Wednesday, April 19, 2017

P-38 Lightning: Fork-Tailed Devil

Death in the Pacific

The Lockheed P-38 was feared by the Luftwaffe.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the better-known US Army Air Force fighters from World War II. They are easily identifiable by their twin booms and a central nacelle, which housed the pilot and guns (the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter is another twin-boom USAAF plane with a somewhat similar appearance, but it was not produced in large numbers). An article like this can only scratch the surface of a fabulous, war-winning plane like the P-38, but let's see what we can learn about them.

P-38 Genesis

P-38 cutaway drawing
P-38 cutaway drawing.
The idea for the P-38 arose in February 1937, when the US Army Air Corps published Circular Proposal X-608. First Lieutenants Benjamin S. Kelsey and Gordon P. Saville, who drew up the specs, asked for a twin-engine, high altitude interceptor capable of reaching 360 mph (580 km/h) and reaching 20,000 ft (6100 m) in six minutes. While in hindsight these requirements may seem fairly pedestrian by late-World War II standards, in the 1930s these were very tough to achieve. In fact, the P-38 in its final form never met all the requirements of the initial specifications, such as the climb rate (it took about 7 minutes to get to 20,000 feet). It came close enough, though.

P-38 color
The P-38 had one of the most distinctive appearances of the war (Flight Journal).
Lockheed had two legendary designers, Hall Hibbard and Clarence "Kelly" Johnson (there is a street named after Johnson near me), who submitted the twin-boom proposal that turned into the P-38. Lockheed spent $600,000 of its own funds producing the prototype, a lot of money in the 1930s. The first prototype was taken on a transcontinental speed dash by Kelsey, but as he approached his destination at Mitchell Field on Long Island, an engine cut out and the plane crashed.

Lieutenant Robert Petit’s P-38, Miss Virginia, which First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber borrowed for the Operation Vengeance mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto. Barber returned it to Henderson Field with over 100 bullet holes and had to make this wheels-up landing.
Kelsey survived, and the USAAC continued with the project, but it was an omen of many other problems lurking in the sleek plane. After a lot of experimenting, the design eventually incorporated four M2 Browning machine guns and one Hispano 20 mm (.79 in) autocannon with 150 rounds. The plane had an unusual configuration, with all the weapons clustered in the nose. However, this had some advantages.

P-38 flying

P-38 guns fired straight ahead, with no "convergence" where the bullets are aimed to intersect at a certain point. This gave the plane's fire more "reach," putting aircraft farther away in danger. Firing straight ahead also means that if one bullet hits your plane, a whole lot more are on the way ("cone of fire").

P-38 cocooned
Some Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American Aviation P-51 Mustangs on a U.S. Navy Escort "Jeep" Carrier (CVE). They are headed to Europe from New York.
The P-38 introduced stainless-steel skin to American fighters. It also was the first US fighter to break 400 mph. Lockheed won the competition for the USAAF tender on 23 June 1937 and went to work building 13 prototype XP-38s. The first XP-38 flew on 27 January 1939, piloted by Ben Kelsey, one of the men who had authored the original specifications. The P-38's success got Kelsey promoted to captain.

The XP-38 Lightning prototype. It was a deathtrap until several issues were resolved, but after that, it was an important contributor to the Allied war effort.
The final YP-38 prototype did not reach the USAAC until June 1941. Tests on the prototypes resulted in numerous modifications and enhancements. Since the war in Europe had been raging for almost two years at the time of the final prototype, there was a lot of information available from the British as to what worked and did not work in combat. Among other things, Lockheed made the plane lighter and reversed the propellers so that they spun outward rather than inward, to improve stability.

P-38 8th Air Force
A P-38 with the 8th Air Force (Flickr).
A few problems remained. For example, the controls tended to freeze in a dive - not something pilots look forward to experiencing. A YP-38 crashed on 4 November 1941 when the tail failed following a dive, killing pilot Ralph Virden. Lockheed solved the problem with a slight re-design of the wings and a few other fixes. Other problems such as buffering also were fixed. One nice feature of the plane from the point of view of the pilots was that the General Electric turbo-superchargers on the twin Allison V12s made it unusually quiet. The first production models, P-38Ds (there were no Bs or Cs, and only one A), began arriving at USAAF units by mid-1941.

