Lockheed P-38G Lightning

“It was a good sized airplane. In comparison the P-39 was a midget, almost like a toy. It was very fast and had good firepower. That gave a lot of people false confidence when they first went to P-38s. “

— Robert DeHaven, P-38 pilot, 49th Fighter Group.

 

Strengths:

Guns – The armament of one 20mm cannon and four .50 caliber machine guns is in the same class as that of the standard US six machine gun configuration with the added advantage of no convergence issues because all the guns are in the nose.

Speed – The Lightning, which was all about power and speed, was capable of exceeding 400 mph at altitude.

Ordnance – Capable of carrying up to 2,000 lbs. of bombs, the P-38 is a deadly close support plane.

 

Weaknesses:

Maneuverability – The P-38 is a large plane and thus can’t compete effectively in a turn fight.

 

Known to the Germans as Der Gabelschwanz Teufel (The Fork-Tailed Devil) and to the Japanese as “Whispering Death”, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the most unique and distinctive aircraft to see service in World War II. The brainchild of Lockheed’s brilliant Chief Engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the Lightning was designed to meet the US Army’s difficult X-608 Interceptor specification. The spec called for a fighter capable of 360 mph at 20,000 feet, the ability to fly at full throttle for over an hour, and the ability to take off and land over a 50-foot obstacle within 2,200 feet.

Johnson realized that with the current state of power plant technology, no single-engine aircraft could meet these specifications. So he set about working on a series of twin-engine designs, finally submitting the Lightning design to the Army on April 13, 1937 as the “Model 22 Pursuit Plane”. Based on this proposal, the Army awarded Lockheed a contract for a single prototype, to be designated the XP-38.

Besides the obviously unique twin-boom configuration, the Lightning featured several design innovations that allowed it to serve as one of the few really successful twin-engine fighters of WWII. The effect of engine torque, doubly problematic than on single engine planes, was eliminated by using engines that allowed the propellers to rotate in opposite directions. P-38 pilots learned that they could turn tighter than normal by decreasing throttle on one side, thereby allowing engine torque to help roll the plane in the desired direction.

Another innovation was the use of “Fowler flaps” that extended out of the wing instead of simply dropping down into the air stream. These effectively increased the wing area, which lowered the stall speed. At the same time, they created a slot between the wing and flap, which allowed the wing to fly at a much greater angle of attack without stalling.

Originally intended to carry a 23mm cannon and four .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, the first production Lightnings were armed with a single 37mm cannon and four .50 caliber machine guns. The 37mm cannon was eventually replaced with a single 20mm Hispano type cannon in the P-38E.

The center wing section of the P-38F was stressed for two ordnance pylons, each capable of carrying either a 165-gallon drop tank or a 1,000 lb. bomb. The P-38G further stressed the center wing pylons to allow them each of them to carry a 300-gallon drop tank, which increased the Lightning’s range to over 2,000 miles.

One problem associated with the Lightning was poor cockpit heating at high altitude, which made combat missions in the Northern European Theater particularly unpleasant. However, the P-38 saw extensive service in the Mediterranean and South Pacific theaters and was the mount in which Major Dick Bong scored 40 aerial victories, more than any other American ace in any war.

Sources:
Green, William; War Planes Of The Second World War: Fighters Volume Four; Macdonald & Co., London; 1961.
Davis, Larry; P-38 Lightning In Action, Aircraft No. 109; Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas; 1990.

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