Since yesterday marked the first flight of the P-38 Lightning, I figured today would be a good time to include the P-38 in my aviation weekly post. The P-38 is one of my favorite planes, not for its rarity in todays world but for the planes vast history that stretches across the whole world. The P-38 was developed in 1937 and was introduced into service in July of 1941. It spans not only America’s involvement during WWII but the P-38 fought in every theater and was part of Operation Bolero with Britain. The plane flew around the world and still flies today.
In 1937 an Army Air Corps directive was sent out for a high altitude interceptor with specific performance goals including a maximum airspeed of at least 360pmh at altitude and a climb to 20,000ft within six minutes. These were the toughest Army Air Corps specifications made up to this point. Hall Hibbard and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson lead the Lockheed team in designing the twin engine, twin tail boom and single seat nacelle aircraft designated the XP-38. The design was made to not only meet the Army specifications but hold a heavy armament, turbo superchargers, and tricycle landing gear, as well as other features. Equipped with the 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines and counter rotating props, the prototype first flew on January 27th, 1939. It was the first fighter to fly over 400mph. On February 11th, 1939 a speed race was proposed to move the XP-38 to Wright Field and while it was on its way to break the record from California to New York, the plane wrecked just short of Mitchel Field, NY due to carburetor icing. However, seeing the potential the Army bought 13 YP-38’s, Y being for prototype.
Over the next two years progress was slow building the YP-38’s due to the multitude of planes being built on the assembly lines. By November of 1941 progress was back on schedule and Lockheed engineers were able to focus their attention on solving control surface freezing issues in the tail when in a dive. Several changes were made to the P-38 but initial planes were already in the hands of the USAAF, RAF and the Free French Air Force Operating from England. Over time designs continued to be modified in multiple versions and part kits were sent out to units already equipped with P-38’s so that field modifications could be made.
The first unit to receive the P-38 was the 8th Photographic Squadron out of Australia on 4 April 1942. The P-38E, F-4 version, in which the guns were replaced with four cameras for photo reconnaissance. One of the great virtues of the design of this aircraft was its ability to be used for many purposes including photo reconnaissance. In May of 1942, 25 P-38’s were sent to Alaska where the planes long range made it optimal for protecting the Aleutian Islands. This was the beginning of the expansion of the P-38’s role in WWII, and after the Battle of Midway, the P-38 would be flying over the skies of England and then later in the Pacific and the China-Burma-India Theater. It was the Pacific Theater that the P-38 was it’s most beneficial. Leading American aces Richard Bong (40 victories), Thomas McGuire (38 victories) and Charles H. MacDonald (36 victories) all served in the Pacific and China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. One of the most well known dogfights was when two P-38’s shot down a Betty Bomber carrying Admiral Yamamoto over the Solomon Islands.
In 2013 the Planes of Fame Airshow held a special event to honor the P-38 Lightning with five of the worlds flying P-38’s. A sixth P-38 from Yanks Air Museum was on display but was not flying. It was a photo reconnaissance version with the cameras still mounted in the nose. The distinct shape of the P-38 certainly stood out even on the gloomiest of days as the planes flew overhead. The history of the P-38 is long and distinct, from fighting in the hands of America pilots, allied pilots of other nations, spanning multiple continents, postwar saw service in other countries, aerial photography and of course air racing. While the P-38 became obsolete in the jet age it is still a plane that is revered by its fans. Of the aircraft that I can’t write a single post about, the P-38 is on that list.