MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - Glacier Girl's hibernation is officially over. After spending 50 years in the heart of a Greenland glacier, the World War II fighter plane flew Saturday for the first time since it was pulled piece by piece from beneath almost 270 feet of ice and snow.
With propellers whirling and twin 1,275-horsepower engines humming, the P-38 Lightning raced down the runway and lifted into a gray sky for a 30-minute flight before an estimated 20,000 spectators in this small eastern Kentucky town.
"Seeing that plane lift off was just thrilling," said Brad McManus, who had piloted one of the P-38s that crash-landed with the recovered plane on July 15, 1942. "It's a moment in time, a very special moment."
The plane, one of its era's fastest, was among six fighters and two bombers forced by foul weather and low fuel to crash-land on the glacier. It took rescuers on dog sleds 10 days to reach the 25 crew members, but all of them got out safely.
The planes were left behind to be slowly buried in snow and ice. They might have been forgotten except for people like Middlesboro businessman Roy Shoffner, who had become enamored with the piston-engined, propeller-driven P-38s as a youngster.
Shoffner, too young for World War II, imagined flying one of the planes, which could reach 405 mph at altitudes as high as 35,000 feet. The United States built 10,113 P-38s -- just 24 survive.
Shoffner, a restaurateur, former banker and 1950s Air Force fighter pilot, recovered one of the P-38s in the summer of 1992.
By the time he got to Greenland, accumulated snow and ice had squashed the plane flat.
Crews used streams of hot water to melt a 48-inch-wide tunnel to the plane and opened a cavern around it. Disassembling and retrieving the aircraft took about four months and cost an estimated $638,000.
Shoffner, 74, had a crew working for 10 years to restore the plane, dubbed Glacier Girl, to like-new condition, tooling parts to replace those destroyed by the ice.
About 3,500 people a month have been coming to Middlesboro to watch the restoration, which cost at least $3 million.
One could see the appreciation in the tear-clouded eyes of Henry Miller, 83, of Mount Juliet, Tenn., a former P-38 pilot.
"That plane means something to me, because it has had it as tough as I have," Miller said. "We've both survived."
- View photo of restored 'Glacier Girl' in flight
- View video of restored 'Glacier Girl' on the ground and in
flight (37.1 MB wmv file)