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The P-38 Lightning was the only successful twin-engine dogfighter of the World War II, and it served from Europe to the Pacific. The P-38 Lightning turned out to be a real "work horse" for the USAAF. It served around the world as a fighter, fighter-bomber, and photographic/reconnaissance aircraft and will always be considered one of three great USAAF fighters of World War II. 


1) Although Lockheed had originally dubbed the aircraft Atalanta from Greek mythology in the company tradition of naming planes after mythological and celestial figures, the British gave the aircraft the service name "Lightning", the RAF name won out.

2) First flown on January 27, 1939 Lockheed Model 322 would become known as the XP-38.

3) On February 11, 1939, one of the first P-38 prototype aircraft set a speed record from California to New York in 7 hours and 2 minutes, but it crashed short of its intended airport due to carburetor icing.

4) The dimensions of the P-38 remained the same throughout production, its wing span was 52 feet. At 17,500 pounds gross, the P-38 was the largest, heaviest, and fastest "P" type to date.

5) The eventual configuration of P-38 was rare in terms of contemporary fighter aircraft design, with only the preceding Fokker G.1, the contemporary Focke-Wulf Fw 189 Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, and the later Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter having a similar platform.

P-38 refueling [Via]

6) Single-engine takeoffs were possible, though not with a full fuel and ammunition load. This same design feature was present from its earliest days on the Luftwaffe twin-engine Henschel Hs 129 ground-attack aircraft.

7) The P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a single, central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament.

8) The engines rotated outward from the cockpit. This made the platform more stable for shooting guns, however, if the pilot lost an engine, the operating engine was so powerful that it could uncontrollably roll the aircraft inverted.

9) The cockpit windows couldn't be opened in flight, because they caused buffeting on the tail plane. This made the cockpit very hot in the Pacific theater, and pilots often times flew in just shorts, tennis shoes, and a parachute.

10) The performance of P-38 was to be 400 mph at 16,900 feet.

George Ceuleers collection [Via]

11) The P-38 had counter-rotating engines to overcome left-turning tendencies caused by its 1,000-hp engines.

12) The P-38's empennage was completely skinned in aluminum and flush-mounted rivets rather than fabric and was quite rigid.

13) The P-38 was named "fork-tailed devil by the Luftwaffe and "two planes, one pilot by the Japanese.

14) Lindbergh was instrumental in extending the range of the P-38 through improved throttle settings, or engine-leaning techniques, notably by reducing engine speed to 1,600 rpm, setting the carburetors for auto-lean and flying at 185 mph (298 km/h) indicated airspeed which reduced fuel consumption to 70 gal/h, about 2.6 mpg.

15) To combat torque of the Allison engines, the early models were designed with the propeller rotating inward. The YP-38 was re-designed for production and the engines were now designed to rotate the propellers outward.



16) The P-38s guns were so effective, they could reliably hit targets at up to 1,000 yards. Most other fighters were only effective at 100-250 yards.

17) The aircraft used nose-mounted guns, unlike most other US fighters. This meant the P-38 had better useful gun range than other aircraft, whose wing-mounted guns had crisscross trajectories.

18) The definitive (and now famous) armament configuration was settled upon, featuring four .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns with 500 rpg, and a 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano auto cannon with 150 rounds. By locating the guns in the central fuselage pod, this eliminated a need for propeller synchronization and the twin booms provided extra space for the engines, landing gear and turbochargers.

19) The first unit to receive P-38s was the 1st Fighter Group. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the unit joined the 14th Pursuit Group in San Diego to provide West Coast defense.

20) The P-38 was used as fighter-bomber during the invasion of Normandy and the Allied advance across France into Germany.

P-38, showing four .50 caliber machine guns [Via]

21) The P-38 performed well in North Africa, Italy and on the continent with the Ninth Tactical Air Force, but the records show that the P-38 did not do well as a long range, high altitude bomber escort with the Eighth Air Force.

22) The P-38 suffered in the Mediterranean Theater its heaviest losses in the air.

23) War missions for the P-38 captured by Italians were limited, as the Italian petrol was too corrosive for the Lockheed tanks.

24) Lightnings suffered heavy losses when faced by more agile fighters at low altitudes in a constricted valley.

25) The P-38 was remarkably quiet for a fighter, it was possible because the exhaust was muffled by the turbo-superchargers.

