The Lost Squadron

B–17 Flying Fortress bomber

Deeply buried missing planes challenge ‘slow and gradual’ preconceptions

by Carl Wieland

From a secret US Army air base in Greenland, six P–38 Lightning fighter planes and two gigantic B–17 Flying Fortress bombers rose into the early dawn. The date was 15 July 1942, and they were headed for a British airfield to join the war against Hitler.

Heading east over the polar icecap, they ran into a massive blizzard. Flying blind, they heard that their first planned refuelling stop, in Iceland, was ‘socked in’, forcing them to return to their home base. As they approached this, however, critically low on fuel, they found that it, too, was closed. Realising that their only hope was to crash-land on the icy wastes of Greenland’s east coast, they desperately searched till they found a break in the cloud cover.

The nose-wheel of the first plane to land hit a crevasse, which caused it to flip. Fortunately, the impact on the canopy of the 8-ton P–38 was cushioned by snow, and the pilot’s injuries were minor. After they saw this, the rest of the squadron came in with their wheels up for belly landings. The planes were only lightly damaged.

All the crewmen were rescued unharmed by dogsled, about nine days later. However, the planes had to be abandoned where they had slithered to a stop.

In the years to follow, a few people occasionally recalled the legendary Lost Squadron of 1942, but it was only in 1980 that anyone thought of a salvage mission. U.S. airplane dealer Patrick Epps told his friend, architect Richard Taylor, that the planes would be like new. “All we’d have to do is shovel the snow off the wings, fill them with gas, crank them up and fly them off into the sunset. Nothing to it.”

It took the two of them many years, much money and several failed expeditions before the first real clue came. Using a sophisticated form of radar with the help of an Icelandic geophysicist, they located eight large shapes beneath the ice in 1988.

As a small, makeshift steam probe began to melt a hole in the ice, expedition members watched dumbstruck as more and more extensions were added to the hose, some 75 m (250 ft) before reaching the first airplane!

None of the discoverers thought that the planes could possibly be buried under more than a light cover of snow and ice. And why would they? After all, the impression the general public has is that the build-up of glacial ice takes very long time periods—thousands of years for just a few metres … In fact, ice cores in Greenland are used for dating, based on the belief that layers containing varying isotope ratios were laid down, somewhat like the rings of a tree, over many tens of thousands of years.

It is the same sort of conditioning which makes many people instinctively think in terms of millions of years for coral reef growth, for stalactites to form, and so on. This is despite ample demonstrations that these things do not need vast time periods…

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image credit: B–17 Flying Fortress bomber By Airwolfhound commons file, CC BY-SA 2.0,