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The P-38 Lightning was one of the most versatile aircraft used in WWII
The twin-boomed P-38 Lightning was a revolutionary design for a long range interceptor fighter. It served in all theaters of war, and was the main mount of many of America's top aces in the Pacific theater. Major Richard Bong scored his 40 kills flying P-38s in the Pacific.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the most versatile aircraft used in World War II. After a lengthy developmental period, the P-38 eventually flourished in multiple roles. In its designed role, the P-38 was an effective fighter and was the main aircraft for most of the aces in the Pacific Theater of Operations. However, the P-38 was modified to become a world-class reconnaissance aircraft, an effective night fighter, and even an excellent strike/attack aircraft. Many bomber crew members would see its distinctive profile approaching and feel a little safer. Many enemy fighters and bombers would tremble with fear with the approach of the "Fork-Tailed Devil".
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.
Operating out of a US base in Iceland, a Lockheed P-38 was the first US Army Air Force fighter to shoot down a German aircraft -a Focke-Wulf Fw 200-in World War II. From then until the war's end, the P-38 was continuously in action on all combat fronts. Its long range and twin-engined reliability made it especially valuable as an escort fighter for the deep-penetration daylight raids by USAAF B-17s and B-24s over Europe and for fighter-strike missions in the Southwest Pacific.
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 design was chosen.
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 were located in the nose, thereby solving the problem of concentration of fire and aiming.
The P-38's high speed and large nose section (which was a good location for recon cameras) made the plane a natural for photographic reconnaissance missions. P-38s that were used in this role were re-designated as F-4s and F-5s.
(Photo right: Courtesy of AirArchive.com) P-38H-5-LO, AAF Ser. No. 42-66923, of the AAF Tactical Center, carrying two 1,000 lb bombs, March 1944.
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The specifications that led to the design of this original combat plane were issued in 1937 by Army authorities.
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.
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.
(Photo left: Courtesy of AirArchive.com)
Military authorities were still skeptical about the P-38'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 P-38s were nearly identical with the prototype, but the next ones, the P-38Ds, had the final 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 turbo superchargers, and their performance was not considered satisfactory; the RAF refused to accept delivery.
(Photo right: Cockpit view of a P-38. Note the yoke, rather than the more-usual stick. The Lightning was also one of only a few fighters with a tricycle landing gear.
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 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.
| P-38J Lightning |
| Engine || 2x Allison V12 piston engines |
| Top Speed || approx. 414mph |
| Weight || 17,500 take off || Wingspan || 52ft |
| Length || 37ft 10 inches || Weapons || One 20mm cannon |
Four 0.5 inch guns.
| Country || USA || Crew || one |
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. Major Richard Bong, in fact, shot down all his adversaries in a P-38.
Designed by the famous Clarence Kelly Johnson, the same man that later was in charge of the Lockheed Skunk Works where such famous planes as the SR-71 Blackbird were designed and built.
The Lockheed P-38 fought in all theatres of the war and was considered one of best aircraft, by such pilots as Jimmy Doolittle, who often flew Lightning's.
The P-38 not only was armed with 4 50 caliber machine guns but also had a 20mm cannon. The plane was able to sink a ship. It was tested in 1939 and proved able to reach speeds of in excess of 400 mph. The aircraft was capable of carrying an additional 4,000 pounds of bombs or weapons and over 1,000 gallons of fuel with external tanks. It could reach a ceiling of over 40,000 feet. The planes entered service a month before we entered the war.
(Photo right: Courtesy of AirArchive.com) P-38 Lightning machine guns
Armorer's loading the machine guns of a P-38 Lightning, 1942.
