Air University Review, January-February 1967
Secrecy veiled the U.S. Army’s March Field in
Misfortunes began plaguing the P-38 prototype during the testing, however. On the first taxi run the brakes failed at near flying speed, sending the aircraft into a ditch and hub-deep mud. The wing flaps, which were designed to give extra lift on take-off, failed during the first flight (27 January), but Kelsey managed to fly for half an hour and land safely. The aircraft had about five hours’ flying time before it was termed ready for the flight to Mitchel Field.
On 11 February Kelsey took off for
The XP-38 had undergone its first extended flight testing, and, even though it encountered difficulties, the outlook, thanks largely to Kelsey’s favorable reports of the flight, was promising enough for the Air Corps to place an order for thirteen YP-38s for further evaluation.
Two years before Kelsey’s historic flight, the Air Corps had asked the
aircraft industry to submit designs for a pursuit aircraft to have “the
tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high
altitude,” with specifications for a 20,000-ft ceiling attainable in six
minutes from sea level and a top speed of 360 mph. The Air Corps wanted a
defensive aircraft capable of intercepting any bomber that might attack the
The XP-38 was revolutionary for its time. The twin booms provided room for turbosuperchargers, which supplied pressurized air to the two liquid-cooled Allison engines (980 hp each) and thus increased overall engine power for take-off, climb, and high-altitude flight. Armament, which included one 20-mm cannon and four .50-cal machine guns, was housed in the nose of the aircraft. The first fighter with a tricycle landing gear, the XP-38 was 100 mph faster than any other American fighter at the time it was introduced.
Major alterations for the YP-38, the second test model, called for adding 170 hp to each engine, eliminating 1300 pounds gross weight, redesigning the armament compartment, changing the propellers so that they would have an outward rotation (the top of the propeller arc moving toward the wing tips), and substituting a 37-mm cannon for the XP-38’s 20-mm.
In September 1939, with war brewing in
For two years prior to America’s entry into World War II, Lockheed designers had been experimenting to solve compressibility problems, which the P-38 encountered appreciably at 425 mph. Wind failed to flow over the wings smoothly during the compressibility period, causing the airplane to shake violently. Placing counterweights on the elevators and raising the tail failed to solve the problem, but during wind-tunnel tests Lockheed designers found that a dive flap fixed to the main wing spar solved the problem by giving lift to the underside of the wing.
The P-38E Lightning** rolled off the production line at Lockheed’s
The P-38F became available in February 1942, with engines of 1225 hp for take-off and 1150 hp at 15,000 feet. The aircraft could also be adapted for drop tanks, which extended its range over 2000 miles with a 2000-pound bomb load.
A rash of fatal accidents in the early 1940’s gave rise to speculation that the P-38 was “too much for one man to fly and fight.” It was graphically described as “three bullets laid on a knife” and criticized as having a “cockpit about the size of a very deep bathtub fitted with a bus sat.” Its 21 clock-like dials, 36 switches, 20 levers, 5 cranks, 2 plungers, 6 thumb buttons and radio controls led one new pilots to say, “It looks like a plumber and an electrician got together and had a nightmare.”
The first combat-ready model was the P-38D, which became operation in August 1941. As a result of aerial combat reports from Europe giving an indication of the equipment needed, the P-38D was modified to include self-sealing fuel tanks, bulletproof glass, pilot armor, and as armament one 37-mm cannon and four .50-cal machine guns.
On the morning of 14 August 1942, Lieutenant Elza K. Shahan, piloting a
P-38D with the 27th Fighter Squadron of the First Fighter Group in
During the removal of radio equipment from the rear of a P-38 cockpit, a
Lockheed test pilot noticed that enough room was left for a second man. Thus
the “piggyback” version of the P-38F (and later the “G” model) was developed
for training. The P-38G had improved Fowler flaps, which increased
maneuverability. In July and August 1942 the “G” and “H” models became the
first to be flown across the
The 1st and 14th Fighter Groups trained in air-to-air gunnery, navigation,
and instrument and formation flying while in
Near the end of 1944, P-38Ls in
P-38 involvement in the North African campaign began in November 1942, when
some were flown over the Atlantic Ocean parallel to the European coast to
Called Der Gabelschwanz Teufel (the fork-tailed devil) by the Germans
during the North Africa campaign, the P-38 was effective at tank busting,
skip-bombing underground aircraft hangars, bombing Italian airfields, and
escorting bombers on missions over
The Air Corps received the first F-4 photoreconnaissance planes in March
1942. The F-4, a modified P-38E with four K-17 cameras replacing the nose
armament, became the first Lightning to operate in combat zone as a reconnaissance
aircraft when some were sent to the Eighth Photo Squadron in
Approximately sixty P-38Fs reached the Fifth Air Force in
The P-38H, which began operations in May 1943, had a new type of turbosupercharger that increased the horsepower to 1425 for each engine and was the first model to carry two 1600-lb bombs. Three months later the “J” model became available; it had a fuel capacity of 1010 gallons and droppable tanks for a range of 2700 miles at more than 420 mph. Some of the” J” models, in addition to introducing electrically operated dive flaps to remedy a nose-down pitching at high speeds, had increased maneuverability by means of an aileron powerboosting system composed of a hydraulically activated bell crank and push-pull rod; others were fitted with snow skis for arctic use. Both the “Droopsnoot” and the “Pathfinder,” which had an elongated nose and radar equipment for guiding bombing missions in cloudy weather, were modified versions of the “J” series.
