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Like lightning from a clear sky

A P-38 Lightning in the air in 2009 (Photo: Wikipedia, CindyN)
A P-38 Lightning in the air in 2009 (Photo: Wikipedia, CindyN)

A piece of machinery, be that a gun, a tank, or a plane, is hardly ever perfect when it first comes off the assembly line. Every new design has teething problems, sometimes rather serious ones, and sometimes they take quite a while to fix. But if you persevere and keep improving on your original work, you might just end up with a truly formidable war machine. The P-38 Lightning is one of the most iconic American planes of World War II and is a testament to this lesson. Though it had some significant problems that impaired its service effectiveness, constant improvements eventually turned it into what was arguably one of the best American fighters of the war.
 
In early 1937, with trouble brewing both in Europe and Asia, the Unites States Army Air Corps (USAAC) saw the need for a new, powerful interceptor. First Lieutenants Benjamin S. Kelsey and Gordon P. Saville were in charge or writing up the circular proposal that would describe the military's requirements and invite bids from contractors. The two officers immediately saw a problem: the Air Corps demands were too rigid. At the time, single-seat aircraft were expected to have one engine, and the weight of the armament, including ammo, had to be no more than 500 lbs / 230 kg. Kelsey and Saville were convinced that these stipulations were too conservative for a modern airplane, and decided to trick the Corps. Officially, these limitations applied to "pursuit aircraft", so the two Lieutenants made sure to describe the required plane as an "interceptor" instead (a phrase that had been in use since the late 1920s), so they could claim that "pursuit aircraft" limitations did not apply. They requested a twin-engine plane that had a maximum speed of at least 360 mph / 580 km/h at high altitude, could climb to 20,000 feet / 6,100 m in six minutes, and carried an armament twice the weight of the old standard.

Engineer and test pilot Benjamin Kelsey, who was instrumental in the birth of the P-38 (Photo: Wright Field, Army Air Corps archives)
Engineer and test pilot Benjamin Kelsey, who was instrumental in the birth of the P-38 (Photo: Wright Field, Army Air Corps archives)

Several companies sent in bids. The eventual winner, Lockheed, took secrecy so seriously that they had established a separate location away from their main factory for the project; this became the famous Skunk Works, which later gave birth to the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes and the F-117 and F-22 stealth planes. Led by Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard, the design team considered several early designs, including one with backward-pointing push-pull propellers, and one where the cockpit was placed asymmetrically. Their final proposal had the cockpit and the guns in a central nacelle, while the tail assembly was located at the end of a pair of twin booms. The shape of the plane was bizarre, but not singularly so: similar designs have existed in World War I, and the Dutch Fokker company had made a similarly fighter just a few years earlier.

The distinctive twin-boom design seen from behind (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
The distinctive twin-boom design seen from behind (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Following Lockheed's tradition of using mythological and celestial names, the plane was named Atalanta after the female huntress of Greek mythology. True to its namesake, it had the potential to be deadly at long range due to the arrangement of its guns, 4 M2 Browning machine guns (Read our earlier article – The .30 cal Browning) and a 20mm Hispano autocannon (in the production models; the prototypes used a different gun).  Most American (and many other) designs at the time placed the guns away from the cockpit, out on the wings. This meant that even if you managed to perfectly line up the guns on one wing with your target, the guns on the other wing would be too far away to hit it as well. This was counteracted by turning all guns slightly inwards, so they'd point not straight forward, but at a convergence point usually located somewhere 500-1,000 feet / 150-300 m ahead of the plane. This allowed you to hit the target with all your guns if the target was at that exact range; but you'd still miss some of your shots if it was closer or farther away.

The closely grouped guns in the P-38's nose (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
The closely grouped guns in the P-38's nose (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Breaking with this tradition, the P-38 had all of its guns in a tight cluster in the nose. This way, you could point them all straight forward with no concern for convergence, since the streams of bullets would stay together at any range. This way the plane could reliably hit targets as far as 1,000 yards / 910 m away. Another feature unusual in early aircraft of the war was the addition of turbosuperchargers to the engines, not only giving them better high-altitude performance, but also making them significantly quieter. The two powerful engines gave the P-38 a long range and a top speed over 400 mph / 666 km/h, making it the first plane to break 400. Another rare feature was that the propellers rotated in opposite directions, rather than the same one; this eliminated engine torque, which could "pull" a plane off to one side, but made it tricky to control the plane if one engine died mid-flight.