Lockheed P-38F-1-LO Lightning (s/n 41-7617)
71st Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group
Crashed during landing at Goxhill, England on August 19,1942.
| Fact File: |
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
USAAF high-altitude interceptor / fighter-bomber
Delivered in the second half of 1941, the P-38D was the first USAAC version to carry the name Lightning, which had been adopted for the version of the Lockheed fighter ordered by the Royal Air Force in 1940. Deliveries to Britain of the Lightning I began in December 1941, this version having low-powered and unhanded V-1710-15 engines without superchargers; production totalled 143, but performance was unsatisfactory and only three reached Britain. The majority were repossessed by the USAAC when America entered the war, to be used as trainers or for modification into P-38Fs. Similarly, 524 Lightning IIs on British contract, with more powerful supercharged engines, were absorbed by the USAAC prior to delivery, some being modified into P-38Gs.
While building the RAF's Lightning's, Lockheed began work on the next USAAF variant, the P-38E. This had a 20-mm cannon instead of the usual 37-mm weapon in the nose, following a British decision to use the smaller gun with its higher rate of fire; and the quantity of ammunition carried in the nose was doubled. Production totaled 210 before a switch to 1,325-hp V-1710-49/53 engines early in 1942 introduced the P-38F. This was the first Lightning to have racks for external stores beneath the inner wings-bombs, torpedoes, smoke curtain canisters or drop tanks up to 2,000 lb in weight -and the "maneuvering flap" which could be extended 8° at combat speeds to increase maneuverability by increasing win,: lift and reducing the risk of stalling.
Lockheed built 527 P-38Fs and 1,082 P-38Gs, the latter having V-1710- 1/55 engines and equipment changes. Deliveries of these versions of the Lightning to overseas theatres began in 1942 and the first combat operation was flown from UK bases on 1 September. By November, Lightning's were operating from bases in North Africa and also in the Southwest Pacific. In the spring of 1943, the P-38H appeared in service, with 1,425-hpV-1710-89/91 engines and external racks for a total load of 3,200 lb; 601 were built. Cooling problems with these high-powered engines led to a redesign of the cowling to incorporate a chin intake beneath the spinner, to provide air for the oil radiator and intercooler. This modification in turn made room in the wing leading-edge for additional fuel, which could be supplemented by underwing tanks.
The twin-tailed, twin-boomed Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter/ bomber had numerous virtues which were much sought after in aircraft of the Second World War - high speed of up to 414 mph (555.25 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 meters), long range, wide-ranging vision, all weather ability and the flexibility to carry a wide variety of weapons. During its war service, which began in the summer of 1941 and covered combat in Europe, North Africa and the Far East, Lightning's delivered torpedoes, bombs and rockets, carried radar in the P-38M two seat night fighter, served as a ground attack plane and high level bomber and was a highly successful photo-reconnaissance machine as well.
It was a Lightning which swooped over the Normandy beaches at near zero feet during the D-Day preparations in April/May 1944 to take detailed close-ups of the projected landing areas. Not for nothing, then, did the Germans call the Lightning 'forktailed devil'. It made the air a hot environment for enemy pilots, for its long reach, with range of 585 miles (914.4 km) and very heavy armament presented them with an adversary well worth fearing.
The weaponry of this first successful long range American fighter consisted of one 20 mm Hispano cannon, four .5 inch (12.7 mm) Browning MGs in the nose and maximum bomb load of 2,000 lbs (907.2 kg) in the P-38F. In the P-38J the maximum bomb load was two 500 1b (227 kg), one 1,100 lb (499 kg) or 2,000 lb (907.2 kg) bomb, or ten .5 inch (127 mm) rockets. With a wing span of 52 ft (15.8 meters), height of 9 ft 10 inches (3 meters), wing area of 325.5 sq ft (30.2 sq meters) and length of 37 ft 10 inches (11.53 meters), the Lightning was powered by two 1,250 hp Allison V-1710-49/53 engines (P-38F), or 1,425 hp V-1710 89/91 engines (P-38J) and was the aircraft in which the top American air ace of the war, Captain Richard Bong, scored 40 victories (October 1943-March 1944).
The Lightning's long range became headline material in April 1943, when fourteen P-38Gs made a round trip of 1,100 miles (1,770 km) to the Solomon Islands to shoot down a plane carrying the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, in revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack which Yamamoto masterminded.
By Debs McCaffrey