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Fork-Tailed Devil: the P-38 Lightning

Development of what would eventually become the iconic P-38 Lightning began years before America entered the Second World War. 

Featuring distinctive twin booms and a stubby cockpit nacelle protruding from a large one-piece wing, the single-seat, twin-engine machine was Lockheed’s response to a United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) proposal for a uniquely new long-range fighter. 

Thanks to their speed, reliability and versatility, P-38s ultimately served as fighter-bombers, pathfinders, night fighters, and long-range escorts. 

Often referred to as “fork-tailed devils” by Luftwaffe pilots, most were packed with cannons and heavy machine guns, though some dedicated reconnaissance versions carried cameras instead of weapons.  

In fact Lightnings were so successful in this role that they were responsible for capturing approximately 90% of the ground photographs taken from the skies over Europe.

In addition, P-38s were among the first American fighters constructed almost exclusively of  smooth aluminum and stainless steel skin sections joined with flush-mounted rivets, which significantly improved aerodynamics. 

P-38s were also arguably the first military aircraft to fly faster than 400 mph (640 km/h) in level flight, and were the United States’ primary long-range fighter until the introduction of P-51D Mustangs. 

Development

In early 1937 the USAAC expressed interest in a new multi-role aircraft that would need to have a top speed in excess of 360 mph (580 km/h) and be capable of climbing to 20,000 feet (6,096 m) in less than six minutes. 

From engineering and performance standpoints, these specs alone were among the toughest ever proposed.

At the time Lockheed was a relatively small company with limited big project experience, and as such, executives and designers weren’t sure they’d be able to give the USAAC what they wanted using conventional aircraft designs.  

Thankfully, they got help from two visionary Air Corps insiders who weren’t above twisting the rules to their advantage. 

An unlikely alliance was formed, and to cut through the stifling red tape the collaborators relied on semantics to get the airplane of their dreams – a powerful twin-engine thoroughbred capable of carrying lots of weapons and excelling in a variety of combat roles.  

The aircraft’s official mission would be intercepting enemy aircraft at high altitudes.

Today we’d probably call the P-38 an interceptor, but at the time it was a relatively uncommon term, and the plane was ultimately designated a “pursuit” aircraft, hence the P in P-38. 

That said, doing away with the old “pursuit” moniker in favor of the “interceptor” designation meant that the sky was the proverbial limit for the new warbird. 

Thanks to stodgy military regulations, pursuit aircraft were subject to a number of annoying restrictions, namely that single-seaters were relegated to having just one engine and limited to carrying 500 pounds (230 kg) of weapons excluding guns and ammunition. 

But even with the bureaucratic hurdles cleared, the major problem of getting two engines and a cockpit into a reasonably aerodynamic airframe remained. 

The Lockheed team chose twin booms to accommodate the tail assemblies, engines, and turbo superchargers, with a central nacelle housing the pilot and armament. 

Though it’d already been used in the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf Fw 189 reconnaissance aircraft and later on the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the resulting configuration was rare.

Lockheed designers incorporated a stable and compact tricycle undercarriage, a bubble canopy for good visibility, and two 1,100+ horsepower 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines fitted with counter-rotating propellers which cancelled out engine torque that had a tendency to pull the aircraft sideways at full throttle. 

Initial prototypes had propellers that turned inward toward one another, but later versions featured outward spinning props that made the plane much more stable and efficient. 

The all-important turbo superchargers, which allowed the engines to breathe normally despite low oxygen levels at high altitudes, were positioned in the boom behind each engine.

In addition to providing unparalleled performance, they also muffled engine noise significantly. 

Prototypes and testing

In the summer of 1937 Lockheed began building two prototypes – XP-38 and YP-38 – the first example of which took to the air in January of the following year.  

Just a month later, long before inherent design kinks had been identified and addressed, 

chief test pilot Ben Kelsey proposed a brash marketing gimmick that would ultimately solidify interest in and orders for the new airplane. 

Kelsey would fly the untested plane from Southern California to Long Island, New York, ostensibly for “further testing,” though it was really all about showing off the 38’s impressive performance. 

Keen on thrusting their unproven interceptor onto the national aviation stage, Lockheed executives gave Kelsey the proverbial nod, and shortly thereafter the daring pilot fired up the Allisons and headed east. 

Kelsey flew conservatively in the early going, but as he became more comfortable with the aircraft he began pushing it toward its limits, eventually reaching 420 mph (680 km/h) in level flight just above 20,000 feet (6,096 m). 

