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P-38 Lightning

The P-38 Lightning was one of the most important American fighters of the Second World War. Although its operational record was somewhat mixed, in general the P-38 was a fast, powerful, and capable aircraft that performed well in a wide range of roles.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
Larger version

The aircraft had twin tail booms mounting the engines, and a single forward nacelle containing the pilot and armament. The engine sounds were a unique, rather quiet "whuffle" sound, because the superchargers muffled the exhausts of the twin Allison V-12s. In the tropics, the cabin could not be opened without severe buffeting, so that pilots were often too hot. In northern Europe, the distance of the engines from the cockpit prevented effective heating of the cockpit. Thus it was always either too hot or too cold.

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The Lockheed P-38 was designed in response to a 1937 United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) specification for a high-altitude interceptor, capable of 360 MPH at an altitude of 20,000 feet (580 KPH at 6,100 meters. The Bell P-39 Airacobra[?] and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk were designed to meet the same request.

At that time, really powerful piston engines that could push prop-fighter performance to the limit were not available, and so the Lockheed design team, under the direction of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, who would eventually design a string of famous aircraft up to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, decided to use two supercharged 12-cylinder Allison[?] V-1710 engines. At the time, the Allison had not been rated at even 1,000 HP.

Johnson's initial concepts for the new fighter covered a range of configurations, but the Lockheed team finally decided on a scheme with twin booms to accommodate the engines, and with the pilot and armament in a central nacelle. The propellers would rotate in opposite directions to eliminate the effect of torque. The superchargers were positioned in the booms, behind the engines. Armament was to consist of four machine guns in the nose of the nacelle clustered around a cannon. The design featured tricycle landing gear, and was one of the first to make use of it.

The prototype Lockheed "Model 22", later designated the XP-38, was rolled out in December 1938 and first flew on January 27, 1939. It set a cross-continental speed record by flying from California to New York on February 11, 1939, in 7 hours and 2 minutes, including two fuel stops. Unfortunately, the prototype landed short of the runway in New York and was wrecked, much to the distress of the Lockheed engineering team. They had opposed the flight, but it was done at the insistence of General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the USAAC.

The engineers regarded the loss of the aircraft as a serious setback, but it had a beneficial side effect: on the basis of the record flight, the Air Corps ordered 13 YP-38s in April 1939. If the XP-38 had not been destroyed, orders would not have been placed until the prototype had been thoroughly evaluated.

However, manufacture of the YP-38s proved troublesome, and the first didn't roll off the production line until September 1940, with the last delivered in June 1941. Although they looked much like the hand-built XP-38, they were substantially redesigned and differed greatly in detail. They were lighter, and there were changes in engine fit - most particularly in that the direction of propeller spin was reversed, with the propellers rotating up towards the cockpit rather than down as had been the case in the XP-38.

Although weapons were not fitted in most of these aircraft, they were designed to be armed with two 12.7 millimeter (0.50 caliber) Browning machine guns with 200 rounds per gun, two 7.62 millimeter (0.30 caliber) Browning machine guns with 500 rounds per gun, and an Oldsmobile 37 millimeter cannon with 15 rounds.

Orders were already in hand from France, Britain, and the USAAC. The French and the British ordered a total of 667, with a Model 322F for the French and a Model 322B for the British. Each of these variants had unique minor equipment fits tailored for their respective air arms, such as metric measurements on the flight indicators for the French aircraft, but they both shared a major change from all other P-38 variants that were ever made: the superchargers were to be deleted, and the left-handed and right-handed engine arrangement was to be changed to twin right-handed engines.

As superchargers were a new technology, the Anglo-French purchasing commission that ordered the fighters was concerned that the superchargers might lead to delays, and felt that as the aircraft were intended for medium-altitude combat, the superchargers would not be needed. The requirement for the sole use of right-handed engines was for commonality with the large numbers of Curtiss Tomahawks both nations had on order. Lockheed engineers protested strongly against this decision, and privately labeled the variant the "castrated" P-38.

