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Lockheed P-38 Lightning Twin-Engine Fighter-Bomber (1939)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 7/18/2013

The P-38 Lightning was nicknamed the Forked-Tailed Devil by the Germans.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning, nicknamed the "Fork-Tailed Devil" - Der Gabelschwanz Teufel - by the Germans, was the brainchild of Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson. The name "Lightning" was believed bestowed on the aircraft by the British who, for a short time, considered the fighter for their own inventory. The famous and highly identifiable P-38 would go on to serve the United States armed forces quite well throughout World War 2, particularly in the air battles over the Pacific, and become one of America's classic and highly recognizable warbirds.Some 10,038 P-38 Lightnings were ultimately produced with nearly 4,000 of these being the P-38L model.

The Lightning's twin-boom design was a major departure from most any military-minded aircraft in the skies at the time with most aircraft engineers electing to go the more conventional single-fuselage, monoplane design route. A new United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) specification in 1937 called for an high-level, high-speed interceptor with excellent range. As such, the unique twin-boom design was utilized to provide the power of, not one, but two fully-operating engines. Each engine (spinning three-bladed propellers) would be housed in their own slender "boom" installations complete with turbocharger support for added muscle at high operating altitudes with the single-seat cockpit held in a centralized nacelle between the two booms. Engines were also arranged in a "counter-rotating" fashion meaning that each engine counter-affected the another's inherent torque - negating the "pull" action apparent with single engine designs since the dawn of the piston engine. A short wing surface area - essentially the wing root - connected the booms to the pod-shaped cockpit at the forward end of the aircraft while a broad horizontal elevator plane joined the booms at rear of the aircraft. Part of the specification also called for the fighter to be substantially armed and the P-38 was thusly fitted with a base armament of 1 x 37mm cannon (later downgraded to a 20mm caliber) and a battery of 4 x 12.7mm Browning machine guns, all mounted in the nose. The twin-boom arrangement of the aircraft meant that the nose offered an unfettered vantage point for the pilot so placement of all armament in a single fitting was a logical choice. All said, the revolutionary Lightning was a heavy machine, categorized as a fighter but achieving the same weight class as lighter bombing platforms of her time. The undercarriage was fully retractable and, in another departure from the norm, was of a tricycle arrangement featuring a pair of single-wheeled main legs and a single-wheeled nose landing gear leg.

Overall vision out of the cockpit was rather good although the necessary wing area and forward-held engines blocked some of view. The cockpit sat directly between either engine nacelle and made vision to the lower right or left difficult without banking the entire aircraft. The installation of all armament in the nose, however, provided the pilot with a more accurate attack "cone" when compared to wing-mounted armament common to traditional fighters of the time. The armament was also quite formidable against anything unfortunate to come within the range of the attack cone - machine guns offered up greater rates-of-fire while the cannon could render engines useless with a single direct shot.

When British interest had peaked on the development of the American P-38, several test variants were shipped across the Atlantic for evaluation, sans the superchargers as there remained a ban on American supercharger technology at the time. Thusly the exported P-38 systems woefully under-performed when evaluated by British test pilots and interest in the Lockheed product dissipated. Nevertheless, United States military planners themselves liked what they saw in the P-38 (with the superchargers installed) and would soon be utilizing them across every theater of war around the globe during World War 2. It was soon after production began that the rather forgiving airframe was modified to carry fuel drop tanks to be issued for longer ranges, promoting long distance bombing runs or bomber escort duty and rail-launched rockets (held within structural support "trees" under the wings) could be added, allowing Lightning pilots to field up to 10 x high-explosive, air-to-surface unguided rockets (5 per wing) for use against ground structures, convoy vehicles, concentrations of enemy troops and trains.

The prototype aircraft became the XP-38 which recorded its first flight in January of 1939. On February 11th, 1939, pilot Ben Kelsey completed a coast-to-coast flight that set a new aviation record, completing the feat in just 7 hours and 48 minutes. The ensuing press coverage made the Lockheed P-38 Lightning something of a household name. The only blemish to the feat was the resultant crash landing.

Regardless, development continued in what was already a promising aircraft design amidst rising costs and its inherently complicated technological nature. Thirteen pre-production evaluation aircraft were then delivered as YP-38s with the first one flying on September 16th, 1940 under power from V-1710 series piston engines. These were armed with 1 x 37mm cannon and 4 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns. However, all was not rosey in the P-38s development for there remained a recurring issue encountered along the tail surfaces during high speed dives. It was only later in its development that the issue was ironed out for the better with the introduction of the P-38D and its revised tail section. 36 of the type were produced and these also incorporated self-sealing fuel tanks. The P-38 was therefore formally accepted into service in August of 1940 with serial production of the initial model - the P-38E - beginning in September. At least 210 of this version were delivered by Lockheed and now modified with 1 x 20mm cannon and 4 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns.

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Specifications for the
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Twin-Engine Fighter-Bomber


Focus Model: Lockheed P-38J Lightning
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Lockheed Aircraft Corporation -USA
Initial Year of Service: 1939
Production: 9,923


Crew: 1


Length: 37.83ft (11.53m)
Width: 52.00ft (15.85m)
Height: 9.81ft (2.99m)
Weight (Empty): 12,800lbs (5,806kg)
Weight (MTOW): 21,601lbs (9,798kg)


Powerplant: 2 x Allison V-1710-111 water-cooled inline piston engines generating 1,425hp.


Maximum Speed: 414mph (666kmh; 360kts)
Maximum Range: 2,237miles (3,600km)
Service Ceiling: 43,963ft (13,400m; 8.3miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 2,500 feet per minute (762m/min)


Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
STANDARD:
1 x 20mm cannon in nose
4 x 12.7mm Browning heavy machine guns in nose

OPTIONAL:
10 x 5in high-explosive rockets
2 x Drop Drop Tanks
2 x 500lb Conventional Drop Bombs

Up to 4,000lbs (908kg) of underwing stores.


Variants:
XP-38 - Prototype Model Designation


YP-38 - Evaluation Model Designation; 13 examples produced; V-1710 inline piston engines; 4 x 12.7mm machine guns and 1 x 37mm cannon.

P-38D - Revised tail unit; Self-sealing fuel tanks; 36 examples produced.

P-38E - Revised nose armament of 1 x 37mm cannon and 4 x .50 caliber machine guns to 1 x 20mm cannon and 4 x .50 caliber machine guns.

P-38F - Specifically designed for Pacific Theater of War service featuring V-1710 49/53 engines.

F-38G - V-1710-55/55 engines and provision for 2,000lbs of ordnance.

P-38G - V-1710-89/91 engines and greater bomb loadout; 2,970 examples produced.

P-38H - 601 examples produced.

P-38J - Increased wing fuel stores capacity; bulletproof windscreen; cockpit heating; improved engine cooling; improved speed and climbing capabilities.

P-38L - Provision for underwing rockets; Nose radar is some variants or bomb-aimer; Featuring V-1710-111/113 engines; 3,923 examples produced.

P-38M - Two-seat nightfighter based on P-38L model; fitted with radar.

F-4-1-LO - Conversion model unarmed reconnaissance model with V-1710-21-29 engines; 4 x K-17 cameras.

RF-4-1-LO - Redesignated F-4-1-LO model.

F-5 - Unarmed "light" reconnaissance model.

Lightning MK.I - Export P-38E Evaluation Model Designation for British trials sans turbochargers.

Lightning Mk.II - Export P-38G models for British use; overtaken and consequently used by the USAAF.


Operators:
Australia; Dominican Republic; France (Free French); Hoonduras; Italy; Portugal; United Kingdom; United States