Lockheed P-38 Lightning

(Page Two)


This American fighter shot down more Japanese planes than any other USAF fighter. And in April, 1943, a Lightning shot down the plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto, the man who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack. Called by the Germans Der Gabelschwanz Teutel ("The Devil with the Cleft Tail"), the Lightning was a controversial plane, loved and hated at the same time by the men who flew it. The aircraft was in production from 1940 to 1945, and a total of 9,923 P-38s were built in several versions. The plane was employed on all fronts and in several roles that had not been anticipated in the original design, including photographic reconnaissance missions as well as duty as a fighter-bomber and as a night fighter. It was a very fine plane. The two leading American World War II aces, Major Richard Bong (40 enemy planes down) and Major Thomas B. McGuire (38 planes down), scored their last victories in the P-38. Bong, in fact, shot down all his adversaries in a P-38.

The specifications that led to the design of this original combat plane were issued in 1937 by Army authorities. (Considering the efforts that the Germans and the British made to put a heavy two-engine fighter into the field, the American design was certainly the best.) What was asked for was a high-altitude interceptor that could reach 360 m.p.h. at 20,000 feet and 290 m.p.h. at 1,500 feet, with an ascent time of six minutes. Many companies that were approached considered the specifications impossible, but Lockheed's head designers, H. L. Hibbard and Clarence ("Kelly") Johnson, examined several possible solutions before settling on the least orthodox one. Two engines were essential to achieve the performance that was asked for, and in order to accommodate the engines and their superchargers, a two-tailed plane was designed. The radiators and the main landing gear were also installed in the tail elements. The small fuselage housed the cockpit, the forward wheel, and the aircraft's heavy armament. All the guns (the plane originally carried a 23-mm. cannon and four heavy machine guns) were located in the nose, thereby solving the problem of concentration of fire and aiming.

On June 23, 1937, a first prototype was ordered, and the XP-38 took to the air one and a half years later, on January 27, 1939. Military authorities were still skeptical about the plane's capabilities, so on February 11 the prototype was flown across the American continent, from coast to coast, in the record time of seven hours and two minutes, including two refueling stops. On landing, however, the plane crashed because of trouble with the wing flaps and one of the engines. Nevertheless, the military authorities were so impressed that a pre-series order was placed two months later for 13 aircraft. This order was followed by two others, for a total of 673 planes.

The first 30 P-38s were substantially identical with the prototype, but the next ones, the P-38Ds, had the final operational configuration: Self-sealing fuel tanks were installed, and the horizontal tail system was adjusted for better control. In November, 1941, the P-38E replaced the earlier version on the assembly line. This model had a 20-mm. gun and more ammunition. While 210 of these planes were being built, Lockheed readied another version for export. Great Britain had ordered 667 in March, 1940. These planes did not have turbosuperchargers, and their performance was not considered satisfactory; the RAF refused to accept delivery and sent them back. These planes were subsequently used by the USAAF as trainers.

The next model was the P-38F, which went into production in early 1942. This version had more powerful engines and wing racks for bombs or supplementary fuel tanks. This was the first model to see large-scale combat, in Europe in mid-1942 and in North Africa in November of the same year. The G and H versions followed, with 1,082 of the former and 601 of the latter. The next version, the J, was the second largest production series (2,970 planes) and one of the best performers. It had more powerful engines, larger payload, and greater range. The radiators were also modified, and so was the appearance of the engine housings. The largest production series was the P-38L, with even more powerful engines. A total of 3,923 were built. The P-38Js and P-38Ls were also used as bombers, and the nose was transparent for sighting. The last Lightning was the P-38M, which was designed for night fighting. A radar operator was housed in a second cockpit behind the pilot.


(Source: Enzo Angelucci & Paolo Matricardi, in "World War II Airplanes, Volume 2)

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