By the fall of 1943, the six P-38 squadrons of the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific had compiled an overwhelming victory record against the lightly constructed Japanese aircraft, including the once-feared Zero. Major Richard I. Bong, who flew with the 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group, was the leading American ace, with 40 kills, all scored while flying a P-38. He was followed closely by Major Thomas B. McGuire, another P-38 pilot in the Pacific theater, who had 38 victories.
American pilots attempted to dogfight with the Japanese Zeros during the early stages of the P-38’s Pacific combat action, but the Zero held the advantage because it was more maneuverable than the P-38. The enemy aircraft often executed a split-S to escape pursuing Lightnings. However, the P-38s began patrolling in teams at altitudes beyond reach of the Zeros, and at the right moment they would make diving passes to scatter a formation of Zeros while other P-38s descended to battle the dispersing enemy. The P-38s could out-climb the Zeros and reassemble for another diving attack. Thus, the Americans learned to wait until conditions were favorable before engaging in combat. The Japanese described the P-38 as “two airplanes and one pilot,” and they lost more aircraft in air-to-air combat to the Lightning than to any other.
The Army Air Corps received valuable assistance from Charles A. Lindbergh when he went to the Pacific theater in early 1944 to evaluate and demonstrate the P-38’s maximum range capabilities while flying in combat. During June 1944 he flew with the 43lst Fighter Squadron and showed that under certain operating conditions the P-38’s fuel supply could be better conserved, adding critical mileage for bomber escort. Lindbergh’s method of conserving fuel was to lower the rpm, raise the manifold pressure, and fly at a slower speed. Prior to this instruction in fuel conservation, pilots were often forced to refuel before returning from missions, but afterward these stops were usually unnecessary. Lindbergh was credited with adding 500-600 miles to the P-38’s range.
On 18 April 1943, sixteen P-38s from the 12th, 339th, and 70th Fighter Squadrons combined efforts to intercept and shoot down an aircraft carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s highest-ranking naval officer, who was flying to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on a naval inspection tour. Captain Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr., 70th Squadron, led the attack with four P-38s. After 2 hours 9 minutes in flight to rendezvous with the Japanese aircraft, the American pilots had only a few minutes for combat before low fuel would force them to leave. Lanphier shot down one fighter and in the ensuing battle was credited with downing the Mitsubishi “Betty” bomber carrying Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans returned to base, having lost one pilot.
The Lightning model “L,” which had a speed of more than 425 mph, a 40,000-ft ceiling, and a range of more than 3000 miles, was being produced in August 1945. The “L” was capable of carrying rockets mounted under the wings or 4000 pounds of bombs. The P-38M night fighter, a modified “L” model, was operational shortly before the war’s end. At 425 mph (50 miles an hour faster than earlier Air Corps night fighters) the radar-equipped P-38M could carry rockets or two 1000-lb bombs.
Also at the close of the war, the P-38 was modified with 300-gallon auxiliary drop tanks to evacuate wounded or to transport crews and cargo. With transparent noses on the tanks, this fighter (the fastest ambulance aircraft at the time) could carry two wounded men in each tank. A modified P-38 could carry ten men or 4000 pounds of equipment, which allowed the utilization of captured airstrips in the Pacific theater without waiting for slower transports to bring reinforcements.
The Lightning was the first fighter to pull gliders, three at a time. It was also used to lay smoke screens preceding invasions and to carry and launch torpedoes. Future Lockheed plans proposed it for aircraft-carrier service and as a seaplane fighter.
Considered the most versatile fighter of World War II, the P-38 was used in
*Howard Hughes had set the transcontinental in-flight and elapsed time record of 7 hr 28 min 25 sec in 1937 by flying nonstop, Kelsey’s in-flight time was 7 hr 36 sec. The National Aeronautic Association credited Kelsey with bettering three transcontinental time records: in-flight; twin-engine elapsed (l hr 20 min 9 sec faster); flight with stops (2 hr 17 min 15 sec faster).
**”Lightning” was strongly recommended from a list of seven names proposed by Lockheed to the British, who had placed an order for modified versions of the P-38 in 1940. The British agreed on “Lightning,” and the U.S. Air Corps later adopted the name for its P-38s.
The Review is grateful to the following organizations for providing
photographs and information used in this article: Lockheed Aircraft
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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