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The P-38 Lightning introduced a new dimension to American fighters—a second engine. The multi-engine configuration reduced the Lightning's loss-rate to anti-aircraft gunfire during ground attack missions. Single-engine airplanes equipped with power plants cooled by pressurized liquid, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, were particularly vulnerable. Even a small nick in one coolant line could cause the engine to seize in a matter of minutes.

    The P-38 Lightning designed by Lockheed engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his team of designers represented one of the most radical departures from tradition in American fighter development. The Lightning was a complete break from conventional airframe design, power and armament. Not only did it have twice the power and almost twice the size of its predecessors, but with no less than four .50 caliber machine guns plus a 20 mm cannon, the P-38 had enough firepower to sink a ship—and sometimes did. Located in the central fuselage pod, the guns fired parallel which eliminated a need for propeller synchronization.

    The Lightning's tricycle landing gear and twin-boom configuration completed the list of major deviations from what might he considered conventional Army fighters. In this respect, it was very unusual that the Lightning design progressed beyond the testing stage—such radical concepts seldom achieved production status. But the simple fact was that the P-38 design worked and the Army seemed to have found its dream plane in this 400 mph fighter.

    The 370th Fighter Group formed on 25 May 1943 and activated on July 1, 1943. The Ninth AF, equipped with P-47s and then P-38s in Feb., trained until May 1, 1944 when the group entered combat. They dive-bombed radar installations and flak towers, and escorted bombers that attacked bridges and marshaling yards in France as the Allies prepared for the invasion of the Continent.

    The XP-38 (c/n 37-457), was built under tight secrecy and made its maiden flight on January 27, 1939 with test pilot Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey at the controls. The P-38's performance justified Lockheed's investment of nearly $6,000,000 of its own funds to complete the prototype. The Army was so delighted with the big new fighter, it lifted the wraps of secrecy from the plane for a transcontinental speed dash on February 11, 1939. This event was marred by a crash when Kelsey undershot the runway at Mitchell Field, NY. Kelsey survived the crash and remained an important part of the Lightning program. The airplane was written off, but Lockheed received a contract for thirteen YP-38s along with the usual list of improvements.

    The XP-38 was powered by two liquid cooled, Allison V-1710 engines turning 11 ½ foot Curtiss Electric, inward turning, counter-rotating propellers. With the YP-38s and all subsequent Lightings, the propellers rotated outward negating torque when both engines were operating (A batch ordered by Britain did not have counter-rotating propellers.) One XP-38A was built with a pressurized cabin. Armament on the YPs was altered by replacement of two of the .50s with .30s, and the 20 mm cannon gave way to a 37 mm. But even before the YP-38s were completed, the original machine gun arrangement was standardized for production types. The first production order was 35 P-38Ds, followed by 210 P-38Es which reverted back to the 20 mm cannon. These planes began to arrive in October 1941 just before America entered World War II. With the P-38D came self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection for the pilot. The Lightning was ready for war!

P-38 Lighting USAAF, 5th AF, 9th FS-49th FG. Richard Bong.
    Richard Bong was America’s all-time leading fighter ace. He held the US record of forty victories in combat. In San Francisco Richard Bong looped-the-loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. He then buzzed Market Street in his Lightning and waved at the stenographers staring in astonishment out of office windows. Though General Kenney had given him a stiff talking to, he knew that Dick Bong had the makings of a first-rate fighter pilot. At the age of 24, Major Richard I. Bong lost his life in the fiery crash of a P-80 jet he was testing for the Air Force On August 6, 1945 (the day the B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.)

    A major problem surfaced with the loss of control in a dive caused by aerodynamic compressibility. During late spring 1941, Air Corps Major Signa A. Gilke encountered serious trouble while diving his Lightning at high-speed from an altitude of 30,000 ft (9,120 m). When the airplane reached an indicated airspeed of about 320 mph (515 kph), the airplane's tail began to shake violently and the nose dropped until the dive was almost vertical. With great effort, Signa barely recovered from the dive and landed safely. The tail buffet problem was resolved after Lockheed installed fillets, where the cockpit joined the wing, to improve airflow.

    However, seventeen months passed before engineers began to determine what caused the Lightning's nose to drop. They tested a scale model P-38 in the Ames Laboratory wind tunnel operated by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and found that shock waves formed over the wing when the airflow reached transonic speeds causing turbulence. Lockheed never remedied this problem, but the firm did install dive recovery flaps under each wing in 1944 to restore lift and smooth the airflow enough to maintain control when diving at high-speed.

    Major McGuire scored 38 aerial victories in a P-38, making him our nation's second highest scoring ace. Among his many decorations was the Medal of Honor awarded for his actions on December 25-26, 1944 when he shot down seven enemy aircraft. On January 7, 1945, he crashed to his death on Los Negros Island in the Philippines while risking an extremely hazardous maneuver at low altitude in an attempt to save the life of a comrade. McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is named in his honor.
P-38 Lighting USAAF, 5th AF, 431 FS-457 FG, Maj. Thomas B. McGuire.
    The fastest of the Lightnings was the P-38J with a top speed of 420 mph, and the version produced in the greatest quantity was the "L", of which 3,735 were built by Lockheed and 113 by Vultee. The P-38L was powered by two 1,475 hp Allison V1710-111 engines. As with any long-term production aircraft, the P-38 underwent many modifications. The P-38J intakes under the engines were enlarged to house core-type intercoolers. The curved windscreen was replaced by a flat panel, and the boom mounted radiators were enlarged. Some were fitted with bombardier type noses, and were used to lead formations of bomb-laden P-38s to their targets. The P-38M was a two-seat radar-equipped night fighter, a few of which had become operational before the war ended. One interesting variation had an elevated tail assembly on upswept booms; another one had an elongated center pod and was used for airfoil evaluation.

    The dimensions of the P-38 remained the same throughout production, its wing spanning 52 feet with an area of 328 square feet. The overall length was 37 feet 10 inches; height was 12 feet 10 inches. The P-38L weighed 12,800 pounds empty and 17,500 pounds gross. Thus, the P-38 was the largest, heaviest, and fastest "P" type to date. An internal fuel capacity of 410 gallons could be increased to 1,010 gallons with two external drop tanks and gave the Lightning a range of 450 miles, making it the first fighter suitable as a long-range bomber escort. In addition to its devastating nose armament, the P-38 could carry up to 4,000 pounds of external weapons including bombs and rockets.

Lockheed P-38L Lightning
Wing span: 52 ft. 0 in (15.84 m)
Length: 37 ft. 10 in. (11.53 m)
Height: 12 ft. 10 in. (3.91 m)
Empty: 14,100 lb. (6,395 kg)
Operational: 17,500 lb. (7,937 kg)
Maximum Speed: 390 mph (627 km/h) @ 15,000 ft. (4,572 m)
Service Ceiling: 40,000 ft. (12,192 m)
Range: 900 miles (1,448 km) @ 30,000 ft. (9,144 m)
Two Allison V-1710-111/113 , liquid cooled engines. Engine power
developed 1,425 hp (1,062 kw) @ sea level and 26,500 ft. (8,077 m).
Under war emergency conditions 1,600 h.p. (1,193 kw) was available.
One 20 mm. Hispano AN-M2C cannon. and four Browning .50 caliber machine guns.
External bomb load of 4,000 lbs. or ten 5 in. rockets.

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Created September 17, 1997. Updated September 27, 2013.