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Test firing of a P-38's guns, showing the tight bullet spread (Photo: ww2db.com)
Test firing of a P-38's guns, showing the tight bullet spread (Photo: ww2db.com)

The first prototype flew in January 1939. Interestingly, the 1939 edition of the German Aviation Manual already had detailed drawings, a close-range photo and several technical specifications of the plane, indicating that Skunk Works security was perhaps not quite up to scratch.
First Lieutenant Kelsey suggested a speed dash to relocate the prototype to Wright Field for further testing, and to simultaneously prove the speed of the plane. General "Hap" Arnold, commander of the USAAC, suggested an even more ambitious challenge: a cross-country flight from California to New York. The prototype set a new record with seven hours and two minutes (not counting refueling stops), but the impressive demonstration came to a nearly tragic end: carburetor icing caused the plane to crash just short of the final runway (though at least the pilot got away with minor injuries). The record attempt was seen as encouraging, and military interest grew despite the undignified last minute.

The end of the record attempt (Photo: Associated Press)
The end of the record attempt (Photo: Associated Press)

Further testing and early service experience revealed several problems with the plane. The cockpit was bitterly cold during high-altitude flights, and even the engines were too far away to provide a bit of heat. At the same time, pilots on low-altitude mission in the Pacific complained of unbearable heat, since the canopy couldn't be opened for fresh air without severe buffeting. Pacific pilots often went on missions wearing shorts, tennis shoes, a parachute and nothing else.
 
A more serious problem was discovered during high-speed dives. Due to the way air movement changes around high-speed objects, a plane that went into an overly fast dive would have its nose dip down and its controls lose effectiveness. The pilot could either bail and lose the plane, or try to regain control in thicker, lower-altitude air (and crash if he failed). The problem wasn't unique to the P-38; it had to do with general aerodynamic principles, only the P-38 happened to be the first plane to dive fast enough to actually experience the effect. Wind tunnel experiments eventually found a solution to the problem: a quick-acting dive flap was added to change the airflow around the wings and prevent this so-called compression dive. Further testing also solved an unrelated heavy buffeting by rounding off sharp corners on the plane.

Dive flap on the underside of the P-38's wing. The man on the right is American top ace Richard Bong. (Photo: ww2aicraft.net)
Dive flap on the underside of the P-38's wing. The man on the right is American top ace Richard Bong. (Photo: ww2aicraft.net)

These solutions eventually removed the P-38's greatest weaknesses, but it took a long time to find them, and even more to introduce new models. The plane really came into its own in the second half of the war, but that was too little too late for many pilots. Once it reached its potential, however, it was a capable fighter and a good long-range bomber escort. The ability of later models to carry a mixture of drop tanks, bombs and rockets also made the P-38 an often-overlooked but effective fighter-bomber. Some versions also served as night fighters and reconnaissance craft – in fact, 90% of all aerial recon footage taken above Europe during the war was taken by P-38s.
 
Yet other Lightnings were modified to serve as pathfinders, nicknamed droopsnoots (sometimes spelled "Droop Snoots"). They were equipped with either Norden bombsights or the H2X radar system for blind bombing in cloudy weather, and had a plexiglass nose to see the ground clearly. They were placed in front of flights of bombers or other P-38s. A separate bombardier could release the bomb load with great accuracy, and the planes flying behind it simply released their own bomb when the pathfinder did.

The transparent nose and bomb sight of a droopsnoot Lightning (Photo: Dana Bell)
The transparent nose and bomb sight of a droopsnoot Lightning (Photo: Dana Bell)

The USAAC ordered several dozen planes, but the first major order came from Britain and France (whose order was taken over by the British after the country fell to Germany) in March 1940, when war was already underway in Europe. It was the British who gave the plane the service name Lightning, which was later adopted by America as well. The British really didn't like the planes. They had the early models with numerous problems, and their version came without the turbosuperchargers (so they could be produced more quickly). Orders were canceled, negotiations broke down, and Lockheed stood to lose around 15 million dollars. "Fortunately" for them, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, dragging the U.S. into the war – and the Air Corps suddenly had a massive demand for planes.

