The P-38 Lighning - Fork-Tailed Devil


P-38 Lightning

The P-38 Lightning

In the late 1930’s, with the world hurtling towards another world war, the reign of the bi-plane fighters was coming to an end. America, like other countries, realized that technology was now leaning towards single wing all metal fighters. In February 1937 the USAAC issued proposal 37-X608, calling for a new design for a high-altitude, high-speed interceptor to combat the bombers and fighters of the day and future. Six American contractors submitted proposals for the project.

The eventual winner of the USAAC contract was the highly regarded firm, Lockheed. They were awarded a contract for an experimental aircraft. The firm’s chief engineer Hall L. Hibbard and his assistant at the time, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, submitted a design far different than anyone else. Kelly Johnson, who joined the firm in 1937, was given free rein in the design. Johnson aptly assumed that the height and speed requirement could not be met by a single engine design, therefore his thoughts shifted to a twin engine concept which Lockheed had experience with. The design feature that set XP-38 apart was the twin boom concept that housed the Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engines and super-chargers. The pilot and armament were contained in a central pod and the engines were mounted in mid-wing nacelles extending back into tail booms that mounted twin rudders and were joined by a horizontal tail. It was the most innovative plane of its day, combining speed with unheard of advances: two supercharged engines propelling the aircraft to and unheard speed of 400 mph, and a potent mix of four 50-caliber machine guns and a 20-mm cannon mounted in the nose, enough firepower to sink a ship. The Lightning's tricycle landing gear completed the list of major deviations from what might be considered conventional Army fighters.


"Kelly" Johnson & Amelia Earhart

The P-38 Takes to The Skies

The XP-38 project was completed in a short eighteen months. The P-38 first took flight in January 1939, the initial flight lasted thirty-five minutes. The USAAC brass knew they had a winner on their hands. In an effort to further sell the aircraft the Army brass set their sights on the transcontinental speed record held at the time by industrialists, Howard Hughes. Lt. Ben Kelsey was given the assignment to fly from March field in California to Mitchell field in New York. The XP-38 smashed the record by twenty-three minutes, clearly outclassing the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk. However, a mix-up in communications prevented Mitchell field being notified of the plane’s arrival. The pilot was ordered to circle the field, and during the landing ran out of fuel. On approach to Mitchell, Kelsey pulled back power and stalled the right engine, sending him into a steep right turn. Kelsey cut the throttle again and the plane slipped down and sheared off the tops of trees bordering the field. The undercarriage caught in a 35-foot tree, and the plane plunged down into a sand pit on the Cold Stream Golf Course, 2,000 ft. short of the runway. Kelsey survived the crash and would be an integral part of the plane’s future development. However, despite this setback a future legend was born.


P-38 Lightning

The USAAC placed an original order for sixty-six aircraft to begin a production that would eventually end in more than ten thousand produced. Eighteen distinct models—were manufactured during the war. With war imminent in 1939, France and Great Britain turned to America for fighter aircraft. Between them, they placed an order for 670 P-38’s, however with the fall of France in June 1940, Great Britain assumed the total order. The British gave the XP-38 it’s legendary nickname, Lightning. While America agreed to fill the order, the US made a fateful decision to withhold the essential superchargers. The planes without the superchargers lacked the performance needed at higher altitudes which was crucial in intercepting bombers at high altitudes. In addition, the twin props rotated in the same direction. Disappointed, the British termed the phrase “castrated P-38”. Experienced in aerial warfare, battling the Me 109, the British took control of three aircraft and regulated them to non-combat duty. With America’s entry in the war the USAAC took control of the remaining P-38’s.

The P-38 Goes To War In WW2

Each P-38 cost around $100,000, more than double the price of most U.S. single-engine fighters. Lockheed's initial investment was nearly $600,000 of its own funds to produce the prototype. However, the P-38’s long-range and heavy payload — up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and rockets—meant it could perform missions early-war single-engine types simply couldn’t. Once the P-38’s began to roll off the production line several problems became apparent. During take-offs, if one engine malfunctioned, the plane tended to roll over and crash. To correct this the Allison engines underwent reconstruction, and counter rotating pros were installed to reduce torque. A second and even more dangerous problem was compressibility which occurred during high-speed dive when air over the wing reach the speed of sound, causing the controls to freeze. By 1944, Johnson and his team had identified and addressed the flaws in the Lightning’s airframe—adding power-assisted ailerons and dive flaps that improved its roll-rate and corrected its tendency to lock into steep dives. It should also be noted that Mitchell Field crash of the prototype eventually set the Lightning’s development back several years.