P-38 Operational Use

P-38 Overlord markings
A P-38 photo-reconnaissance plane in Operation Overlord (D-Day) markings.
The British and French already were flying for their lives, so in March 1940 they ordered 667 P-38s through the Anglo-French Purchasing Committee for US$100M. The French planes were designated Model 322F and the British were Model 322B. The Allison engines were considered a plus due to their use in Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks the two countries already had on order. After the fall of France, Britain took over the entire order and bestowed upon them the "Lightning" sobriquet. When they got their hands on the planes, however, the RAF pilots reported the same issues with the tails and the British canceled their order. Lockheed got upset at the cancellation, and only the Pearl Harbor attack in December restored civility when the USAAF seized the planes and resolved the dispute. The British ultimately rejected the P-38 completely and never used it.

P-38 guns
Servicing the guns. You can clearly see the 4 x .50 Browning machine guns around the 20mm cannon (Reddit).
The USAAF asked that some of the P-38s be produced as photo-reconnaissance planes, so Lockheed took out the guns and replaced them with cameras. These versions were designated F-4-1-LO. At the same time, on its own initiative, Lockheed modified the planes so that they could carry drop tanks. This came in very handy when USAAF commander General Henry "Hap" Arnold ordered the planes flown to Great Britain under Operation Bolero.

P-38 9th Fighter Squadron
The men of the USAAF 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group. As the caption says, they landed on Leyte, Philippines on 26 October 1944 (United States Army Air Forces).
The first unit to receive P-38s was the 1st Fighter Group in San Diego. The first P-38s to see active service, F-4s carrying four K-17 cameras, flew with the 8th Photographic Squadron out of Australia on 4 April 1942. On 29 May 1942, 25 P-38s became operational with the 343rd Fighter Group in the Aleutian Islands. They shot down two Japanese Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boats on 9 August 1942, the P-38's first combat kills. The first Luftwaffe plane shot down by a P-38 (2Second Lieutenant Elza Shaha of the 27th Squadron operating out of Iceland) was a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. In fact, this was the first Luftwaffe plane shot down by the USAAF during World War II.

P-38 loading ammunition

The P-38 got off to a slow start in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). On 25 August 1943, 53 Bf 109s shot down 13 P-38s without loss to themselves. On 2 September 10 P-38s were shot down for only one German loss. The Luftwaffe did not think much of the fighters, with top ace Adolf Galland comparing them to the Luftwaffe's own twin-boom Bf 110 Zerstorers which had shown serious deficiencies as an air superiority fighter. However, their long-range due to those drop tanks made the P-38s useful for escorting bombers over Germany.

P-38 in action
P-38s in action.
In Europe, the Lightning was thought best suited to high altitude escort missions, but only by comparison with their difficulties at lower altitudes. They suffered when flown at low altitudes against more agile fighters such as the Focke-Wulf 190. Even at the higher altitudes where it performed best, the Lightning had difficulties with the Bf 109s. British test pilot Captain Eric Brown compared the fighters to the top Luftwaffe fighters and found them to be slower and suitable only for photo-reconnaissance work. Many P-38s were replaced by P-51s - which sported Rolls Royce Merlin engines and with which the RAF had no issues at all.

P-38 skis
A specially equipped P-38 with skis. 
By September 1944, the P-38 was largely relegated to photo-reconnaissance missions in the ETO. American media popularized the idea that Luftwaffe pilots were terrified by the plane and called it the "Fork-tailed Devil." Maybe they did fear the P-38. However, the Luftwaffe apparently feared the P-51D Mustang a whole lot more. Does this mean that the P-38 was a failure or useless? Absolutely not! Many, many planes on both sides found a role during World War II despite not matching up well with adversaries in a Theater in a particular role - and the P-38 was a shining example.

P-38 Admiral Yamamoto crash site
Wreckage of Admiral Yamamoto's plane, still in the jungle.
In the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO), it was a different story entirely for the P-38 than in Europe and North Africa. Japanese pilots developed a healthy respect for the P-38, referring to it as "two planes, one pilot." The two top US aces of the war flew them in the PTO, and overall the P-38 was credited with shooting down more Japanese aircraft than any other fighter. The tropical climates in which most operations occurred in the Pacific were ideal for the P-38 (pilots often complained of lack of heat in the cockpits in the ETO), and it was faster than the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters. The Allison engines seemed to perform better in the Pacific for some reason. Japanese bombers and flying boats were easy prey for the P-38. Probably the one incident for which P-38s are best remembered during World War II was the 18 April 1943 Operation Vengeance that shot down and killed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in his Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber over Bougainville. This was only possible due to the P-38's extreme range.

First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber, now acknowledged as the pilot who downed Admiral Yamamoto's transport.
First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber is usually credited with the kill. While it served everywhere, one safely can say that, just like the B-29, the P-38 became famous due to its success in the PTO.

