Issue 14 - P-38 Lightning: Big, bad & dangerous to get in front of
By: Tim Callaway
Well, this turned out to be a fascinating aircraft to research, since it tied together so many famous people in a single design. One of the greatest aircraft designers of all time, Clarence L “Kelly” Johnson was responsible for the layout of the aircraft, famous test pilots such as Milo Burcham and Tony LeVier were responsible for working the bugs out of the advanced design, and many of the greatest US aces of the Second World War were to fly the big fighter in combat, achieving remarkable results with the large twin against much more agile opponents.
Again, I found myself learning a vast amount about an aircraft I thought I knew well, and I sincerely hope I have captured that fascination in these pages.
The P-38 was the only US fighter to be in production for the entire length of the Second World War, yet is was produced in smaller numbers than its single engined counterparts, none of which had such longevity. Partly, this was due to the complexity of the design and partly it was down to the fact that Lockheed was busy designing and producing a wide range of other aircraft. Front line demand for the fighter was high in every theatre, but it was not until 1944 that a second production line was set up by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft at its facility in Nashville Tennessee.
However, only 113 of the total of 10,037 P-38s built were produced there before the war ended and the contracts were cancelled.
Strangely, considering the P-38’s worldwide success, it was in Europe that the fighter was to experience its only real operational difficulties which were to sully its otherwise superb reputation. This began with the cancellation of the British and French order for a modified version of the P-38E, but lacking the turbosuperchargers and having engines that drove the propellers the same way. Both of these modifications had poor effects on the P-38, the first on the performance, the second on the handling, and the aircraft was rejected after trials by the RAF. Although it didn’t do anything for the reputation of the fighter, the RAF at least gave the type its inspiring name, the Lightning. Later, operational problems were to plague the P-38s based in the UK, which were only understood and solved after a visit by Tony LeVier in February 1944. One of the less well known achievements of the P-38 in Europe was that it was the first Allied fighter to escort bombers all the way to Berlin, a feat often credited to the P-51 Mustang.
Even though the original design was intended as a pure fighter interceptor, the high performance of the Lightning was to see it excel in a wide variety of missions, such as a photographic reconnaissance platform. Its success in this role is evinced by the large numbers that were purpose built or modified for service all over the world. Its ability to carry large payloads made the P-38 an incredibly powerful ground attack aircraft, one of the more amazing statistics being thatthe difference between the empty and maximum loaded weight of the P-38L was 8800lb (3990kg), a tremendous payload and more than a P-51D Mustang weighed!
Its high speed, fast climb and long range gave the fighter pilots who flew it enormous advantages in combat, but two other facets of the P-38s design were to make it the legend it is today. Firstly, the nose mounted armament made it easy to aim and the concentrated firepower produced has been likened to a buzz saw, cutting through anything. Lastly, it was the only single seat US fighter of the war that would get you home with one propeller feathered which, considering its use over the Mediterranean and Pacific, would be a comfort beyond price, endearing the big sleek machine to its crews.
With the advent of the jet age, the Lightnings were retired and scrapped with what old time writers would call scant ceremony. There are very few of the mighty beasts left prowling the skies today, enjoy them whenever you can.