Late production F-5B-1 aircraft over France in June, 1944 [Via]

26) In the South West Pacific theater, the P-38 was the primary long-range fighter of United States Army Air Forces until the appearance of large numbers of P-51D Mustangs toward the end of the war.

27) The P-38 was used most extensively and successfully in the Pacific and the CBI theaters. It was the aircraft of America's top aces, Richard Bong (40 victories), Thomas McGuire (38 victories) and Charles H. MacDonald (27 victories).

Tom McGuire scored 38 aerial victories in a P-38, making him our nation's second highest scoring ace. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for shooting down seven enemy aircraft on December 25/26, 1944. He crashed to his death January 7, 1945, on Los Negros Island, Philippines, while performing a risky maneuver to save the life of a comrade [Via]

28) In the Pacific Campaign it proved ideally suited, combining excellent performance with very long range, and had the added reliability of two engines for long missions over water.

29) The P-38 was credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter. In the Pacific theater, the P-38 downed over 1,800 Japanese aircraft, with more than 100 pilots becoming aces by downing five or more enemy aircraft.

30) The twin Allison engines performed admirably in the Pacific.

31) The Pacific war was fought at a lower altitude than that in Europe, due to differences in targets and lack of heavy anti-aircraft batteries. As a result, compressibility was rarely an issue. The level speed and climb performance of the P-38 was also good, and throughout the war the Lightning proved to be generally faster that most Japanese fighters… this includes the KI-84 Hayate and N1K2-J Shiden Kai.


32) The P-38 was definitely the AAF fighter of choice in the Pacific, primarily due to its twin-engine design and long range. Having two engines provided a great boost in morale, and many P-38 pilots returned to base on one engine. In fact, if the war had lasted a few months longer the British DeHavilland Hornet, a Merlin powered twin-engine dogfighter with very high performance, was also slated for the Pacific Theater.

33) While the P-38 could not out-turn the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters when flying below 200 mph (320 km/h), its superior speed coupled with a good rate of climb meant that it could utilize energy tactics, making multiple high-speed passes at its target.

34) In the ETO, P-38s made 130,000 sorties with a loss of 1.3% overall, comparing favorably with ETO P-51s which posted a 1.1% loss, considering that the P-38s were vastly outnumbered and suffered from poorly thought-out tactics. The majority of the P-38 sorties were made in the period prior to Allied air superiority in Europe when pilots fought against a very determined and skilled enemy.

35) The Lightning's greatest virtues were long range, heavy payload, high speed, fast climb, and concentrated firepower. The P-38 was a formidable fighter, interceptor and attack aircraft.

Factory image of a P-38H Lightning in 1943 (Lockheed) [Via]

36) Its focused firepower was even more deadly to lightly armored Japanese warplanes than to the Germans'. The concentrated, parallel stream of bullets allowed aerial victory at much longer distances than fighters carrying wing guns.

37) The P-38s were also used as long-range photo reconnaissance plane were fitted with four K-17 aerial photography cameras and modified to be able to carry drop tanks.

38) The P-38H had improved turbo-superchargers for high altitude performance, and while conducting oxygen system test it set an unofficial altitude record of 44,940 ft.

39) With a re-design of the radiators, the P-38J became the fastest of the Lightnings. However, early wing stability problems resurfaced. Compressibility had dogged the Lightning during its early career when it affected the tailplane, but by careful filleting of the wing/fuselage junction this difficulty was eventually overcome. To counteract a strong nose-down pitching moment at high speed, later Lightnings were fitted with a small electrically operated dive flap under each wing. When activated, this dive brake would help pitch the nose of the airplane up and help the pilot recover from high speed dives.

40) The P-38L was the first Lightning fitted with zero-length rocket launchers.

P-38M-6-LO [Via]

41) The P-38M 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, but none engaged in combat.

42) The P-38L was the most numerous variant of the Lightning, with 3,923 built. It entered service with the USAAF in June 1944, in time to support the Allied invasion of France on D-Day.

F-5B Reconnaissance Version of P-38 [Via]

43) Some 3,923 P-38L models were built by Lockheed in Burbank, Ca. and another 113 by Vutee in Nashville, Tn. Except for the war emergency rating of its engines, the P-38L was generally similar to the privious model.