After the fall of France in June 1940, the British took over the entire order. They decided that only the first 143 of the order would be delivered in the unsupercharged format, as "Model 322 Lighting Is", with the remaining 524 to be delivered with superchargers and left and right-handed engines, as "Model 322 Lightning IIs".

The British never got that far. Three of the unsupercharged Lightning Is were delivered to the UK in March 1942, and were promptly given a thumbs-down. They "redlined" at 480 KPH (300 MPH) and had nasty handling characteristics. The entire order was cancelled.

The remaining 140 Lightning Is were completed for the USAAF. The rest of this batch of unsupercharged aircraft, most of them refitted with contra-rotating engines but still minus superchargers, were relegated to United States Army Air Force (USAAF, as the designation USAAC had been changed in the interim) for training under the designation RP-322.

These aircraft helped the USAAF train new pilots to fly a powerful and complex new fighter. The RP-322 was actually a fairly hot aircraft at low altitude, and perfectly satisfactory in the training role. The other positive result of this fiasco was to give the aircraft its name: "Lightning". Lockheed had originally wanted to call it the "Atlanta", but the RAF name won out.

30 initial production P-38 Lightnings were delivered to the USAAF in mid-1941. Although not all these aircraft were armed, when they were, they were fitted with four 12.7 millimeter machine guns, instead of the pair of 12.7 millimeter and pair of 7.62 millimeter weapons of their predecessors. The 37 millimeter cannon was retained. They also had armor glass, cockpit armor, and fluorescent cockpit controls. One was completed with a pressurized cabin on an experimental basis and designated "XP-38A".

These 30 aircraft were part of an order for 66, but in light of USAAF feedback, the remaining 36 in the batch were fitted with various small improvements such as self-sealing tanks and enhanced armor protection to make them combat capable. For some odd reason, the USAAF specified that these 36 aircraft were to be designated "P-38D". As a result, there never were any P-38Bs or P-38Cs. Early production variants of the Lightning are a confusing subject. None of these aircraft ever saw combat. Their main role in the story of the P-38 was to work out bugs and give the USAAF experience with handling the type.

Tail flutter was quickly found to be a problem. As a fix, small weights were attached to little booms in the middle of the elevator. This fix was derided by Kelly Johnson, who regarded the weights as useless, and in fact the buffeting eventually proved to be due to the straight connection of the wing root to the fuselage pod. A few aerodynamic changes, most particularly the addition of a wing-root fillet, solved the problem. Nonetheless, the little weights were a feature of every P-38 built from then on.

A more serious problem was "compressibility stall", the tendency of the controls to simply lock up in a high-speed dive, leaving the pilot no option but to bail out. The tail structure also had a nasty tendency to fall apart under such circumstances, and in fact this problem killed a YP-38 test pilot, Ralph Virden[?], in November 1940.

A USAAC major named Signa Gilkey[?] managed to stay with a YP-38 in a compressibility lockup, riding it out until he got to denser air, where he recovered using elevator trim. This feat led to experiments that would eventually resolve the problem.

Kelly Johnson later recalled: "I broke an ulcer over compressibility on the P-38 because we flew into a speed range where no one had ever been before, and we had difficulty convincing people that it wasn't the funny-looking airplane itself, but a fundamental physical problem. We found out what happened when the Lightning shed its tail, and we worked during the whole war to get 15 more knots more speed out of the P-38. We saw compressibility as a brick wall for a long time. Then we learned how to get through it."

That would not be until later, however, and the new P-38 had other defects. The most dangerous problem was that if one engine failed on takeoff, the "asymmetric power" would flip over the aircraft over and slam it upside-down into the ground. Eventually, procedures were devised to allow a pilot to deal with the situation: reduce power on the running engine, feather the prop on the dead engine, and then increase power gradually until the aircraft was in stable flight.

This took a skilled pilot. An unskilled pilot was dead. The P-38 went into combat with a bad reputation.