Not counting stops for refueling, the nearly 2,900-mile (4,667 km) flight took just seven hours and two minutes.  

Nearing his destination at Mitchel Field in Hempstead, New York however, one of the engines experienced a carburetor failure, and Kelsey was forced to make a rough unpowered landing. 

Both pilot and plane survived, but despite the embarrassing last minute accident the Air Corps was sufficiently impressed to order more than a dozen additional aircraft for approximately 135,000 USD each, or about 2.2 million USD today. 

Though ecstatic with the new order, Lockheed’s manufacturing facilities and personnel just weren’t up to the task of filling it, and they fell hopelessly behind schedule almost immediately. 

Not only were the new twin-boom twin-engine planes painstakingly slow to build, but the Air Corps requested a number of modifications that added to the manufacturing woes.  

Lockheed eventually expanded its Burbank plant and got back on track, but the next aircraft wouldn’t roll off the production line until 1940. 

General characteristics

Though relatively small by twin-engine standards, P-38s had wingspans of 52 feet (15.8 m), empty weights of 12,800 pounds (5,806 kg), and maximum takeoff weights greater than 21,000 pounds (7,900 kg).  

Over the aircraft’s life, successive versions enjoyed big bumps in horsepower from the trusty Allison V-12s, which eventually thumped out more than 1,600 horsepower at 3,000 rpm. 

Coupled with their 3-blade Curtiss constant-speed propellers, P-38s could easily cruise at 275 mph (443 km/h) with standard weapons and fuel loads. 

Combat range was a hearty 1,300 miles (2,100 km), and with a service ceiling of 44,000 feet (13,000 m) they could accompany high-altitude bombers to and from distant targets that were well out of reach of other escorts of the day. 

Weapons

Now officially designated P-38, in its various forms the new plane had either two and four .50-caliber Browning machine guns and a cannon between 20 and 37 mm, that together could spew out more than 3,000 rounds per minute, though pilots typically fired in short bursts.  

The total duration of sustained cannon fire was approximately 14 seconds, while the .50-caliber machine guns were capable of firing continuously for about 35 seconds with 500-round magazines. 

M2 machine gun armament in the nose of the P-38
M2 machine gun armament in the nose of the P-38. By Peripitus, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Roughly one in 20 projectiles was a cannon shell, and unlike most US aircraft that sported wing-mounted guns, the P-38’s were clustered in the nose.

With the former setup guns had to be aimed slightly inward, often at multiple convergence points ahead of the aircraft. 

Since they fired at an angle, the projectiles didn’t bore straight into the onrushing air, which in turn meant that range was significantly limited. 

On the flipside, P-38 guns could often down enemy aircraft from as far away as 1,000 yards since they always fired directly ahead.   

In addition, later P-38s like the L variant had strengthened hardpoints that could support up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg) of bombs.

Design flaws

When approaching Mach 0.7 or about 535 mph, (861 km/h) which Lightnings could easily do when diving, their tails often shook violently and their noses had a tendency to automatically tuck under further steepening the descent. 

If the pilot was unable to climb or turn his way out of the dive, the plane would sometimes enter a high-speed compressibility stall, in which the controls became hopelessly locked and unresponsive. 

The unlucky aviator would then have to decide whether to bail out or remain with the aircraft until it reached denser air, where the likelihood of regaining control increased. 

Another early prototype issue with P-38s was that they weren’t equipped to carry drop tanks. 

This wasn’t a glaring oversight, but the result of prevailing Air Corps ideology which asserted that the development of true long-range fighters was too time consuming and expensive. 

Therefore, limited resources were better used refining and manufacturing existing aircraft, though they were far from perfect for the roles in which they were being used. 

However, Lockheed was eventually tasked with adding drop tank hardpoints, and they ultimately became standard on G models and later aircraft, which greatly improved their endurance and performance on long-range escort and photo reconnaissance missions. 

Another flaw that constantly irked pilots was an atrocious climate control system. 

Especially in the winter, flyers in the European theater put up with absolutely freezing cockpit temperatures at high altitudes, while in the tropics conditions were often intolerably hot. 

In Europe pilots often dressed like Arctic explorers, while in the Pacific they typically wore little more than shorts, t-shirts, sandals and parachutes. 

Entry into the war

The first Lightnings saw service in mid-1942 both in reconnaissance and pursuit variants. 

More than two dozen were sent to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, where their speed and range made them well-suited to missions over large expanses of open water.  

Though they performed well, the harsh weather was responsible for far more losses than mechanical issues or enemy aircraft. 

