Icons of Aviation History: Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The P-38 was tough, heavily-armed, and had exceptional range. Many of the highest-scoring American aces of the war won their victories in Lightnings.

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P-38 Lightning on display at Udvar-Hazy

In 1937, the US issued a request for something that most aviation engineers considered to be impossible: a design for a high-altitude fighter that could quickly intercept long-range bombers before they could reach their targets. There was a list of requirements: the new fighter had to be able to climb to 20,000 feet within six minutes; it had to be capable of a level speed of 290mph at sea level and 360mph at 20,000 feet; it had to be capable of cruising at full power for one hour at altitude; it had to be capable of taking off and landing from a runway no longer than 2200 feet. And it had to be armed with at least one 20mm cannon.

At Lockheed, chief engineer Hall Hibbard and his assistant Clarence “Kelly” Johnson looked over the specs. In the future, Johnson would be the head of the top secret “Skunkworks” team at Lockheed, which would produce the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. At this time, though, he was just a young aeronautical engineer. But he already had a talent for the unorthodox. As the two talked, they decided that no aircraft engine then in existence, or even still on paper, could produce that level of performance—but two engines might.

Together they roughed out a sketch. Two liquid-cooled Allison engines on twin booms, one on each side, with superchargers and their inlets behind them. The cockpit in a nacelle in the middle, with 20mm cannon and four .50-cal machine guns in front where the propellers would not interfere—saving the weight of synchronizing gears. The landing gear would also fit into the nacelles, giving a nice wide stance for stability. The rear of the booms would be joined by a crosspiece where the tail controls would be, and the tailwheel would be moved to the nose of the nacelle to form a tricycle.

It was a radical leap, and in peacetime it would certainly have been shelved. But war was approaching, and nobody else had any better ideas to offer. The “P-38 Lightning” was approved for development. The prototype was built in the strictest of secrecy, and first flew in January 1939. It reached 400mph. It also encountered problems with vibration and tail flutter, though. More adjustments were made, and the problem seemed to have been solved.

And now, the Army decided that perhaps their fast new plane might be able to generate some friendly publicity, by breaking the transcontinental speed record that Howard Hughes had set back in 1935. Setting out from March Field in California, the prototype plane refueled in Texas and Ohio before approaching Mitchell Field in New York. Unfortunately, the plane crashed (investigation determined that there had been ice in the carburetor), and while the pilot survived, the plane did not.

When the P-38 began flying again in 1941, it encountered new problems. There were mechanical issues with the engines. The tail would flutter under some conditions. The supercharger regulators would sometimes freeze at high altitude. Most serious was a problem known as “compressability”, when an airplane in a high speed dive causes shock waves on the control surfaces, locking them and making it impossible to pull out.

By the time the US entered the war in December 1941, the entire P-38 program had been delayed by several years. Britain received three of the fighters, but for some reason specified that they didn’t want superchargers on the engines, which made the Lightnings useless at high altitudes.

In mid-1943, the various production issues had been fixed and the P-38 began reaching frontline units in force. Immediately it was found that the twin-engined plane was not very maneuverable and was limited in dogfighting. It had, of course, been designed to intercept high-altitude bombers, but by this time in Europe there were barely any Luftwaffe bombers left. So the P-38 was stripped of guns and armor, fitted with a camera, and used for photo-reconnaissance—the counter-rotating props made it a very stable platform. For a time, P-38’s also escorted American bombers on long-distance raids into Germany, until they were replaced by the more nimble Mustangs.

In the Pacific, the Lightning’s extended range made it useful for covering the long distances between islands. Certainly the most famous mission carried out by the P-38 was the shootdown of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in April 1943: after decrypted radio messages revealed Yamamoto’s schedule, a flight of Lightnings were sent over 1,000 miles to intercept his plane.

The top two American aces of the Second World War were both P-38 pilots in the Pacific. Major Richard Bong had 40 air victories, and Major Tommy McGuire had 38. Neither survived the war: McGuire was shot down over the Philippines in January 1945, and Bong was killed in August 1945 when the P-80 jet fighter he was flight-testing crashed on takeoff.

At its Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has a P-38J on exhibit. Records show that it was made in November 1943 and was converted into a two-seat trainer, intended to teach test pilots how to fly the planes for evaluation purposes. Converted back to single seat, it was then used for various tests, at one point being briefly flown by Richard Bong, who cut his experimental flight short when one of the engines malfunctioned.

In 1946, the P-38 was given, along with several other planes, to the Smithsonian, which put it into storage. It was later restored and placed on display. The Museum’s P-38 is one of roughly 25 surviving Lightnings.

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