Lightnings go to war

The first combat-capable Lightning was the P-38E, which featured improved instruments, electrical systems, and hydraulic systems; new Curtiss Electric duraluminum propellers, though early P-38E production retained the older Hamilton Standard Hydromatic hollow steel propellers; and the definitive armament configuration, featuring four 12.7 millimeter machine guns with 500 rounds per gun, and a Hispano 20 millimeter cannon with 150 rounds instead of the unreliable Oldsmobile 37 millimeter gun.

Interestingly, while the machine guns had been arranged symmetrically in the nose on earlier variants, they were "staggered" in the P-38E and later versions, with the muzzles sticking out of the nose in the relative lengths of roughly 1:4:6:2. This was done to ensure a straight ammunition belt feed into the weapons, as the earlier arrangement had led to jams.

The first P-38E rolled out of the factory in October 1941. 210 P-38Es were built. They were followed, starting in April 1942, by the P-38F, which incorporated racks inboard of the engines for fuel tanks or a total of 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of bombs. 527 P-38Fs were built. Over a hundred P-38Es were completed in the factory or converted in the field to a photo-reconnaissance variant, the F-4, in which the guns were replaced by four cameras.

Most of these early reconnaissance Lightnings were retained stateside for training, but the F-4 was the first Lightning to see combat, beginning operations out of Australia and then New Guinea in April 1942. Three of the F-4s were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in this theater for a short period beginning in September 1942.

By June 1942, P-38s were operating in the Aleutians as well. The fighter's long range made it well-suited to the campaign over the almost 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile) long island chain, and it would be flown there for the rest of the war.

It was one of the most rugged environments available for testing the new aircraft under combat conditions. More Lightnings were lost due to weather and other conditions than enemy action. There were cases where Lightning pilots, mesmerized by flying for hours over gray seas under gray skies, simply flew into the water.

Nonetheless, the P-38 scored successes. On August 4, 1942, two P-38Es, operating at the 1,600 kilometer (1,000 mile) end of a long-range patrol, bounced a pair of Japanese Kawanishi[?] H6K "Mavis" flying boats and destroyed them. They were the first of many Japanese aircraft to be shot down by the Lightning.

In the meantime, Lightnings were ferrying themselves across the Atlantic via Iceland to England, though most of them made the trip on freighters. On August 15, a P-38F and a P-40 operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf 200[?] shipping raider over the Atlantic. This was reputedly the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.

The Lightnings sent to England were part of the force being built up for the invasion of North Africa. The invasion took place in November 1942, and Lightning units, including a photo-reconnaissance unit under command of Colonel Elliot Roosevelt[?], the American president's son, then began acquiring familiarity with operating under "austere conditions" and matching their skills and aircraft against the enemy.

The Lightning proved surprisingly maneuverable at low altitudes. The contra-rotating props had the benefit of eliminating the effects of engine torque, and on occasion a Lightning could even out-turn smaller fighters. However, maneuverability wasn't its strong suit, its major virtue in combat being a "terrific zoom climb" that would leave pursuers in the dust.

Luftwaffe pilots also quickly learned not to make head-on attacks on the P-38, since its concentrated firepower made such a tactic suicidal. Although not the best dogfighter, the P-38 was a formidable interceptor and attack aircraft, and in the hands of a good pilot could be dangerous in air to air combat. The P-38 remained a force in the Mediterranean for the rest of the war.

The Lightning proved ideally suited for the Pacific theater, as it combined excellent performance with very long range. While the P-38 could not out-maneuver the Zero and most other Japanese fighters, its speed and climb gave American pilots the option of choosing to fight or run, and its focused firepower was even more deadly to lightly-armored Japanese warplanes than to the Germans. Japanese ace Jiro Horikoshi[?] wrote: "The peculiar sound of the P-38's twin engines became both familiar and hated by the Japanese all across the South Pacific."