P-38 Lightnings

In 1942 the Allies settled on a “Europe First” strategy, deeming Hitler and the Nazi’s to be the greatest threat. The U.S. sent the bulk of its top fighters to Europe, leaving the Navy and its carrier-based fighters to confront the Japanese over the vast Pacific Ocean. The closest the P-38 came to combat in the Pacific was August 9, 1942, when it scored a victory in the Aleutian Islands, shooting down a Japanese H6K seaplane. On August 14, an Iceland-based Lightning claimed the Air Corps first German aerial kill, an Fw-200 Condor maritime patrol plane. When the American launched “Operation Torch” that winter, Lightnings decimated air and sea transports supplying (and later evacuating) German forces in North Africa, earning the grudging nickname Gabelschwanz Teufel—“Fork-tailed Devil”—their nose-mounted guns proving more accurate and hard-hitting than the wing-mounted weapons of most American fighters WW2.

In the European theater the lightning would have difficulty confronting the smaller and nimbler 109’s and 190’s, tactics would need to be developed. The P-38’s was out of their element operating at fifteen-thousand feet or less in tangling with Luftwaffe fighters. They were not as nimble as their adversaries. It didn’t take 109 and 190 pilots long to realize that the P-38’s appeared to be reluctant to follow them in a dive at high altitude. Ace, Robin Olds could attest to this when it took all his strength to pull out of steep dive to save a fellow pilot. Luckily, he was able to gain control just above tree top level. In the end the P-38 just wasn’t suited for European conditions. Cockpit heating was poor at high altitude, roll rate was poor and engines were prone to catch fire. Despite these difficulties, the heavy firepower it carried made it the ideal fighter bomber in the ground attack role. It’s range of over eleven hundred miles was an asset in an escort role. On March 4, 1944, the P-38’s were called on to lead heavy bombers on a raid to Berlin and back. Eventually turning the dog-fighting role over the smaller P-47 Thunderbolt and fabulous P-51 Mustang. To course correct, the P-38’s was assigned the mission of reconnaissance over the continent. Over ninety percent of reconnaissance photography was provided by the Lightnings. A dangerous mission considering the powerful guns and some armor was removed to increase speed.

The P-38 In The Pacific In WW2

Despite some issues the P-38 served admirably in every theater of the war, but it truly came into its own in the Pacific when the U.S. entered the war . While the P-38 struggled in the colder European climate, it thrived in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean and Pacific. While many of the Japanese pilots were battle-tested, many lacked the experience of their Luftwaffe counterparts. And the Zero was a good aircraft, the U.S. would soon discover some of its weaknesses. In particular, a lack of armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. A lack of these protections cost countess Japanese pilots their lives when they found themselves on the wrong end of the P-38’s firepower. While the U.S. Naval carrier force was beginning to strike back hard in 1942 and 1943 in sea and land battles, the USAAC land base forces began their long march up New Guinea, north of Australia. The long range of the P-38 was the best the U.S. had at this time. This advantage was given a significant shot in the arm by American aviation legend Charles A. Lindberg. Prior to the war Lindberg had been a staunch supporter of the “America First” movement. The group advocated America not entangling itself in another European war. Lindberg resigned his status in the Army Air Corp Reserves, but once the U.S. entered the war Lindberg applied for reinstatement.


Charles Lindberg In A P-38

The Roosevelt administration summarily denied Lindberg’s request based on his pre-war stance. Lindberg was able to find his way to the Pacific as a private citizen. Lindberg was a consultant to an aircraft company interested in building a twin-engine fighter airplane for the Navy. Lindberg visited the 475th fighter group to observe the P-38. After test flying the P-38, Lindberg offered a suggestion to improve the range of the P-38. He suggested to the pilots that cutting down rpm down to 1400 rpm and use 30 inches of mercury could save 50 to 100 gallons per mission. Naturally, the pilots and their crew chiefs were skeptical of Lindberg’s idea – arguing that this would cause engine failure. However, what sold the group on his suggestion was that Lindberg volunteered to fly with the pilots on their next mission, which he did. After returning from the mission the pilots were astounded to see the range of their P-38’s increase from 900 miles to 1,800 miles. Lindberg had won them over. Even more Impressive was the fact that on one mission Lindberg showed his remarkable flying skills by shooting down a Japanese plane. When word of this feat reached the government, Lindberg was quickly removed from the Pacific to prevent any possibility of losing him in combat, which would have been a public relations nightmare.

