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Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a twin-engine interceptor, the first American fighter to destroy a German aircraft during World War II. The P-38 Lightning was known to the German Luftwaffe as the "forked-tail devil."

The U.S. Army Air Forces used the P-38 as a long-range escort fighter and reconnaissance aircraft, though the aircraft also served as a dive bomber and level bomber. Called "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky" by Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle, the P-38 was the only U.S. fighter in production from Pearl Harbor through VJ-Day.

Flight of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters
Flight of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters.

Today in WW II: 23 Dec 1939 Adolf Hitler visits troops and fortifications of the West Wall [23-25 Dec].  More ?
23 Dec 1941 1st American-British war council authorizes Combined Chiefs of Staff, led by Gen. Geo. Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. Brooke, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff.
23 Dec 1941 Under Japanese attack, American and Filipino officials evacuate Manila, Philippines.
23 Dec 1944 In Bastogne, the weather finally clears allowing an airlift of 241 planes to resupply the surrounded town, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Visit the Olive-Drab.com World War II Timeline for day-by-day events 1939-1945! See also WW2 Books.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning in World War II

The P-38 saw action in both the European theater and Pacific theater of WW II. Although initially conceived as an advanced twin-engine interceptor, its capabilities expanded as Lockheed improved the aircraft. The Lightning began large-scale service in November 1942 in North Africa, where the Germans referred to it as the "forked-tail devil" (Der Gabelschwanz Teufel). In September 1943, the Lightning began combat operations in Europe, where it was the only fighter with sufficient range to escort bombers to Germany. P-38s flew approximately 130,000 sorties in the European Theater of Operations.

In the Pacific theater, the Lightning came into its own as a versatile and deadly aircraft. Of the top eight aces in the Army Air Forces, seven flew P-38s. On 18 April 1943, the Lightning's long range let AAF pilots hunt down and destroy the aircraft carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Navy and the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. The P-38 remained the standard fighter in the Pacific theater until shortly before the end of the war, shooting down over 1,800 Japanese aircraft.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning Models and Production History

The P-38 was initially developed in 1937 as a high-altitude interceptor in response to a U.S. Army Air Corps requirement. Designed with a two Allison V engines in a distinctive twin-boom configuration, the P-38 was outfitted with 37mm cannons. The first prototype, designated the XP-38, made its public appearance on 11 February 1939 when Lt. Ben Kelsey few it from California to New York in 7 hours and 48 minutes, a record at the time. The flight was spoiled when the plane crashed on landing.

The unorthodox twin-boom design of the aircraft led to a variety of technical problems, including turbulent flow over the tail and compressibility at high dive speeds. Modifications over several years resolved these issues, and the first of 13 test YP-38s flew on 16 September 1940. The P-38 was a very quiet plane due to the turbo-superchargers muffling the exhaust. Although it was both durable and forgiving in flight, it could not roll quickly, limiting its effectiveness in dogfighting.

A total of 9,942 P-38s were built by Lockheed. The most important models of the P-38 were:

Model P-38D

Because the U.S. Army Air Force required a "D" designation for all aircraft with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor, there were no "B" or "C" Lightnings. Early D variants were used for testing and trial runs of the P-38, with a total of 36 built.

Model P-38E

The first major production model, the P-38E had a 20mm cannon rather than the earlier 37mm cannon. Starting in September 1941, a total of 210 P-38Es were built. The first Lightning to enter active service was a photo reconnaissance version known as the F-4, in which guns were replaced with four K17 cameras. On 4 April 1942 they joined the 8th Photographic Squadron based on Australia.

The P-38E also operated in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, protecting that region from Japanese assault. The extreme environment there proved the durability of the P-38, though more Lightnings were lost to severe weather than enemy action. On 9 August 1942, two P-38Es shot down the first Japanese aircraft to be destroyed by Lightnings when they accidentally found a pair of Japanese H6K flying boats.

Models P-38F and P-38G

The P-38F saw the introduction of pylon racks for bombs or droppable fuel tanks. The P-38F could carry a total of 2,000 lbs. of bombs. The droppable tanks increased the range of the Lightning, allowing it to provide bomber escort. But early versions of the P-38F could not recover from a dive due to sonic surface effects, resulting in the nickname "widow maker." A dive flap was sent out as a retrofit kit to all P-38s in the field, solving this problem. A total of 527 were built.

The P-38G arrived in early 1943. It used an Allison V-1710 engine with improved horsepower (1,400 hp) and had a better radio. In all 1,082 P-38Gs were built.

Model P-38H

Production of the P-38H began in May 1943, with a more powerful Allison V-1710-89 engine (1,425 hp), as well as an improved 20mm cannon and bomb capacity increased to 3,200 lbs. A total of 601 were built.

The P-38F, P38-G, and P-38H all underwent field modification to operate as photo reconnaissance planes designated as the F4-A or F5-A. The latter had a two-seat configuration and additional cameras in the tail booms.

Model P-38J

The P-38J became the definitive version of the Lightning, with a total of 2,970 built. Introduced in August 1943, it included improvements such as better heating in the cockpit, more efficient engine cooling, a flat bulletproof windscreen to protect the pilot, additional fuel capacity in the wings, and increased maneuverability. Although the P-38J used the same Allison V-1710 as the H model, the new intercooler resulted in a substantial increase in power. These improvements allowed pilots to dive at speeds reportedly up to 600 mph, though typical dive speed was lower.

Other P-38 Lightning Models

The P-38K was an experimental prototype that performed well in testing, but the Production Board did not authorize the P-38K because of concerns over manufacturing time. The P-38L had zero-length rocket launchers added for HVARs.

The Lightning also became the Pathfinder. P-38Js and P-38Ls were modified in the field with a glazed nose equipped with a Norden bombsight or H2X radar. They led formations of other P-38s, then found their target and dropped their ordinance, with the rest of the P-38s following suit.

The Night Lightning was a field or experimental modification painted flat black with flash hiders on the guns and an AN/APS-6 radar pod below the nose. A second cockpit for a radar operator was added, though the limited room inside led to a preference for shorter people. Night Lightnings saw duty in the Pacific but none actually engaged in combat.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning Characteristics

ArmamentFour .50 machine guns, one 20mm cannon
Bomb load2,000 lbs.
EngineTwo 1,475hp Allison V-1710
Maximum speed414 mph
Cruising speed275 mph
Range1,100 miles
Ceiling40,000 ft.
Span52 ft.
Length37 ft. 10 in.
Height12 ft. 10 in.
Weight17,500 lbs. fully loaded

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the P-38 Lightning variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Lockheed P-38 in flight. Fourth Production P-38 (S/N 40-747)
Lockheed P-38 in flight. Fourth Production P-38 (S/N 40-747).

Lockheed P-38 Lightnings flying in formation
Lockheed P-38 Lightnings flying in formation.

Refueling of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft
Refueling of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft.

Lockheed P-38H cockpit
Lockheed P-38H cockpit.

Lockheed Model 422 P-38M-6-LO Night Lightning
Lockheed Model 422 P-38M-6-LO Night Lightning.

Recommended Books about the Lockheed P-38 Lightning

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