General George Kenney[?], commander of the USAAF Fifth Air Force operating in New Guinea, could not get enough P-38s, though since they were replacing serviceable but inadequate P-39s and P-40s, this might seem like guarded praise. But Lightning pilots began to compete in racking up scores against Japanese aircraft, including one of the most famous missions of the war, the airborne assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on April 17, 1943.

Yamamoto was the architect of Japan's naval strategy in the Pacific. When American codebreakers found out that he was flying to Bougainville Island to conduct a front-line inspection, 16 Lightnings were sent on a long-range flight to intercept him: 4 to actually attack the bombers and the other 12 as top cover. The mission went off perfectly, the Lightnings met Yamamoto's G4M[?] "Betty" bomber and escorting Zero fighters just as they arrived, and the G4M was shot down over the jungle. The admiral was killed.

The P-38F was followed in early 1943 by the P-38G, with more powerful Allisons with 1,400 horsepower each and a better radio. 1,082 P-38Gs were built. The P-38G was followed in turn by 601 similar P-38Hs, with a further uprated Allisons with 1,425 horsepower each, an improved 20 millimeter cannon, and a bomb capacity of 1,450 kilograms (3,200 pounds). These models were also field-modified into F-4B and F-5A reconnaissance aircraft.

There was never a "P-38I". The USAAF didn't use the "I" designation since it looked like a "1".

The Lightning in Maturity: P-38J, P-38L

The definitive P-38J was introduced in August 1943. The twin booms of previous Lightnings featured a sleek, art-deco streamlining. However, the coolant system that had been housed in the inner part of the wings had proven vulnerable to combat damage and was inefficient anyway, and so engine fit was rethought.

The most noticeable feature of the new fit was that the radiators were placed under the prop hub at the front of the booms, forming a "beard" that made the P-38J visibly different from its predecessors. The space left open in the wings was replaced with fuel tanks, further increasing the aircraft's long range. The revised engine fit made cooling much more efficient and improved both performance and reliability.

Late production P-38Js also finally overcame the compressibility problem, through the introduction of minor aerodynamic changes, most particularly the

addition of a set of small dive flaps just outboard of the engines, on the bottom centerline of the wings. With these improvements, a USAAF pilot dived one to a terminal velocity of almost 970 KPH (600 MPH) and recovered in one piece.

Finally, later production of the P-38J was equipped with power-boosted flight controls, one of the first times such a system was fitted to a fighter, and did much to improve the Lightning's roll rate and maneuverability. With a truly satisfactory Lightning in place, Lockheed ramped up production, working with subcontractors across the country to produce hundreds of Lightnings each month. Some 2,970 P-38Js were built.

Lockheed P-38J Lightning
spec metric english
wingspan 15.85 meters 52 feet
length 11.53 meters 37 feet 10 inches
empty weight 5,797 kilograms 12,780 pounds
max loaded weight 9,798 kilograms 21,600 pounds
maximum speed 676 KPH 420 MPH / 365 KT
service ceiling 13,410 meters 44,000 feet
range, no drop tanks 1,891 kilometers 1,175 MI / 1,022 NMI
range, with drop tanks 3,627 kilometers 2,260 MI / 1,965 NMI

The 5,000th Lightning built, a P-38J, was painted fire-engine red, and had the name "YIPPEE" painted on the underside of the wings in big letters. This aircraft was used by Lockheed test pilots Milo Burcham and Tony LeVier[?] in remarkable flight demonstrations, performing such stunts as slow rolls at treetop level with one prop feathered to show that the P-38 was not the unmanageable beast of legend. Their exploits did much to reassure pilots that the Lightning might be a handful, but it was no "widow maker". (Burcham was killed flying a P-80 Shooting Star in October 1944.)

There was a single P-38K, an experimental version with improved Allisons and wide chord propellers, but its performance was little better than that of the P-38J, and the next production version was the P-38L, which was generally similar to the P-38J but featured still more powerful Allison engines with 1,475 horsepower each.

