P-38 ground display
P-38 Glacier Girl on display at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012. Photo courtesy of EAA

Famed airplane makes it back home

Later this year, JP Media LLC will publish a book by longtime pilot and writer Bill Cox entitled “My Sky: The Flights & Times of Bill Cox.” It will detail his lifelong travels as a pilot, in the beautifully scripted way in which only Bill can write. This is Chapter 5.

1942 — a flight of six P-38s and two B-17s departs Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland, for Reykjavik, Iceland, on their way to the World War II European Theater of Operations as part of Operation Bolero. It’s an ambitious project, initiated by Gen. Hap Arnold, tired of seeing his aircraft ride cargo ships to the bottom of the Atlantic, victims of Hitler’s dreaded U-boats.

Halfway to Reykjavik, the flight encounters thick clouds and icing conditions and turns back for Greenland, only to discover the weather has worsened at Sondre Strom, as well. Low on fuel and with no place left to go, all eight airplanes crash land on the Greenland Ice Cap, and all 27 members of the eight crews escape uninjured. Nine days later, the group is rescued and evacuated to the east coast of Greenland. The airplanes remain on the cap where they came to rest. They are slowly swallowed by the snow and ice, gradually becoming a part of the world’s largest ice island.

Fast forward 50 years. Warbird expert Bob Cardin leads a team of adventurers out onto the ice to recover one of the aircraft. The 10th expedition to make the effort, Cardin’s group battles blizzard conditions and minus 29 degrees Celsius temperatures, and finally succeeds in retrieving a partially crushed P-38 from 266 feet below the surface of the Greenland Ice Cap. The team transports the disassembled airplane by ski-equipped DC-3 to the port of Kulusuk and ships it to Savannah, Georgia.

Ten years and $4 million of restoration expense later, owner Ed Shoffer watches his P-38, now affectionately known by its new name, Glacier Girl, fly again for the first time since 1942. Planes of Fame Museum owner Steve Hinton, one of the world’s most knowledgeable warbird pilots, campaigns the Lockheed on the air show circuit all over the U.S. for five years. Now, it’s summer 2007 and time to complete the flight to England as part of Operation Bolero II.

Picture this.
I’m facing backwards in Rod Lewis’ Pilatus PC-12 200 nm out over the Labrador Sea. Snuggled into echelon formation 10 feet off the Pilatus’ left wing, Steve Hinton guides perhaps the world’s most famous warbird, the P-38 Glacier Girl. Ten feet off the right wing, Mustang expert Ed Shipley flies Miss Velma, a newly rebuilt TF-51 Mustang. It’s a warbird fan’s dream.

On the face of it, the mission might not seem that difficult. Glacier Girl needed to fly from Chino, California, to Duxford, England, for an appearance at several early-July air shows. I was hired to help expedite the Atlantic crossing, deal with ATC in four countries, provide some educated guesses on weather and routes, and recommend hotels and restaurants for the crew of Glacier Girl and Miss Velma as well as the Pilatus and a Citation Sovereign jet support aircraft.

The P-38’s new owner, Rod Lewis of Lewis Energy in San Antonio, Texas, has graciously provided ample assets for the trip. In addition to Hinton and Shipley, we have a total support group of 11, including Hinton, Loftis, Cardin, Lewis, mechanics, photographers, wives, and me, the least valuable member of the team.

The plan was for the PC-12 to shepherd the two fighters across the pond in loose formation while the Sovereign charged ahead to make certain all was ready for the warbirds. Range wasn’t a particular problem. With drop tanks in place, both the Lightning and Mustang could manage an easy 1,100 nm, and the longest leg would be only about 680 nm.

Weather permitting, our trip would attempt to retrace the planned original Operation Bolero route: Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada; Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), Nunavut, Canada; Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; and on to England.

It was the “weather permitting” part that worried me. WWII fighters were never designed for operation in icing conditions or hard IFR, so Hinton and Shipley needed to make the trip in pure VFR conditions if at all possible. In my 150 flights across the Atlantic over the last 30 years, I can count the number of pure VFR crossings I’ve made on the thumbs of one hand.

The trip started in Teterboro, New Jersey, with a media frenzy more befitting Kim Kardashian than a 65-year-old warbird. Hinton, Shipley, Rod Lewis, and team leader Bob Cardin gave dozens of interviews, and Glacier Girl and Miss Velma flew by the Statue of Liberty for the cameras before we finally launched for Presque Isle, Maine, a day later.

Our reception at Presque Isle was smaller but equally enthusiastic. We were delayed for two days in Presque Isle for weather, then dispatched Lewis’ Sovereign jet ahead to Goose Bay beneath the weather at 5,500 feet to scout the route. (Sovereign pilot D.P. Loftis commented, “We certainly didn’t set any speed record, but we may have for fuel burn.”) When the Sovereign pilots called on the satellite phone and advised the route was relatively clear and ice-free, we launched with the PC-12 and the two fighters for Goose.

There was another two-day delay in Goose for parts for the Mustang, and bad weather in Northern Labrador and Nunavut made the original Bolero route inadvisable, so we were relegated to the southern route.

Now, we’re finally on our way across the Atlantic on the first overwater leg — Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq. The atmospherics are near-perfect, with clear skies, nearly 24 hours of daylight in late June and even slight tailwinds.

We depart Goose Bay at 0900 local and begin tracking out over the water toward Greenland. The icebergs begin to appear 100 miles offshore, right on schedule, and this has all the makings of a near-perfect crossing.

Maybe not. A hundred miles past Loach intersection, well out over the Labrador Sea, I’m watching Hinton in loose formation when suddenly, his P-38 banks sharply away from us. Not good, I speculate.

Sure enough, he has a problem with the right engine. Pumps, tanks, and mixtures don’t help, and within about one minute, we collectively decide to abort. Our flight of three makes a sweeping right turn, and we begin tracking back toward Goose Bay.

Fortunately, Steve manages to keep things running and lands normally on two engines in Goose Bay. Hinton, Cardin, and our support team swing into action, and within an hour, they discover a cracked cylinder on the right Allison V1710. Lewis elects to change out both engines, and that’s the end of the trip for the P-38. (After a double-engine change, Hinton will later return to Goose and fly the P-38 to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.)

Within a few hours, we’re mounted up again with Hinton riding with us in the Pilatus and Shipley formed on our right wing. The crossing to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, goes without a hitch in 3 + 10, we refuel both airplanes and continue on to Reykjavik, Iceland, in another 3 + 20, arriving at 0200 local. As it turns out, most of the British Isles are suffering from a hellacious rain event, and the trip on down to Stornoway, Scotland, and Duxford, England, is delayed again. As much as I love Iceland (the best kept secret in the North Atlantic), there’s no logical reason for me to hang out in Reykjavik. I jump on an Iceland Air flight to New York, then Delta back to California. It’s my 173rd crossing of the North Atlantic.

Read Chapter 1: Send in the Clouds