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A P-38 on a test flight with the Royal Air Force (Photo: RAF)

The Lightning first saw American overseas service in April 1942 in Australia as an unarmed reconnaissance plane equipped with cameras. The next month, armed versions started operating in the Aleutian Campaign during Japan's attempt to capture the islands. The Lightning's long range served it well over the archipelago. Interestingly, more planes were lost to bad weather than to enemy actions. In fact, several pilots became mesmerized during long flights by the endless grey sky and grey sea, and simply flew into the water.

A crashed P-38 on Attu Island in the Aleutian Islands (Photo: aleutianplanes.com)
A crashed P-38 on Attu Island in the Aleutian Islands (Photo: aleutianplanes.com)

The plane's long range also served it well over the summer of the same year. With U.S. forces building up in Britain for the eventual liberation of North Africa and Europe, President Roosevelt became very interested in the prospect of flying planes from America to England; this would both keep them safe from German U-boat attacks that might attack the transports carrying the planes, and free up those ships to carry other cargo. The first such flight occurred on June 23, 1942, involving 7 P-38s equipped with external fuel tanks and 2 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers as guides. The flight touched down to refuel in Canada, Greenland and Iceland, and became not only the first U.S. Army Air Forces planes in Europe, but also the first fighters to cross the Atlantic under their own power. About 200 P-38s flew that route over the following two months, one of them piloted by the same Benjamin Kelsey who was responsible for the proposal that led to the creation of the Lightning back in '37.

Lightnings in Iceland during the war (though these ones were stationed there, not just passing through) (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
Lightnings in Iceland during the war (though these ones were stationed there, not just passing through) (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)

The planes served in the Mediterranean with decent results, though they were hampered by the long-lingering engineering problems and an unsuited tactical doctrine. Their long range made them the premier American bomber escort until the introduction of the P-51 Mustang fighter. Initially, however, they were ordered to stay close to the bombers they were escorting, which made them sitting ducks for German pilots who could decide when and where to attack. The loss of planes and pilots eventually convinced the Air Forces to change doctrine and allow the Lightning to fly ahead of the bombers and to go after enemy planes more aggressively.

A P-38 (top right) staying close to its escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses after it was hit by flak over Germany (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A P-38 (top right) staying close to its escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses after it was hit by flak over Germany (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

German opinion on the P-38's performance was mixed. Many pilots noted that the P-38 could turn on a tighter radius than them, and could easily get on their tails in a dogfight. It could also climb much faster than the Messerschmitt Bf-109, so diving on a Lightning, squeezing off a few bursts and climbing back to safety was a dangerous proposition. Head-on attacks were suicidal thanks to the Lightning's superior long range accuracy discussed earlier. At the same time, some very high-scoring German aces, including General Adolf Galland, considered the P-38 an inferior plane (though it must be noted that some of the plane's problems still hadn’t been fixed at this time). One way to get away from a Lightning was to flick-roll one's plane upside down, then dive away: the Lightning was slow to get into a roll, and the pilots were scared of high-speed dives due to the then-still-persisting compression dive problem.

A Lightning in the Mediterranean with the famous Rock of Gibraltar in the background (Photo: American Air Museum in Britain)
A Lightning in the Mediterranean with the famous Rock of Gibraltar in the background (Photo: American Air Museum in Britain)

One man who supported the use of the Lightning despite its problems was General "Tooey" Spaatz, who once said "I'd rather have an airplane that goes like hell and has a few things wrong with it, than one that won't go like hell and has a few things wrong with it."
 
The P-38 was much more successful in the Pacific. The Lightning's superior range made it ideal for the open stretches of sea separating distant island airfields. The A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters were too nimble to engage in a dogfight at low altitudes, but the Lightning's powerful engines enabled it to attack Japanese planes with high-speed passes and quickly get into a safe distance again. It is no accident that Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, America's two highest-scoring aces with 40 and 38 kills, respectively, both flew P-38s in the Pacific.