The P-38L was the most heavily produced variant of the Lightning, with 3,923 built. 113 of the total were built by Consolidated-Vultee[?] in their Nashville plant. Lockheed production of the Lighting was distinguished by a suffix consisting of a production block number followed by "LO", for example "P-38L-1-LO", while Consolidated-Vultee production was distinguished by a block number followed by "VN", for example "P-38L-5-VN".

The P-38L was the first Lightning to offer zero-length rocket launchers, at first with seven HVAR rockets on pylons beneath each wing but later with ten rockets on each wing on "Christmas tree" launch racks. The P-38L also had strengthened stores pylons to allow carriage of 900 kilogram (2,000 pound) bombs or 1,140 liter (300 US gallon) drop tanks.

200 P-38J airframes were modified in production to become unarmed F-5B photo-reconnaissance aircraft, while hundreds of other P-38Js and P-38Ls were field-modified to become F-5Es, F-5Fs, and F-5Gs. A few P-38Ls were field-modified to become two-seat TP-38L familiarization trainers.

Late model Lightnings were delivered unpainted, as per USAAF policy established in 1944. At first field units tried to paint them, since pilots worried about being too visible to the enemy, but it turned out the reduction in weight was a minor plus in combat.

15 P-38Js and P-38Ls were flown by the Nationalist Chinese late in the war, and after the war they also received a similar number of F-5Es and F-5Gs.

The new Lightnings were operated by the US Army Eighth Air Force in Europe beginning in 1943 for long-range escort missions, but did not achieve great success in this role. This was partly because it was harder to fly than a single-engine aircraft and, since it had no engine in front of the pilot to keep him warm, was an "ice-box" during high-altitude missions.

The Eighth operated F-5 recon variants with more enthusiasm and success. They were also operated by a Free French squadron, which worked as part of the USAAF Twelfth Air Force, and in fact the French would continue to operate the type up to 1952.

Unfortunately, since F-5s operated alone, when their missions went wrong they generally disappeared without a trace. The noted aviation pioneer and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery vanished in an F-5 while on a reconnaissance mission over Lyons, France, on July 31, 1944. A French scuba diver found the wreckage of a Lightning in the Mediterranean off of Marseilles in 2000, and this wreck attracted interest as there was reason to believe it was Saint-Exupery's.

Despite its mixed career in Europe, the Lightning remained an outstanding success in the Pacific. Freezing cockpits were not a problem in the warm tropics. In fact, since there was no way to open a window while in flight, as it caused buffeting by setting up turbulence through the tailplane, it was often too hot, and pilots would fly stripped down to shorts, tennis shoes, and parachute.

P-38 pilots racked up big scores against the Japanese. Richard Bong and Tom McGuire[?] of the USAAF competed for the top position, a rivalry made interesting by the contrast in personalities of the two men.

Both Bong and McGuire were unbelievably aggressive and fearless in the air. After dogfights, their P-38s would be warped out of shape by overstress. On the ground, they were completely different men. Dick Bong was a modest, quiet, almost shy man, while the egotistical McGuire was "an unpleasant individual with a talent much bigger than he was," as one of his colleagues remembered him.

The famed Charles Lindbergh, working in the South Pacific for Lockheed as an operational test pilot, where he shot down a few Japanese aircraft with his P-38 while "testing his guns", shared a tent with McGuire. Visitors recalled McGuire ordering Lindberg around, telling him to run errands as though he were a servant.

Bong was rotated back to the States as America's ace of aces, after making 40 kills. He was killed on August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, when his P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter flamed out on take-off. McGuire had been killed in air combat in January 1945, over the Philippines, after racking up 38 confirmed kills, making him the second-ranking American ace. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor.

The seventh-ranking American ace, Charles MacDonald[?], also flew a Lightning against the Japanese, scoring 27 kills in his famous aircraft, the "Putt Putt Maru".

