Lightning file photo

P-38 Lightning

CountryUnited States
ManufacturerLockheed Corporation
Primary RoleHeavy Fighter
Maiden Flight27 January 1939

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

The P-38 Lightning fighters were uniquely designed by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson's design team, the "Skunk Works", at Lockheed as a response to the 1937 United States Army Air Corps request for an interceptor. The prototype flew on 27 Jan 1939 with its distinctive twin booms. By Feb the prototype was already a record setter, flying across the United States from California to New York in only 7 hours and 2 minutes; the design's speed remain unmatched until the arrival of jet aircraft. Although the record setting trans-continental flight ended in a crash landing, the US Army Air Force placed an order for 66 fighters. The first batch of production Lightning aircraft came off of the production line in Sep 1940 with some design differences from the prototype; they were lighter in weight and the propellers were rotating in the opposite directions (both now spin away from the cockpit). In Jun 1940, after taking over only three fighters, Britain canceled her order of over 800 examples due to less than expected maneuverability; those fighters already produced for the canceled order went to the USAAF for training purposes. In mid-1941, the USAAF took delivery of the first 66 fighters; some of them included self-sealing fuel tanks and one was equipped with an experimental pressurized cabin. The main purpose of this batch was not for front-line combat, but rather to work out the potential kinks in the design. For instance, American pilots found tail flutter to be a problem, and it was promptly fixed by Johnson and his engineers. Low temperature in high altitudes also caused problems for the P-38 design, one being that the cockpit became unbearably cold, another being that freezing temperatures caused the turbo-superchargers to become stuck in over-boosted or under-boosted modes. One major complaint against P-38 fighters was the many steps that it took for the fighter to go from cruising mode to combat mode, the time of which could mean life or death when P-38 fighters were jumped by enemy fighters by surprise. The steps involved were:

It would be interesting to note that while the above complex set of procedures was never simplified for P-38 fighters, the later P-51 Mustang design streamlined it so that all the steps could be achieved with one arm, allowing the pilots to pay a bit more attention to the incoming threat.

In Oct 1941, the first combat-ready P-38 Lightning fighters rolled off of production lines, and by Jun 1942 they were seeing combat in the Aleutian Islands, where their endurance won great acclaims by their pilots. Despite their weakness in regards to low temperature, they saw extensive service in the European Theater of War as well. Pilots Richard I. Bong and Thomas J. McGuire were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their performances while flying these fighters, both of whom flew against Japanese pilots in the Pacific War. Saburo Sakai, the famed Japanese fighter ace, regarded P-38 highly, noting after the war that P-38 fighters "destroyed the morale of the Zero fighter pilot." A number of Lightning aircraft were produced as reconnaissance aircraft, night fighters, and radar-equipped two-seat aircraft. Production of the P-38 Lightning design lasted until the very end of the war; by then, 10,037 examples were built.

Sources:
Robert Dorr, Fighting Hitler's Jets
Armchair Reader World War II
Wikipedia.

P-38 Lightning Timeline

27 Jan 1939 The Lockheed XP-38 fighter made its maiden flight. The flight lasted just 24 minutes but the prototype was damaged on landing.
11 Feb 1939 A Lockheed XP-38 prototype aircraft from California to New York in the United States in 7 hours and 2 minutes.
4 Aug 1942 The first P-38 Lightning kill in the Pacific Theatre occurred when a pair of Kawanishi flying-boats were shot down off the Aleutian Islands.
14 Aug 1942 The first P-38 Lightning kill in the European Theatre occurred when the 33rd Fighter Squadron flying from Iceland destroyed a marauding Fw 200 maritime patrol bomber.
15 Oct 1943 Britain-based US 55th Fighter Group became the first group to conduct operations in P-38 fighters over continental Europe.
22 Oct 1944 The prototype Lockheed XP-58 aircraft, a two-seat bomber version of the P-38 Lightning fighter, was delivered to Wright Field for US Army Air Force acceptance tests, but maintenance proved such a liability that no further development was undertaken and construction of a second prototype was abandoned.
7 Jan 1945 US ace Major Thomas McGuire (38 victories) was killed in a low level combat with a group of Japanese Zero fighters led by Shiochi Sugita, the third-highest scoring ace of the Japanese Navy Air Force over Los Negros island. It was believed that McGuire failed to release his drop tanks whilst attempting a fast turn which caused his P-38 to stall and spin into the ground in a ball of fire.
21 Jun 1945 Major George Laven became the last P-38 Lightning ace of the war with the destruction of a Japanese H8K flying boat.

SPECIFICATIONS

YP-38
MachineryTwo Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled V12 engines rated at 1,150hp each
Span15.85 m
Length11.53 m
Height3.90 m
Weight, Empty4,990 kg
Weight, Loaded6,508 kg
Speed, Maximum391 km/h
Service Ceiling13,410 m
Range, Normal563 km
Range, Maximum740 km

P-38L
MachineryTwo Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled turbo-supercharged V12 engines rated at 1,600hp each
Armament1xHispano M2 20mm cannon, 4xColt-Browning MG53-2 12.7mm machine guns, 4xM10 rocket launchers or 10x127mm rockets or 1,000kg of bombs
Span15.85 m
Length11.53 m
Height3.00 m
Wing Area30.43 m˛
Weight, Empty5,800 kg
Weight, Loaded7,940 kg
Weight, Maximum9,798 kg
Speed, Maximum667 km/h
Service Ceiling13,410 m
Range, Maximum1,770 km

Photographs

An early, highly polished P-38 Lightning rolls out of the Lockheed hangar in Burbank, California, United StatesP-38 Lightning aircraft at rest at an airfield, 1940-1942P-38 Lightning in flight, 1940-1942P-38 Lightning aircraft being built at the Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, United States, date unknown
See all 106 photographs of P-38 Lightning Heavy Fighter



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Clay says:
    6 Jan 2010 03:02:29 PM

    Please post the statistics and details in ENGLISH/AMERICAN Measures...FEET....INCHES...POUNDS....MILES...etc. Crap WE won the war after all.
  2. Richards says:
    24 Apr 2010 12:04:51 PM

    Where can I find more information about my uncle George Richards, P38 pilot who died in South Pacific?
  3. luc says:
    4 Aug 2011 06:51:34 AM

    the P-38 was a bad surprise when it entered service in the solomons in late 1942.
    The Lighning replaced the P-39 and inflicted heavy losses to Japanese fighter and bomber units.
    I've found an interesting document about the first operation of the Lighning over the Solomons.

    http://ww2eagles.blogspot.com/2011/03/p-38-lightnings-early-operations-in.html
  4. America...F*@k YEAH! says:
    11 Feb 2012 08:01:27 AM

    @ Clay

    Quit being LAZY and convert it yourself...we didn't win the war with it.
  5. Fernando says:
    23 Jun 2012 01:32:11 AM

    Thanks for posting perfomances in international units. The rest of the world is fed up about miles, feet and so on ...
  6. Elena says:
    15 Dec 2013 07:38:27 AM

    Hi Folks,

    The P-38J Lightning is an awesome plane! Here is a great site I found for, very high quality wooden replica’s and they offer over 600 different Airplane, Helicopter and Military vehicles. Check this website out www.premiumwooddesigns.com


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P-38 Lightning Heavy Fighter Photo Gallery
An early, highly polished P-38 Lightning rolls out of the Lockheed hangar in Burbank, California, United States
See all 106 photographs of P-38 Lightning Heavy Fighter



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