Lost WWII warplane found entombed in glacier

Engineers plan to recover the P-38, buried under 300 feet of ice, during an expedition next summer.

A P-38 flying over California in 1944
A P-38 flying over California in 1944. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

On July 15, 1942, a squadron of two B-17 bombers and six P-38 fighters took off from Presque Isle Air Base in Maine en route to the United Kingdom. The group, totaling 25 crew members, was part of Operation Bolero, a secret campaign initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to shore up allied aircraft numbers in Europe. Between June 1942 and January 1943, nearly 700 aircraft successfully navigated this treacherous "Snowball Route," stopping to refuel in covert airbases located in Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland.

The eight aircraft that embarked on July 15, however, were not part of that final tally. While flying southeast over the ice cap of Greenland, the squadron encountered a severe blizzard that disoriented the crew and forced them to burn precious fuel. According to one source, conditions were so bad, it was like flying through "clouds dense as cotton drenched in tar."

With no other choice, the squadron was forced to crash land on the ice cap. Miraculously, all survived and were rescued nine days later. Their aircraft, however, were left behind — consigned to an uncertain fate on the Greenland ice sheet.

Entombed in ice

More than 75 years later, a team of engineers and enthusiasts seeking the remains of what's become known as "The Lost Squadron" have rediscovered a P-38 fighter entombed some 300 feet within the ice cap. As shown in the video below, the expedition used a heavy-lift drone equipped with ground-penetrating radar to peer through the thick ice.

To confirm that the object located by the drone was in fact a plane, the team used a thermal probe to cut a hole through the ice to a depth of 340 feet. Upon retrieval, they found a red substance covering the probe that was later identified as 5606 Hydraulic fluid used in U.S. aviation.

"We determined this to be 5606 hydraulic fluid that would have been on the surface of the water we created around some portion of the aircraft — probably a split open hydraulic line or perhaps out of the reservoir," the expedition team reported on Facebook. "Either way, this was convincing evidence that we found what we were looking for."

Based on the location of the aircraft, the team determined that the aircraft was likely the "Echo," a P-38 fighter flown by the late Air Force pilot Robert Wilson.

A second chance

Incredibly, plans are already underway to free the lost P-38 from the ice and, if possible, rebuild it so it can once again take flight. If successful, it would be the second time a P-38 from the Lost Squadron has been reclaimed from the ice. In 1992, members of the Greenland Expedition Team used a 4-foot-wide "thermal meltdown generator" to cut a 268-foot shaft through the ice to the resting place of a P-38 nicknamed "Glacier Girl." Workers then descended down the shaft and used steam hoses to cut a cave around the plane. Over the course of four months, the plane was disassembled and carefully brought back to the surface.

In 2001, after some $3 million in restoration costs, the P-38 once more took the sky to the elation of cheering spectators.

According to the expedition team, the resting site of the newly discovered P-38 "Echo" presents another opportunity to retrieve a piece of World War II history. Thanks to funding support from the governments the United States, Greenland and the United Kingdom, it's an undertaking that could begin as soon as next summer.

"This particular P-38 is well clear of the crevasse field, making it a suitable target," they wrote on Facebook. "Our team members are looking forward to the next phase for the recovery of this aircraft and others in the future."

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Rish Sharma
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