The P-38 fought all around the Pacific, from the Aleutians to New Guinea to Burma and China. A P-38 is said to have been the first American aircraft to land in Japan after VJ-Day, when a pair of them set down on Nitagahara[?], with the pilots later claiming they were "low on fuel".

Lightning variants: Pathfinders, Night Fighter, XP-49, XP-58

The Lightning was modified for other roles. In addition to the F-4 and F-5 reconnaissance variants, a number of P-38Js and P-38Ls were field-modified as formation bombing "pathfinders", fitted with a glazed nose with a Norden bombsight[?], or a radar "bombing through overcast" nose. A pathfinder would lead a formation of other P-38s, each overloaded with two 900 kilogram (2,000 pound) bombs, and the entire formation would release when the pathfinder did.

A number of Lightnings were modified as night fighters. There were several field or experimental modifications with different equipment fits that finally led to the "formal" P-38M night fighter, or "Night Lightning".

80 P-38Ls were modified to the Night Lightning configuration, painted dead-black with flash cones on the guns, an AN/APS-6 radar pod below the nose, and a second cockpit with a raised canopy behind the pilot's canopy for the radar operator. The headroom in the back cockpit was limited, and radar operators were preferably of short stature.

The additional external clutter imposed surprisingly little penalty on the P-38M's performance, and in fact it was faster than the purpose-built Northrop P-61 Black Widow[?] night fighter. The Night Lightnings saw some combat duty in the Pacific towards the end of the war.

Lockheed also built two sister designs to the P-38: the XP-49 and the XP-58 "Chain Lightning".

In the spring of 1939, the Air Corps issued a request for an advanced twin-engine interceptor, to be derived from an existing type and fitted with advanced high-performance engines. Lockheed responded to the request with the "Model 222", which was much like a P-38 except that it had a pressurized cabin and was to be powered by 24-cylinder inline Pratt & Whitney X-1800-SA2-G engines, which were in development and were expected to provide over 2,000 horsepower. The Model 222 was to be armed with four 12.7 millimeter and two 20 millimeter guns, and a P-38G was modified to test this armament fit.

The Model 222 won the competition, with the Air Corps ordering a single prototype as the XP-49 in October 1939. Lockheed proposed that production P-49s be fitted with turbocharged Wright R-2160 Tornado radials with 2,300 horsepower each, which would give the P-49 an estimated performance of 800 KPH (500 MPH) at altitude.

Work on the XP-49 went slowly as Lockheed was caught up in the prewar US military buildup. As development work plodded along, both the Air Corps and Lockheed began to have doubts for various reasons about the powerful engines to be fitted to the aircraft, and so the design was changed to incorporate two Continental XIV-1430-9/11 12-cylinder inverted-vee engines with 1,540 horsepower each for takeoff.

Engine availability further delayed development of the aircraft, and the XP-49 didn't take to the air until April 1942. The XP-49 looked much like a P-38, except for increased length and longer nacelles, and in fact the two aircraft shared about two-thirds of their parts. The aircraft was evaluated into the summer of 1943, but the Continental engines were troublesome.

Some sources claim that the XP-49 had few if any performance advantages over existing P-38 production, others cite a test pilot as saying it "fly rings around the Lightning", but whatever the case the USAAF abandoned all plans to put the XP-46 into production. The single prototype was used for occasional tests, including being dropped from a crane to simulate hard landings, and was finally scrapped in 1946.

The XP-58 actually started life in the spring of 1940 as an advanced escort fighter version of the P-38, with the development at the request of the USAAF. Single-seat and two-seat versions were considered, with the two-seat version fitted with addition turret-mounted armament.

The single-seat version was quickly abandoned, and the two-seat version went through a number of radical design changes, particularly with regards to engine fit. With the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, the project was more or less put on the "back burner", with most of the staff moved to higher-priority projects.

The USAAF then began to flip-flop on their requirements, redefining the XP-58 as a ground attack aircraft, then a bomber, then an interceptor, with a bewildering variety of equipment fits considered. The single XP-58 prototype finally flew on 6 June 1944.

