Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Single-Seat, Twin-Engine Heavy Fighter / Fighter-Bomber Aircraft
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning garnered the nicknamed of Forked-Tailed Devil from the Germans due to its effectiveness and rather unique configuration for a fighter.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
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.
On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan's Navy surprised American forces in the port of Pearl Harbor hoping to ravage the carrier fleet. While failing in their overall mission goals, the attack caught the Americans off-guard and showcased the vulnerability of its armed forces. On that same day, a P-38E based in Iceland was responsible for the downing of a German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor maritime reconnaissance aircraft, signaling the first recorded kill of the war for American forces, this just as America had declared war on Japan forcing Germany and Italy to declare was on the United States in turn. P-38Es were stationed across 12 squadrons in the West to cover Pacific interests and the Aleutian Islands chain off of Alaska by the end of 1943. Deployment soon included Europe (P-38 operations beginning in September of 1943) and the Mediterranean Theaters of War. At the time of its UK operational service, the P-38 was the only American fighter with the range necessary to escort American bombers the distance to German targets and back.
The P-38F soon arrived and introduced underwing pylon hardpoints for the carrying of external munitions to augment the cannon/machine gun armament. The F-model was specifically developed for the humid, at-sea nature of the Pacific Theater and fitted with V-1710 49/53 series engines. The P-38G and its V-1710-89/91 engines was next in line with production commencing in August of 1942. Bombload was increased and 2,970 examples were produced. Naturally, this was superseded by the improved P-38H mark fitting 2 x Allison V-1710 series inline piston engines in May of 1943 to which 601 examples were delivered. By August of that year, The P-38J was brought online with a bulletproof windscreen for when engaging enemy aircraft head on, a standard cockpit heating element useful when operating at icy-cold high altitudes, improved flight controls, increased fuel stores under the wing surface area and improved engine cooling. The engine improvements allowed for better climbing and higher overall speeds while the increase in internal fuel, as well as use of drop tanks, allowed P-38J pilots to take-off from bases on UK soil, fight German pilots over Europe, and return home under their own power. A specially-devised two-seat "lead Lightning" was developed from the P-38J to act as a lead plane in formation during a bombing run. This type was fitted with the fabled Norden bombsight and signaled the following aircraft when to drop their bombs during level bombing sorties. The P-38L began deliveries in June of 1944 and went on into August of 1945 with some 3,923 examples produced. these featuring provision for underwing rockets and V-1710-111/113 engines. The P-38M existed as a two-seat nightfighter based on the P-38L- production models with radar systems installed.
The long-range, high-speed nature naturally made the P-38 airframe suitable for aerial reconnaissance work and this produced the unarmed F-4 and F-5 designations, their armament replaced by photographic cameras.The F-4-1-LO was fitted with 4 x K-17 series cameras and V-1710-21-29 engines while the RF-4-1-LO was used to redesignate these mounts at a later date. F-5 signified the "light" reconnaissance form.
The British brought about their own designations for the evaluation models they received. This included the Lightning Mk.I (P-38E sans turbochargers) and the Lightning Mk.II (P-38G) models. The latter were subsequently overtaken on the production lines by the Americans upon declaration of war with the Empire of Japan.
The P-38's distinct design could work both for and against the pilot in a given dogfight. Many-a-Japanese-pilot in post-war accounts told of how the P-38 was difficult to spot when viewed from the front or behind thanks to its slim front and rear profiles. However, the aircraft yielded a much noticeable and larger profile when viewed from above or below, making the aircraft instantly recognizable even from great distances - dogfighting at even the most fundamental level was all about spotting the enemy first to help gain the advantage. As such, spotting the P-38 twin boom design before it came upon the enemy with guns blazing offered many advantages to Axis pilots.
P-38 Lightning's would be credited with more enemy kills in the Pacific Theater than any other aircraft type, which is impressive considering the amount of carrier-based battles occurring throughout the war. Early combat action forced the introduction of hydraulic control systems to aid pilots coming out of steep dives whereas before they were left to their own strength and knowledge of the systems to accomplish this feat. While an inherently fast aircraft in straight-line flight, the P-38 airframe could be pushed to 550 miles per hour in steep dives as a defensive maneuver against pursuing foes. The addition of assisted flight controls made the P-38 one of the first documented production instances of its use in aircraft to be found anywhere in the world and in many ways mirrored the importance of advancements such as "fly-by-fire" controls found most common in modern fighters.
The P-38s dominance in Europe and the Pacific began to take second place with the arrival of more capable air mounts arriving in ever growing numbers, particularly in Europe. The P-38 was, therefore, relegated more and more to undergo strike sorties and less and less needed for the bomber escort or air dominance roles. In the Pacific, it was a different matter when the endless surface of ocean required a long range fighter like the P-38 from established air bases. No fewer than 27 squadrons were fielded in this theater and seven of the top eight aces in the Pacific all flew P-38s.
In the end, the P-38 Lightning would become the symbolic trademark of Lockheed's first and hugely successful foray into the world of military aviation design (and production for that matter). The P-38 would also become a much beloved classic warfighter at air shows around the globe in the decades following, showcasing its war-winning design with distinct performance and acrobatic capabilities. Several other unique attempts designed at "benefitting" the existing system failed to advance beyond the prototype stage. Among those were the XP-49 "Super Lightning" and the XP-58 "Chain Lightning" - both detailed elsewhere on this site.
Perhaps the most notable single mission involving a P-38 in World War 2 came about on April 18th, 1943, which saw a P-38 take down a seemingly average Japanese G4M "Betty" transport aircraft - and with it - Japanese Commander-in-Chief Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, surely an irreplaceable blow to the Japanese war effort. Lt Thomas Lanphier, credited with the downing of Admiral Yamamoto's aircraft, went on to become a Lockheed test pilot. The legend of the Lightning would live on in the Lockheed annals as the company later bestowed the designation of "Lightning II" to their new F-35 multirole fighter platform, ensuring the excellent legacy continues for future aviation generations.
American ace, Richard Bong, earned his legacy while flying the P-38. His 40 air kills (all gained while flying the Lightning in the Pacific Theater) were tops among all American airmen in the war. He survived the war and later died on August 6th, 1945, when flying a P-80A Shooting Star jet-powered fighter as a test pilot under employ with Lockheed. The aircrafts primary fuel pump had failed and Bong did not have the appropriate altitude to make a safe parachute landing.