The P-38 Strike In The Pacific

One of the most successful missions of the war, the P-38 was selected for the mission because of its range and firepower. Prior to America’s entry in the war U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese code. America had put this to good use in uncovering Japanese attack plans for the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June of 1942. U.S. intelligence uncovered Japanese Imperial Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Yamamoto’s planned visit to his Bougainville Island, in the Solomon Islands, base to bolster the morale of his men after recent defeats at Midway and Guadalcanal. Orders from the Whitehouse, “Operation Vengeance”, direct U.S. forces to intercept and kill Yamamoto. On April 18, 1943—coincidentally the first anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. and Major John W. Mitchell, commanding officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 339th Fighter Squadron – led a flight of sixteen P-38’s o the mission. Twelve would fly top-cover while four would shoot down Yamamoto and his staff. Yamamoto, known for his punctuality, departed from his headquarter on Rabaul on time. He and his staff boarded two Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty bombers” of the 705th Air Group. They were escorted by six Zero fighters of the 204th Air Group.


Capt Lanphier, Lt. Besby Holmes and Barber, three of the four “killer flight” pilots

Among the Zero pilots were Petty Officers 1st Class Shoichi Sugita, who would become one of Japan’s top aces, and Kenji Yanagiya, a veteran of 100-missions, they were honored to protect the Admiral and his staff. The Eighteen P-38’s departed Henderson Field (Guadalcanal) for the 1,000-mile flight. Mitchell led the cover flight team and Captain Lanphier Jr. led the “shooters” group. Early in the flight two P-38’s experienced engine trouble and returned to base. They flew at wave-top height to avoid Japanese radar, and 50 miles off-shore to avoid observation posts. At 0820 Mitchell fixed their position at 180 miles west of Henderson. He then waved his wings to signal a turn. Next, they flew twenty-seven minutes on course 290 degrees. Thirty-eight minutes on course 305 degrees. At 0925, 20 miles off Bougainville, they made their final turn to the northeast, under cover of a low-level haze. The P-38’s jettisoned their drop tanks and prepared for action. When the Americans neared the island, they had begun to climb to a height of 2,000 feet where they cleared the translucent mist to see the 7,500-foot peaks of Bougainville’s Crown Prince Range and the crescent of Empress Augusta Bay, however they didn’t see any planes. Mitchell checked his watch: 0934. They were a minute ahead of schedule. Yamamoto ought to be about three miles to their port quarter. At that moment cover-flight section leader Lieutenant Doug Canning called out, “Bogeys! Eleven o’clock high!” Surprised, Mitchell hadn’t expected two bombers; the shooters would have to get both. Leading the cover flight upward, he radioed Lanphier: “All right, Tom. Go get him.


State Funeral For Admiral Yamamoto

An account of the action reported that Sugita and Yanagiya spotted the P-38’s and immediately swung into action. The two bombers, the one on the left carried Yamomoto, and the other, Vice Admiral Ugaki attempted to land. Captain Lanphier and his wingman, Rex Barber maneuvered to attack. However, pilot Besby Holmes had trouble jettisoning his drop tanks. To correct this, he veered off to pick up speed – his wingman, Ray Hine followed him. Yamamoto’s bomber banked right, while Ugaki’s banked left to avoid the Americans. Lanphier maneuvered to engage three Zero’s, while Barber attacked Yamomoto’s bomber which attempted to dive down. Barber’s gun fire killed the pilot and the bomber crashed into the jungle. Holmes was able to drop his tank, and he and Hines joined the attack, zeroing in on the second bomber. The second attempted to escape by fleeing to the open ocean. Holmes and Hine peppered the second bomber, then Barber fired a burst and the bomber exploded and crashed into the ocean. Ugaki and two crewmen survived. Mission completed, the P-38’s turn for home. It was reported that Ray Hine became separated from the group. A PBY on patrol reported see a P-38 trailing smoke from an engine. Hine was never seen again. Controversy began when Lanphier laid immediate claim to shooting down Yamamoto, touching off a dispute with Barber that would tear their friendship apart and last almost to this day. The Americans claimed four Zeros downed, however, all six Japanese fighters returned to Rabaul, claiming at least three P-38 kills. Medals of Honor for Mitchell and the four shooters were downgraded to Navy Crosses when the press got wind of their story, threatening to reveal the secret of the broken Japanese code. This daring mission by the P-38’s was a defining moment for them in the Pacific.


U.S. Top Ace Richard Bong


Operation Vengeance was one of the many exploits the Lightnings and their pilots flew pilots throughout the war in every theatre. The hard hitting Lightnings shot down 3785 aircraft during the war. The top two U.S. aces in the war, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire scored 40 and 38 victories respectively. Sadly, both men did not survive the war, McGuire was killed in the attack on the Philippines, and Bong was killed testing America’s first operational jet on August 6, 1945, the day the U.S. dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Like many other “Warbirds” of their era the P-38 Lightning’s legend lives on.

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