Glacier Girl flies again

Posted: February 11, 2013 - 3:42pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

On July 15, 1942, foul weather forced six P-38 fighters and two B-17 bombers to crash-land on Greenland. The squadron's crew, en route from Maine to England to support Allied war efforts, was rescued, but the aircraft were left behind on the arctic ice cap.

For 50 years, an ice and snow cocoon enveloped six P-38 fighters and two B-17 bombers that crash-landed on Greenland during World War II. Then, in 1992, after 12 failed attempts to recover the planes, a group of adventurers tunneled through 268 feet of packed ice and raised one of the P-38 fighters piece by piece. Once brought to the surface, the sections were flown to Middlesboro, Ky. — home of the project's financier, Roy Shoffner — to begin restoration. The goal: to see the plane fly again.

When the sections were disassembled in a Bell County Airport hangar, the restoration team discovered few salvageable components. The compacted ice had squeezed the plane, torqueing or damaging most parts. “After we took off all the broken stuff, we basically had nothing left,” said Vietnam War helicopter pilot Bob Cardin, who led the recovery and restoration effort for Shoffner. “So we set out to fabricate the parts we needed, and lots of offers to help poured in.”

Y-12 was among those eager to lend a hand, and Cardin presented the plant with a difficult assignment: He needed two oval-shaped parts to connect the plane's horizontal stabilizer to the tail booms. The structural parts had to be made from an aluminum alloy. “The parts are complicated and come in two pieces,” he said. “When the two pieces are hooked together, they make an oval about 10 inches high and 6 inches wide. The aluminum had to be bent three-dimensionally for this piece to work.”

After examining old design drawings and the broken components, Y-12's metal fabricators worked to create the replacement parts. “There was a lot of trial and error,” Cardin said. “I remember at least three different parts were made before we had the final just right. The parts had to be made right, or the airplane would come apart in flight.”

“We had to roll and form the metal and make the molds and die to punch it,” said Y-12 retiree Ernie Roberts, who planned the project. “We had to make the tooling. If it'd been simple, Cardin and his team would've done it themselves.”

Y-12 also heat-treated aluminum pieces to make ribs for the wings. The ribs form the wings' structure, and the plane's skin is stretched over the ribs, Cardin explained.

Y-12 performed this work through the Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technology, a Department of Energy program that supported using Y-12's manufacturing and fabricating capabilities to assist U.S. companies in solving tough manufacturing problems. “We had a reputation out there for doing unusual work, tackling challenging issues,” said Production's Mike Allen, who in the mid-1990s oversaw Y-12's General Manufacturing, the organization that worked on the plane. “This job was a good match for our people, and the fact that we were working on a military airplane really piqued our interest.”

On Oct. 26, 2002, a decade after being pulled from the ice, the aptly named Glacier Girl made her first flight in 60 years. “That was a happy day,” said Cardin, who now lives in San Antonio, Texas. “After all that time, we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

Today Glacier Girl still flies high at air shows around the country, thanks in part to Y-12's skilled craftspeople. For more information about Glacier Girl and its history, visit www.LewisAirLegends.com.