Lockheed P-38 Lightning

P-38 #02

The Lockheed P-38J was one of the great American warplanes of WWII. It employs a radically new design with a center fuselage while the two outer booms carried twin engines, turbo superchargers, radiators, and tricycle landing gear.

The P-38 was used as a Interceptor,  Dive Bomber ,Level Bomber, Night Fighter, Recon,  Pathfinder for Bombers and Evacuation Missions and Long Range Escort Fighter.

Design and Development

In 1937 the United States Army Air Corp (USAAC) requested a bid and design from the U.S. aviation manufacturing companies for a twin engine high altitude fighter/interceptor.

Lockheed Aircraft Company responded with the XP-38 Lightning.  First it had an unusual weapon mounting with 2/50 cal Browning Machine Guns, 2/30 cal Browning Machine guns and 37 mm Auto-Cannon mounted in the nose of the aircraft.

This was not acceptable to USAAC as some of the weaponry did not function as required.

Thus Lockheed replaced this configuration with 4/50 cal Browning Machine Guns and a Hispano 20mm Auto-Cannon still mounted in the nose.

The Lockheed design team headed by Hall Hibbard and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson incorporated tricycle landing gear and a bubble canopy on the twin engine Lightning.

They used two 1,000hp turbocharged 12 cylinder Allison-V-1710 engines with counter-rotating propellers.

The P-38 was the first American to use stainless steel and flush mounted riveted butt-joined  aluminum panels.  It was the first American fighter to fly faster then 400kts.

On 02 June 1937, the Lockheed Corporation won the bid for a fast, high altitude, twin engined interceptor/fighter with it’s Model 22.

It was to build a prototype called the XP-38/YP-38.  Actually the “X” stood for experimental and later the “Y” was for prototype.

On 11 February 1939, the “YP-38” broke the speed record from California to New York of 7 hours and 2 minutes (not counting refueling stops).

However on final approach to Wright Field in New York the XP-38 developed carburetor icing and crash landed short of the runway.  (Note in June of 1941, the USAAC changed it’s name to the United States Army Air Force-USAAF).

USAAF then ordered 65 P-38 Lightnings and by September 1941 all were delivered.

By the end of 1941, three problems were discovered and were focused on by the design team.

The first one was compressibility, causing  the controls to lock in a high speed,  high altitude dive.  When the P-38 got into denser air the controls became unlocked.

The second was tail flutter.  This problem caused the tail to fail and the death of a Lockheed test pilot.

The third problem was quite similar to the second one and first one, High Speed buffeting.

As these aerodynamic design problems were attacked, solutions came in the form in special dive flaps, balances and other technical devices.

In all usages, 10,037 P-38 were built under Lockheed for the USAAF, British RAF, Free French and after the war many countries around the world.


Operational History

West Coast and Alaskan Defense

The first P-38s were delivered to the First Fighter Group.  After Pearl Harbor, the 1st Fighter Group joined the 14th Pursuit Group in San Diego as a defense for the West Coast.

The 11th  Air Force in Alaska received 25 “Lightnings” which had the ideal range for patrolling the Aleutian Islands chain of 1,200 mi.

Europe and North Africa

The main role of the P-38 in Europe was bomber escort over Europe.  The P-38 had good range to escort B-17s and B-24 s deep into Germany before the P-51Ds came on the scene.  The Lightning had combat problems at higher altitude against the faster ME-109 and Focke Wulf 190.

However on 05 April 1943, 26 P-38Fs were escorting B-17s over Tunis and shot down 31 assorted German aircraft.  The P-38 had its best days over Italy and the Mediterranean.

Pacific Theater

The most successful theater for the P-38 was in the Pacific.  The P-38 was faster then most of the Japanese opponents shooting down more Japanese aircraft then any other USAAF aircraft. 

The highest scoring ace, Dick Bong shot down 40 Japanese aircraft in a P-38.

The pilots in the Pacific Theater did not have the cold air problems that their counterparts had in Europe.

In fact heat was a factor in the low altitude dog fights with the enemy, but the American flyers stripped down to shorts, tennis shoes and a parachute .

On 18 April 1943 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto  was on an front line inspection of the Japanese base at Bougainville Island in the South Pacific.

The USN was able to decode the Japanese Top-Secret message telling of his inspection itinerary .  This gave the Americans the opportunity to launch 16 P-38Gs and they intercepted the Yamamoto flight of 2 G4M “Bettys” along with 6 Zero escorts.

One Betty went into the ocean and the other into the jungle and 4 Zeros went down.  The next day, Yamamoto’s body was found in the crashed Betty in the jungle.

The greatest assets of the P-38 Lightnings were long ranged, able to carry heavy payload, high speed, fast climb and concentrated firepower.

Aircraft On Display

This is a partial list of P-38 (all models) on display in the United States  Check with your local air museum for restored a “Lightning”:

Glacier Girl Lewis Air Legends San Antonio TX

Skidoo Planes of Fame Chino CA

Tangerine Erickson Aircraft collection Madras OR.

Thoughts of Midnight Comanche Fighters Houston TX

Marge  EAA  AirVenture Oshkosh WI

4266534 Artemis Aviation Group Wilmington DE

44-26761 Fantasy of Flight Polk City FL

44-53186 Collings Foundation Stow Mass.

Tech Specs for P-38 Lightning

Wing Span:  52 ft 0 in

Length:          37 ft 10 in

Height:          12 ft 10 in

Weight:         17,500 (MTOW)*

Max Speed:  414 mph/Cruise 350 mph

Ceiling:          44,000 ft

Range:           1,300 miles

Engine:        2 Allison V-1710-41/113-V12 Piston Engine Rated 1,600hp

Crew:           1

Armament:  Hispano M2(c) 20 mm cannon w/150 rounds M2 Browning                                    Machine gun w/150 rounds

M10 three tube 4.5 Rocket Launchers

Other Configurations:

1.  2 2,000 pd bomb or

2.  2 Drop Tanks.

3.  2 1,000 pd. bombs w/Drop Tanks.

* Maximum Take-Off Weight
























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