The P-38F Lightning ‘Glacier Girl’ Was Buried Beneath The Ice For 50 Years

Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker / US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker / US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

So many aircraft went down during the Second World War that it would be difficult to calculate the total. One was a Lockheed P-38F Lightning, a zippy little fighter with many uses. Unlike other aircraft, it was eventually recovered from where it fell 50 years prior, having been trapped in a vast sheet of ice in Greenland, earning it the nickname Glacier Girl.

Bad weather seals Glacier Girl‘s fate

Lockheed P-38F Lightning 'Glacier Girl' parked on the tarmac
Lockheed P-38F Lightning Glacier Girl at an airshow in California, 2007. (Photo Credit: Greg Goebel / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Not much is known about Glacier Girl‘s combat history before the fateful night of July 15, 1942. She was one of six P-38s with the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, along with two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, returning from Operation Bolero. They were supposed to travel back to Britain, but bad weather made that impossible. Instead, the aircraft were forced to land in Greenland, where their airstrip was nothing more than an ice field.

Although some of the landings were less than textbook, all the airmen survived. They were fortunate enough that the two B-17s flying with them were able to stay in the air a little longer and transmit S.O.S. signals. However, they, too, eventually had to land on the icy terrain.

The 25 airmen stayed together for nine days, split between the two bombers, while awaiting rescue. Food and other supplies were dropped on the third day, and they were eventually rescued by dogsled and taken to a town for evacuation.

An incredible discovery

Lockheed P-38F Lightning 'Glacier Girl' in flight
Lockheed P-38F Lightning Glacier Girl at an airshow in Florida, 2011. (Photo Credit: Paul Nelhams / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

The aircraft they left behind weren’t so lucky, becoming nothing more than part of the ice in the years and decades that followed. A rescue mission was attempted a year later, but officials determined they were too damaged to fly and decided to leave them.

It wasn’t until 1981 that the Greenland Expedition Society, founded by Pat Epps and Richard Taylor, decided to try and find the aircraft. They’d heard the incredible firsthand story of their landing from pilot Carl Rudder and decided to investigate. They put together a large team of volunteers and embarked on what they thought would be a simple mission. As it turned out, there was absolutely no evidence of the aircraft anywhere on the ice field.

In 1988, they were finally successful, having gone back to the crash site with the proper radar systems.

Glacier Girl has become a popular airshow attraction

Close-up of the Lockheed P-38F Lightning 'Glacier Girl'
Lockheed P-38F Lightning Glacier Girl, 2014. (Photo Credit: Valder137 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

It only took a few days, but the team were able to find all eight aircraft. The only problem was they lay beneath 264 feet of ice.

Glacier Girl was eventually recovered, thanks to the help of the “Gopher,” a Thermal Meltdown Generator that could melt thick layers of ice. The aircraft was raised in 1992, 50 years after it first landed in Greenland.

Perhaps the most incredible part of the discovery was that it was sent back to Kentucky and restored to full working order. Glacier Girl flew again in October 2002. In the years that have followed, the aircraft has made appearances at various airshows across the United States.

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Knowing the seven other aircraft were still hidden in Greenland, many explorers tried to find them, although Glacier Girl is the only known find to return to the skies. Successful missions in 2016 and ’18 recovered more of the P-38s. As of 2023, there are still four that haven’t been removed from the ice.

There’s no word on whether anyone plans to recover either of the B-17s.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.