In fact, it was surprisingly common for Lightning pilots to simply lose awareness of their surroundings on long flights, become mesmerized and disoriented, and simply fly into the water. 

In early August of 1942, nearing the end of a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) patrol, two P-38s from the 343rd Fighter Group inadvertently stumbled upon two Japanese Kawanishi H6K “Mavis” flying boats.

Slow, unmaneuverable and lightly armed, the planes were easy pickings, and though were the first to be shot down by Lightnings, thousands more would follow in the years to come. 

Pacific Theater

P-38s were used most extensively in the Pacific in a variety of roles, but primarily escorting bombers at altitudes between 18,000–25,000 feet (5,500–7,600 m). 

While they couldn’t outmaneuver A6M Zeros and most other Japanese fighters at low altitudes or below 200 mph (320 km/h), the Lightning’s superior speed, climb rate and high-altitude performance meant that when used correctly by trained pilots, they were more than a match for their smaller and more nimble adversaries. 

In addition, their tightly grouped guns were even more deadly to lightly armored Japanese warplanes than to German ones, because the former weren’t equipped with self-sealing fuel tanks. 

Utilizing his centrally mounted guns with deadly effect, the United States’ highest-scoring World War II air ace, Dick Bong, scored 40 air-to-air kills in P-38s. 

Lightnings established local air superiority early on in the air war over the Pacific, but though commanders frequently requested more, new planes were increasingly sent to Europe, which was considered a higher priority. 

In early March of 1943, in one of the theater’s most notable engagements, a flight of P-38s were escorting 13 B-17s when five Japanese Zeros burst onto the scene. 

One bomber was immediately downed, but though the crew bailed out each was strafed while drifting down in their parachutes – a serious breach of etiquette among airmen. 

As the story goes, fueled with adrenaline, spite and a lust for vengeance, three P-38s peeled off and within just a few minutes dispatched all five Zeroes. 

North Africa

After hundreds of sorties with no enemy contact, dozens of P-38s originally sent to remote corners of Europe were eventually reassigned to North Africa in late 1942. 

The first kill took place in late November, when young Lieutenant Mark Shipman downed an unspecified twin-engine Italian plane, most likely a transport or reconnaissance aircraft. 

Shipman would make more impressive kills later on against a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and a huge Me 323 Gigant transport, but early results around North Africa and the Mediterranean were mixed. 

A number of pilots quickly became aces, but many more were shot down, not necessarily due to the limitations of their machines, but because they failed to use tactics that capitalized on their aircraft’s strengths. 

Over North Africa, Italy and the Mediterranean, P-38s primarily served as long-range bomber escorts. 

Early doctrine dictated that P-38s stick close to the bombers they were escorting, instead of peeling off and defending them proactively. 

As a result, many pilots were knocked out before they had the opportunity to exploit their machines to the fullest. 

As losses mounted and morale plummeted, Air Corps brass eventually gave them the green light to take the fight to the enemy, after which losses dropped off and the kill ratio once again swung firmly to the American’s side.  

Later on however, as Allied bombing missions in the region became less frequent, P-38s were assigned ground and maritime attack missions. 

Though they excelled at each, at low levels while dispatching tanks, trucks, subs and ships they were particularly vulnerable to attack from above, and later some dedicated fighters were reserved for circling overhead to deter would-be attackers. 

Western Europe

Though P-38s aren’t generally associated with D-Day, they did act as fighter-bombers over Normandy as Allied soldiers and equipment poured onto the continent in epic numbers. 

Aircraft from multiple fighter groups based in England flew missions against radar installations, coastal fortifications, flak towers and armor and troop concentrations prior to the assault on June 6. 

Along with Spitfires and later P-51s, P-38s also escorted 8th Air Force heavy bombers to and from missions over Germany and occupied France. 

Especially in the air war over Europe, it was also discovered that P-38s were much less likely to be mistakenly downed by friendly aircraft whose pilots mistook them for enemy planes. 

In addition to its performance and reliability, it was largely for this reason that 8th Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle chose to personally fly a P-38 during the Normandy invasion. 

Doolittle later claimed that of all the warbirds he’d ever flown, the P-38 was the “sweetest-flying plane in the sky.”

All told, more than 10,000 Lightnings were built in nearly 20 distinct variants. 

By war’s end they’d flown hundreds of thousands of sorties in nearly every theater. 

Many of America’s top aces scored many or all of their kills in P-38s, and though other aircraft had more total air-to-air victories, Lightnings were credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other fighter of the war.

Today more than two dozen P-38s survive. 

Most are in museums in the United States, and a few of them still fly regularly. 

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