunity to preserve a piece of what gave us the freedoms we have today.'' Considering the stress the Glacier Girl had endured, it was decided to completely dismantle her, change all her rivets and rebuild her, using every original piece possible. The only piece that wasn't broken, crushed or bent was the lower portion of the main spar, the rough equivalent of the plane's keel - a thin piece of metal six inches wide and 18 feet long. The hangar became the P-38 Museum (www.thelostsquadron.com). Nearly 50,000 visitors came here last year. Shoffner decided a long time ago not to charge admission. He believes the Glacier Girl and her story belong to everyone.
The museum is stocked with compelling displays and photographs of various stages of the recovery in Greenland and the restoration here. More than 150 50-caliber rounds, each signed by an old airman who came to pay his respects to the Glacier Girl and to recollect how he flew a P-38 in the war, are displayed in one glass case. When the Glacier Girl flies again, Cardin will have those shells loaded in her ammo cases. ''For good luck,'' Cardin explains. ''It can only help.'' In another case is the plane's original transmitter, classified top secret at the time. You can see the bullet holes Lt. Smith pumped into the unit before abandoning the plane, to keep its secrets from falling into enemy hands. Cardin even saved what he could of the air in the original tires - technicians at B.F. Goodrich stored it in Mason jars, which Cardin keeps in his office closet. Except for the panels around her engine, the restoration is virtually complete. When Glacier Girl flies again, Cardin said she'll be comprised of about 80 percent of her original parts. The plan is to send her on a tour of the country. Shoffner also intends to retrace her only other flight, the one that began in July 1942 and ended in the Northeastern Arctic. In one corner of the museum, in the shadow of the Glacier Girl, is a coin-operated airplane ride for small children, the kind you sometimes see outside grocery stores. It was Cardin's idea to put it there, put some stickers on it, do what he could to give it a World War II look. ''A kid comes here, sees the Glacier Girl, takes a ride in that little plane - maybe it makes an impression that sticks with the kid,'' he says. ''You never know when you might plant a seed. That's the way it was for a lot of kids when they first saw the P-38 back in the '40s. I know because a lot of them have come here and told me so. ''That's the thing about the Glacier Girl. She's proof anything in possible.''
You can never imagine the work that went into restoring this aircraft. When they had finished the early stages they lowered the gear and lowered the plane onto the hangar floor. That night the gear collapsed and bent the left fuselage. Many parts had to be redone before the owner discovered the incident. This constituted a super rush job which was done without incident.
When the initial engine run up was done only one engine at a time could be brought to full throttle because the chocks and tie downs were not enough to hold the plane.