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The Search for the “Lost Squadron”: A Story of Teamwork

Restored P-38 Lightning in Hanger Prior to Maiden Flight.
Photo courtesy of Bil Thuma.

It was mid-July 1942, and a group of eight aircraft was on its way to join the war effort. The squadron would never arrive at its final destination. All of the crew members of the “Lost Squadron” survived; however, their aircraft were abandoned in Greenland – leading to a fascinating adventure that finally led to their re-discovery just several years ago.

Ultimately, the location of the planes is a story of teamwork – both of the many expeditions involved and also of the geophysical instrumentation used to find the aircraft beneath many metres of snow and ice.

The Story of the Lost Squadron

The lost squadron flight included 6 P-38s and an escort of 2 B-17 bombers who flew from tip of Newfoundland over Greenland and on to Reykjavik, Iceland. Their destination was England. Over Iceland, the variable northern weather overtook them and they ran into heavy cloud. They were eventually forced to turn around and return to a base in Greenland. Weather conditions were no better over Greenland, however.

With wings icing and fuel reserves declining, the planes were forced to make a landing. One by one, the P-38s landed while the B-17s continued to fly to use up their excess fuel. At last, the B-17s landed, leaving a combined group of 25 airmen stranded on the ice. The story of their eventual rescue was adventure-filled tale that was the subject of a book called the “Lost Squadron” by David Hayes.

During the rescue, the planes were left behind but the possibility of recovering the planes lured many groups of treasure hunters and World War II aficionados to set out in search of them. Hundreds of people were involved in these efforts, and ultimately, Roy Shoffner, a Kentucky businessman and former Air Force fighter pilot was successful in 1992.

The P-38 that was recovered was restored (as shown in the images on this page) and flew for the first time in more than half a century on October 26, 2002!

The Search for the Lost Squadron

In addition to the many people involved, several geophysical systems were used during the search for the lost planes. These included magnetometers and ground penetrating radar.

In 1981, a magnetic survey (with an unspecified model) in 1981 was performed on one of the first visits to the Greenland ice cap. A second, more successful effort involved Bil Thuma, a Canadian geophysicist. An expert in ice thickness measurements, Bil was contacted in 1985 by Western World Retrievals who then owned the salvage rights for the aircraft. Bil’s recommendation for locating the planes was an early version of the GSM-19 Overhauser instrument.

Bil and two other adventurers (Joe Tuttle and John Neel) flew into Greenland, ultimately ending up 10 miles in from coast and 2000 feet above sea level on the Greenland icecap. The small party located themselves on the ice but could not find a twenty-foot tower left in 1983 to mark the last known position of the aircraft because the tower had disappeared beneath the snow.

Bil suggested that glacial ice movement was likely to have moved both the tower and the planes, and postulated the direction of ice movement. The team then used the magnetometer to track the location of the tower several miles away where it lay hidden six inches below the surface.

The next step was to attempt to locate the exact position of the planes. However, neither the magnetic field nor the weather was cooperating. Bil’s readings were wildly erratic with 300 nT variation every ten seconds due to magnetic storms. And the field conditions were typically “Arctic” in nature. In recalling the experience, Bil noted that, “The GSM-19 kept working even though it was bitterly cold – it was just nasty weather with very high winds … typical for Greenland in September.”

Using his geophysical experience and a lot of perseverance, he was able to acquire a huge amount of data which he hoped would enable him to obtain more information about the site. Careful analysis and some “back of the envelope” interpretation led to some basic insights, such as identification of surface debris from previous expeditions (including oil drums).

More interesting, though, was a long wavelength anomaly. A simple ½-width estimation method postulated a depth of one of the B17 aircraft at 258 feet. This estimate was treated with much skepticism as it was not thought that that much snow and ice could accumulate over the site in fifty years. However, the estimate proved to be reliable during a subsequent trip when a steam probe encountered one of the planes at 250 feet.

Ground penetrating radar provided more information — confirming the depth and position of the planes to within +/- 10 feet. With this information in hand, the recovery teams moved into full operation and extracted one of the P-38s from its icy resting place.

A Story of Teamwork

Restored P-38 “Glacier Girl” on Runway Prior to Maiden Flight.
Photo courtesy of Bil Thuma.

Between 1977 and 1992, twelve different teams made attempts to find and recover one of the lost aircraft … leading to the eventual recovery and restoration of a P-38 Lightning (one of the most decorated planes of the Second World War). The P-38 was re-named “Glacier Girl” in honour of its storied history.

GEM would like to congratulate the individuals involved, and is pleased to have played a small role on the efforts that led to eventual success in the frozen polar climate of the Greenland icecap.

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