The XP-58 was a substantially more radical departure from the original P-38 design than the XP-49. While the XP-58 had the general Lightning configuration, nobody could have mistaken it for a Lightning. It was a monster, more on the scale of the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter, and powered by two 24 cylinder Allison V-3420-11 inline engines with 2,100 horsepower each.

The XP-58 was to mount four 37 millimeter fixed forward-firing cannon and two remote-control barbettes, each with two 12.7 millimeter machine guns, mounted at the rear of the crew nacelle. An alternate forward armament of two 12.7 millimeter machine guns and a 75 millimeter cannon, for breaking up bomber formations, was also considered, but in reality no armament was ever fitted.

By the time the prototype flew, the USAAF had completely lost interest in the project, and the flight test program was short and indifferent. A second prototype was never completed, and the one flying example was scrapped after the war. Whether the XP-58 would have been a good idea or not, it still would have been interesting to see what would have happened if it had actually hit something with four 37 millimeter cannon!

Lightning in twilight

The end of the war left the USAAF with thousands of war-weary P-38s on their hands, rendered obsolete by the jet age. Fifty late-model Lightnings were provided to Italy and operated for several years, and a dozen were sold to Honduras. The others were put up for sale for $1,200 USD apiece to whoever wanted one, and the rest were scrapped.

Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier was among those who came up with the money to buy a P-38 and run it as an air racer. The Lightning was a popular contender in the air races from 1946 through 1949, with brightly colored Lightnings making screaming turns around the pylons.

F-5s were bought by aerial survey companies and used for aerial mapping. From the 1950s on, however, the Lightning steadily declined, and today only a little more than two dozen exist, with a handful still flying. One particularly pretty example is a P-38L owned by the Lone Star Flight Museum[?] in Galveston, Texas, painted in the colors of Charles MacDonald's "Putt Putt Maru."

The P-38's final report card gave somewhat mixed grades. On the negative side, it was certainly harder to fly than the best single-engine fighters, pilots suffered badly from the cold in northern climates, and its twin supercharged Allisons were temperamental. A good portion of Lightnings lost during the war were brought down by engine difficulties rather than the enemy, and unscheduled engine changes were common.

It did not have a reputation for being a maneuverable aircraft, though it was surprisingly agile at low altitudes. Its real virtues were long range, heavy payload, high speed, fast climb, and concentrated firepower.

Clustering all the armament in the nose meant that Lightning pilots had to be good shots, and Dick Bong would fly recklessly in towards his targets to make sure he hit them, in some cases flying through the debris of his victim. However, the clustered guns also had a "buzz-saw" effect on the receiving end, and made the aircraft useful for strafing as well.

Over 10,000 Lightnings were manufactured in all, and it was one of the few combat aircraft that had been in production at the beginning of the war that was still in production at the end.

Unusual Lightning variants

There were a number of oddball experimental modifications of the Lightning:

One of the initial production P-38s had its turbochargers removed, with a secondary cockpit placed in one of the booms to examine how flightcrew would respond to such an "asymmetric" cockpit layout. One P-38E was fitted with an extended central nacelle to accommodate a tandem-seat cockpit with dual controls, and was later fitted with a "laminar-flow" wing.

Very early in the Pacific War, a scheme was proposed to fit Lightnings with floats to allow them to make long-range ferry flights. The floats would be removed before the aircraft went into combat. There were concerns that salt spray would corrode the tailplane, and so one P-38E was modified with a raised tailplane and a rearward-facing second seat for an observer to monitor the effectiveness of the new arrangement. This P-38E was not actually fitted with floats, and the idea was quickly abandoned as the US Navy proved to have enough sealift capacity to keep up with P-38 deliveries to the South Pacific.

Still another P-38E was used in 1942 to tow a Waco troop glider[?] as a demonstration. There proved to be plenty of other aircraft, such as C-47s[?], available to tow gliders, and the Lightning was spared this duty.