U.S. top ace Richard Bong in his Lightning (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
U.S. top ace Richard Bong in his Lightning (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

One of the most famous P-38 missions was Operation Vengeance, the assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan's chief naval strategist and the commander behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. 16 Lightnings flew 435 miles / 700 km from Guadalcanal, staying 10 to 50 feet / 3 to 15 m above the waves to avoid detection. The flight jumped Yamamoto's two bomber transports and 6 Zero escorts, downing both bombers and killing Yamamoto at the cost of one P-38.

The remains of Yamamoto's Mitsubishi "Betty" bomber in the jungle of Bougainville (Photo: Kodansha International)
The remains of Yamamoto's Mitsubishi "Betty" bomber in the jungle of Bougainville (Photo: Kodansha International)

Bong and McGuire were by no means the only notable Lightning pilots. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh traveled to the Pacific in 1944. He was officially there as a civilian advisor teaching Marine aviators how to fly the Vought F4U Corsair more effectively, but he also flew 50 combat missions. While flying P-38s, he figured out how to improve the plane's fuel efficiency through careful engine settings, allowing pilots to save 50 to 100 gallons per mission. To put that into context, the P-38's internal fuel tank had a capacity of 410 gallons, and external tanks could increase the total to 1,01 gallons.

Charles Lindbergh (right) in front of a P-38 on Biak Island in the Pacific (Photo: Teddy W. Hanks, USAAF)
Charles Lindbergh (right) in front of a P-38 on Biak Island in the Pacific (Photo: Teddy W. Hanks, USAAF)

Another famous P-38 pilot was French aviation pioneer and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. He disappeared on his last, fateful flight flying a photo-reconnaissance P-38, one described as "a war-weary, nonairworthy craft". Parts of his plane were found by a diver in 2000, but the details of his death are still subject to much speculation.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the cockpit of his reconnaissance Lightning (Photo: ww2aircraft.net)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the cockpit of his reconnaissance Lightning (Photo: ww2aircraft.net)

The highest-ranking Lightning pilots were Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, the hero of the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and his wingman, then-Major General Earle E. Partridge. The two took to the air on D-Day, during the Allied landings in Normandy, to observe the air offensive. Many other P-38s, painted with the distinctive invasion stripes, were in the air that day on fighter-bomber missions, and Doolittle later described the fighter as "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky.

A P-38 with the invasion stripes on D-Day (Photo: Pinterest)
A P-38 with the invasion stripes on D-Day (Photo: Pinterest)

Over 10,000 P-38s were built, and it was the only American combat aircraft that was built continuously from the first day of World War II to the very last, flying over 130,000 missions all around the world. The same Benjamin Kelsey who co-authored the proposal for the P-38 and who ferried one across the Atlantic, described the plane with these words: "(That) comfortable old cluck would fly like hell, fight like a wasp upstairs, and land like a butterfly."
 
Most Lightnings were bulldozed into piles and scrapped or abandoned after the war, but some were transferred to the Italian air force, and a few ended up in other countries. One was used by the CIA to support a coup d'etat in Guatemala in 1954. Some were painted bright colors and flown in air races and stunt-flying shows. A few others were bought by aerial survey companies and used for mapping. Few P-38s exist today, and even fewer are still in flying condition.

The air show veteran White Lightnin' after her 2001 crash. She has been restored to flying condition since then, but with a new paint job. (Photo: p38assn.org)
The air show veteran White Lightnin' after her 2001 crash. She has been restored to flying condition since then, but with a new paint job. (Photo: p38assn.org)

One special exception is Glacier Girl, a P-38F that was lost in July 1942. A flight of six Lightnings and 2 F-17s had to make an emergency landing on a Greenland ice field during their Atlantic transit. The crewmen were rescued, but the planes were slowly buried under 268 feet / 82 m of snow and ice over several decades. One of the planes was found and excavated in 1992, named Glacier Girl, and lovingly restored to flying condition. In 2007, Glacier Girl tried to repeat her trans-Atlantic flight, but was foiled again by a coolant leak and had to land in Labrador. She later returned to the U.S. and can still be seen at air shows today.

Glacier Girls, still deep inside her glacier (Photo: warhistoryonline.com)
Glacier Girls, still deep inside her glacier (Photo: warhistoryonline.com)
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