Famous P-38 Pilots

It is important to remember that these planes only meant something because of the men that flew them. Without dedicated, fearless pilots, P-38s were simply interesting pieces of scrap metal. It's impossible to list and recognize everyone, so let's look at a few pilots who flew the plane during the war.

P-38 David Toomey
David Toomey in front of his unarmed P-38 circa June 1944. Nola Ruth was his fiancée at the time, later his wife - naming your bird after your sweetheart back home was very common. Lieutenant Toomey was a member of the 3rd Photo-Reconnaissance Group, based at Tarquinia, 50 miles north of Rome. This photo gives a good look at the plane's Allison V-1710 turbo-supercharged engines (Courtesy David F. Toomey via Air & Space Magazine).
The top US air aces of World War II flew P-38s. Ask someone who the top US aces were, and, if you don't get a blank stare, you're likely to get excellent guesses such as Chuck Yeager and "Pappy" Boyington. Well, those two superb pilots were both aces, but they weren't the top US aces of the war. That honor goes to Majors Richard I. "Dick" Bong and Thomas B. "Tommy" McGuire of the USAAF. Both pilots received the Medal of Honor, McGuire posthumously (both perished during the war), Boyington at the hands of General MacArthur shortly before he was captured.

P-38 P-38L
The P-38L, considered the best Lightning, came along in 1944 (Courtesy of NASA).
Charles Lindbergh is perhaps the only nonmilitary pilot of World War II to shoot down an enemy plane in a P-38. On 28 July 1944, Lindbergh shot down a Mitsubishi Ki-51 "Sonia" after it attacked him near Hollandia. The Japanese plane appeared to be trying to ram his own plane, so he had no choice but to shoot or be killed. As Lindbergh was not in the service, he did not receive official credit for the kill - but his wingman, ace Joseph E. "Fishkiller" Miller, Jr., attested to it. Lindbergh helped work up P-38s in the PTO to improve their performance through improved throttle settings.

P-38 Night Lightning
The P-38 M “Night Lightning.” This version came along too late to see combat, being deployed very late in the war. You can see the radar pod upfront and the radar operator.
French airman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was flying a P-38 (F-5B) when he disappeared over the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944. The author of "The Little Prince" and other works, Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace. Throughout the remainder of the 20th Century, his fate was unknown and he was said to have simply disappeared. In 2000, a French scuba diver finally found the remnants of his Lightning off the coast of Marseille. Parts from his plane now are on exhibit at the Air and Space Museum of France in Le Bourget, Paris. It is still unclear what happened, but two former Luftwaffe pilots have claimed that they were the ones to shoot down Saint-Exupéry's unarmed photo-recon plane.

P-38 Glacier Girl
"Glacier Girl." A Lockheed P-38F-1-LO Lightning, this plane crash-landed on the Greenland ice field along with five others of the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, on 15 July 1942 (Operation Bolero)). In 1992, the Greenland Expedition Society excavated Glacier Girl from under 268 (82 m) of snow, brought it to Middlesboro, Kentucky, and restored it to flying condition. 


P-38s are valuable and fairly rare despite the fact that 9,923 were built during World War II. For instance, currently, there are only nine airworthy P-38s know to exist in the US (along with one airworthy P-38L in Austria). The USAAF decided to stick with the North American P-51 as its fighter and stopped using P-38s completely by 1948. Part of the problem likely was that P-38s were complicated aircraft and difficult to maintain. Some found their way to private companies that needed to do photo mappings, such as oil companies and the like, but the rest were scrapped (see "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) to see how quickly that began to happen).

A P-38 is a thing of beauty.
Elaborate expeditions have been launched or are contemplated to recover relatively intact models from ice caps or under the sea or jungles or wherever they wound up during the war. Several P-38s are "under restoration," which often means they are sitting in a warehouse somewhere waiting for someone to finally pony up the cash to get them flying again.

P-38 Major Richard Bong
Major Richard Bong in his P-38.

Specifications of the P38

Crew: One

Wingspan: 52 ft.

Length: 37 ft. 10 in.

Height: 12 ft. 10 in.

Wing area: 328 sq. ft.

Engines: 2 x Allison V-1710-111, 1,600 hp. at 28,700ft., 3000 rpm

Max speed: 414 m.p.h. at 25,000 ft.

Cruising Speed: 275 mph (443 km/h)

Climb to: 10,000 ft., 4 min.; 20,000 ft., 7 minutes

Service ceiling: 44,000 ft.

Combat range: 450 miles at 290 m.p.h. at 10,000 ft.; 2,600 miles with max. external fuel

Empty weight: 14,100 lb.

Loaded weight: 21,600 lb.

Armament: 1-20mm cannon, 4-.50 cal MG, 3,200 lb. external stores.


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