When the probe clunked against airplane metal buried deep beneath polar ice, it was the fulfillment of a 46-year quest by Norman Vaughan for a lost squadron of eight World War II planes.
"I thought, `My God, here we are at the plane from which I took the bombsight" to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans, Vaughan said Wednesday.The plane is one of two U.S. bombers and six fighters that crash-landed on the Greenland icecap in 1942. After a seven-year search, they were discovered in July buried under 260 feet of ice.
The Atlanta-based Greenland Expedition Society plans to tunnel down into the ice and bring the airplanes to the surface.
"Then, if we can, Pat Epps and I are going to fly two of them off the ice," said Richard Taylor, an Atlanta architect who along with Epps is the expedition co-leader. The other planes will be dismantled and returned to the United States for restoration. Some will be sold to finance the expedition.
The saga of Bolero Mission's Tomcat Blue and Tomcat Yellow flights began July 15, 1942, as the two B-17 bombers and six P-38 fighters flew from Greenland to Reykjavik, Iceland.
They ran into bad weather. A German submarine jammed their communications with Reykjavik, and the planes, low on fuel and unable to find their destination, returned to Greenland, where they belly-landed on the ice about 10 miles inland.
All 25 crew members were rescued, but the top-secret Norden bombsight was left on one of the bombers.
The Army sent Vaughan, then a major and an expert sled-dog musher, to retrieve the bombsight because it didn't want the device to fall into the hands of the Germans, who had weather stations in the area. The planes were left for the ice to cover.
Vaughn has been the force behind the search since a previous 1981 expedition that failed because of poor weather.
Taylor said he and Epps had heard about the aircraft during a trip to the Arctic, when they had become smitten with the area and "were looking for reasons to go back."
Vaughan's brother-in-law read about their plans and phoned him at his home in Alaska.
"We got this telephone call from Alaska," Taylor recalled. "He said, `We've got to get them out.' "
With permission from the Danish government, Epps, owner of Epps Air Service in suburban Atlanta, began a new expedition this year with Taylor, Vaughan and investors. They found the planes with subsurface radar and the steam probe, which uses steam to drill a small hole through the ice.
Denmark will get one of the P-38 Lightnings, Taylor said. There are only five known P-38s still flying. One was recently sold for $800,000, he said. The B-17s could be worth $400,000 each.