44) At the end of production, a P-38 cost $97,147 in 1944 U.S. dollars (equivalent to $1,305,883 in 2015). Over 10,000 Lightnings of all types were built were manufactured in all.

45) The P-38 was the only U.S. combat aircraft that remained in continuous production throughout the duration of American participation in World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Victory over Japan Day.

P-38s Await Final Tuneup [Via]


46) Kurt Bühligen, third highest scoring German pilot on the Western front with 112 victories, recalled later: “The P-38 fighter (and the B-24) were easy to burn. Once in Africa we were six and met eight P-38s and shot down seven. One sees a great distance in Africa and our observers and flak people called in sightings and we could get altitude first and they were low and slow.”

47) General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland was unimpressed with the P-38, declaring, "it had similar shortcomings in combat to our Bf 110, our fighters were clearly superior to it."

48) Because its distinctive shape was less prone to cases of mistaken identity and friendly fire, Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, Commander 8th Air Force, chose to pilot a P-38 during the Invasion of Normandy so that he could personally assess the progress of the air offensive over France. Of the P-38, Doolittle said that it was "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky".

49) Eric Brown, British Fleet Air Arm Captain and test pilot, recalled they had found out that the late model Bf 109s and the Fw 190D-9 could fight up to a Mach of 0.75, three-quarters the speed of sound. When they checked the Lightning it couldn't fly in combat faster than 0.68. So it was useless. German figthers had better speed and climb performance than the Lightning, but with boosted ailerons and combat flaps, it was more maneuverable. It was also as good or better in a dive, if below 25,000 feet.They told Doolittle that all it was good for was photo-reconnaissance and had to be withdrawn from escort duties. And the funny thing is that the Americans had great difficulty understanding this because the Lightning had the two top aces in the Far East.

50) Lieutenant Colonel Mark Hubbard, a vocal critic of the aircraft, rated it the third best Allied fighter in Europe.

A formation of ETO P-38J fighters in June 1944 [Via]


51) The first Lightning to see active service was a P-38E in which the guns were replaced by four K17 cameras. They joined the 8th Photographic Squadron out of Australia on 4 April 1942.

52) On 9 August 1942, two P-38Es of the 343rd Fighter Group, 11th Air Force, at the end of a 1,000 mi (1,609 km) long-range patrol, happened upon a pair of Japanese Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boats and destroyed them, making them the first Japanese aircraft to be shot down by Lightnings.

53) On 14 August 1942, Second Lieutenant Elza Shahan of the 27th Fighter Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Joseph Shaffer of the 33rd Squadron operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. Shahan in his P-38F downed the Condor; Shaffer, flying either a P-40C or a P-39, had already set an engine on fire. This was the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.

54) On 2 September 1942, 10 P-38s were shot down, in return for a single kill, the 67-victory ace Franz Schiess (who was also the leading "Lightning" killer in the Luftwaffe with 17 destroyed).

55) On 19 November 1942, Lightnings escorted a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers on a raid over Tunis. On 5 April 1943, 26 P-38Fs of the 82nd claimed 31 enemy aircraft destroyed, helping to establish air superiority in the area.

56) On 11 August 1943, the Regia Aeronautica chief test pilot colonnello Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Tondi, flew a captured P-38 and intercepted a formation of about 50 bombers, attacking B-17G "Bonny Sue", that fell off the shore of Torvaianica, near Rome, while six airmen were parachuting. He also damaged three more bombers on that occasion. On the 4th of September, the 301st BG reported the loss of B-17 "The Lady Evelyn", downed by "an enemy P-38".

57) The Lightning figured in one of the most significant operations in the Pacific theater: the interception, on 18 April 1943, of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. When American codebreakers found out that he was flying to Bougainville Island to conduct a front-line inspection, 16 P-38G Lightnings were sent on a long-range fighter-intercept mission, flying 435 miles (700 km) from Guadalcanal at heights from 10–50 ft (3–15 m) above the ocean to avoid detection. The Lightnings met Yamamoto's two Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" fast bomber transports and six escorting Zeros just as they arrived. The first Betty crashed in the jungle and the second ditched near the coast. Two Zeros were also claimed by the American fighters with the loss of one P-38. Japanese search parties found Yamamoto's body at the jungle crash site the next day.

The attack on Admiral Yamamoto was the P-38's most famous mission [Via]

Source: | Wikipedia | | |

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