An F-5A was modified to an experimental two-seat reconnaissance configuration, with additional cameras in the tail booms.

Standard Lightnings were even used as crew and cargo transports in the South Pacific. They were fitted with pods attached to the underwing pylons, replacing drop tanks or bombs, that could carry a single passenger in a lying-down position or cargo. This was very uncomfortable way to fly. Some of the pods weren't even fitted with a window to let the victim see out or bring in light. One fellow who hitched a lift on a P-38 in one of these pods later said that whoever designed the damn thing should have been forced to ride in it.

Lockheed proposed a carrier-based "Model 822" version of the Lightning for the United States Navy. The Model 822 would have featured folding wings, an arresting hook, and stronger undercarriage for carrier operations. The Navy wasn't interested, as they regarded the Lightning as too big for carrier operations and didn't like liquid-cooled engines anyway, and the Model 822 never went beyond the paper stage. However, the Navy did operate four land-based F-5Bs in North Africa, with these aircraft inherited from the USAAF and redesignated "FO-1".

A single P-38G was captured intact by the Italians during the war when the pilot landed at an Italian base by mistake, and this Lightning was flown in combat against Allied aircraft, but this aircraft was quickly grounded due to lack of parts. Two Lightnings that were forced to land in Lisbon, Portugal, while on a ferry flight from England to Algeria were interned and operated by the Portuguese, apparently with American blessing.

A P-38J was used in experiments with an unusual scheme for mid-air refueling, in which the fighter snagged a drop tank trailed on a cable from a bomber! Astonishingly, they got this to work, but unsurprisingly decided it wasn't practical. A P-38J was also fitted with experimental retractable snow ski landing gear, but this idea never reached operational service, either.

A P-38L was modified by Hindustan Aircraft[?] in India as a fast VIP transport, with a comfortable seat in the nose, leather-lined walls, accommodations for "refreshments", and a glazed nose to give the passenger a spectacular view.

After the war, a P-38L was experimentally fitted with armament of three 15.2 millimeter (0.60 caliber) machine guns. This sounds like a misprint, but such guns were actually developed. The 15.2 millimeter cartridge had been developed early in the war for an infantry "anti-tank rifle", a type of weapon developed by a number of nations in the 1930s when tanks were lighter, but by 1942 the idea of taking on a tank with a large-caliber rifle was somewhere between "outdated" and "suicidal".

The cartridge wasn't abandoned, with the Americans designing a derivative of the German MG-151[?] 15 millimeter machine gun around it and designating the weapon the "T17", but though 300 of these guns were built and over six million 15.2 millimeter rounds were manufactured, they never worked out all the bugs, and the T17 never saw operational service. The cartridge was "necked up" to fit 20 millimeter projectiles and became a standard US ammunition after the war. The T17-armed P-38L did not go beyond unsuccessful trials.

Another P-38L was modified after the war as a "super strafer", with eight 12.7 millimeter machine guns in the nose and a pod under each wing with two 12.7 millimeter guns, for a total of twelve. Nothing came of this fit, either.


  • FIGHTERS OF WORLD WAR II by Charles W. Cain, Exeter Books, 1979.
  • FIGHTERS OF THE US AIR FORCE by Robert F. Dorr & David Donald, Military Press, 1990.
  • AIRCRAFT OF WORLD WAR II by Bill Gunston, Crescent Books, 1980.
  • P-38 LIGHTNING by Jeffrey L. Ethell, Bonanza Books, 1983.
  • THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF FIGHTERS by Bill Gunston, Exeter Books.
  • P-38 LIGHTNING IN WORLD WAR II COLOR by Jeffrey L. Ethell, Motorbooks International, 1994.

This document also includes information found in a detailed online document written by aviation enthusiast Joe Baugher. Most of section 6 was derived from Baugher's work.

This page is based on the "The Lockheed P-38 Lightning" version 1.3, by Greg Goebel. The original version (placed in the public domain) can be accessed at: http://www.vectorsite.net/avp38

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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