Once again, 'Glacier Girl' will take to the wild blue

Phoenixville WWII vet joins on a mission.

Posted: June 22, 2007

From the time the squadron left the west coast of Greenland, the sky was filled with clouds, the water below was packed with ice floes and the temperature was below zero.

Pilot Brad McManus was flying one of six P-38 Lightning fighters that accompanied two B-17 bombers to England during World War II when insurmountable weather forced them back.

Eight hours later, they ran out of fuel and crash-landed on the east coast of Greenland; McManus went down first.

Today, 15 years after one of the P-38s was recovered from the ice, restored and dubbed "Glacier Girl," the plane is set to take off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to complete its 1942 mission.

McManus, 89, a Phoenixville man who is the only surviving member of the lost squadron, will fly for about 100 miles alongside the vintage aircraft in another plane piloted by Jim Beasley Jr., a Philadelphia lawyer and aviation enthusiast.

"This event has captured worldwide interest," said McManus, a retired real estate developer. "It's the result of many years of work. To get to the place where [the P-38] is recovered, repaired and ready to fly the same route again is a great thrill. I can't tell you . . . "

Airplane and history buffs can follow the flight of "Glacier Girl" on AirShowBuzz.com, which was founded by Beasley and Ed Shipley, an aviation and air-show performer. Shipley will fly along in a World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter.

"Glacier Girl" will be flown by Steve Hinton, president of the Air Museum Planes of Fame in Chino, Calif., and will touch down about June 27 in Duxford, England.

Using satellite technology, AirShowBuzz.com will allow people to e-mail the pilots while in flight and receive responses while tracking the flight on their computers in real time.

Shipley, 50, of Malvern, said the public interaction during the trip "is simply our way to let people appreciate and participate in the flight.

"This is about the people who have gone before and the good things they did for the world long ago," he said. The P-38 is a "living memorial. You can really feel the ghosts who have gone before."

Beasley, 40, a West Chester resident who owns P-51 Mustangs, said he feels honored to fly McManus in a turbo-prop, seven-seater Piper Cheyenne. "He can ride with his wife, sit back and drink sodas," he said.

When McManus lays his eyes on "Glacier Girl" today, memories of the past will come flooding back. He vividly recalls leaving an airstrip on the west coast of Greenland for his July 15, 1942, flight to England.

Radios and weather reports at the time were primitive and unreliable by standards today. So when a weather window opened, the planes were ordered to take off.

"I had hardly gotten to sleep when they woke us up and told us the weather was OK, and that we'd have no problem," McManus said. "But we were in a lot of weather from the time we took off at 3 a.m."

The squadron soared at 12,000 feet above the ice cap as a heavy blanket of clouds formed. The planes climbed to where the temperature dropped to minus-10 Fahrenheit.

About an hour away from Reykjavik, Iceland, the pilots saw threatening clouds ahead and decided at 7:15 a.m. to turn back.

Then began a series of problems. An airstrip on the east coast of Greenland was closed by bad weather, so they were forced farther west to their original base. On the way, they ran out of fuel.

"The youngest kid" in the squadron, McManus remembered descending through the misty atmosphere and finding a clearing.

"When I saw the sun shining on the surface of the ice, I knew I had to go in," he said. "At the time, I was pleased we had a place to put the planes down. I wasn't scared, but I didn't relish the thought."

McManus radioed the squadron that he was landing and flew in low over the ice. "It was like big concrete table," he said. "I had to make my own decision whether or not to land with wheels down.

"I elected to put them down but the nose wheel collapsed. The plane spun over on its back. I was upside down but OK. I was just afraid of a fire."

In his July 15, 1942, diary entry, McManus wrote: "How I got out alive seems a miracle to me. Someone must have been praying for me when it happened."

The rest of the squadron watched McManus crash-land, then, one by one, they followed him. All 25 airmen in the squadron were safe.

"They thought I was killed," said McManus, who exited through his cracked canopy into the snow and ice. "I had to tunnel my way out."

The squadron went about two days before they made contact with rescuers.

"They eventually picked up our signal and dropped food and supplies," McManus said. "On the ninth day, they sent in a dog team with a driver who led us to the coast 17 miles away. You sank in every step."

Glacial ice over the years enveloped the planes. But Middleboro, Ky., entrepreneur Roy Shoffner wouldn't let the story end there. In 1992, he led a group of recovery experts to Greenland, where they burrowed through 268 feet to one of the P-38s and brought it up piece by piece.

Ten years later, after thousands of hours of restoration work, the newly dubbed "Glacier Girl" took flight again.

The plane is now owned by Rod Lewis of Lewis Energy in San Antonio, Texas. Lewis, an aviation enthusiast, plans to take it to air shows.

Sixty-five years ago, McManus looked back at the wreckage, and jotted in his diary: "It's a shame that our trip had to end this way but we have so much to be thankful for."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.

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