(10) P-38 Lightning at War

Color profiles: Andrzej Sadło, captions: Mariusz Łukasik, Tomasz Szlagor
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Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the first representative of the new idea of American air force - the idea of a modern war in the skies. It was also an answer to the contest of the US Army Air Corps from 1937 for a high-altitude interceptor fighter. The high standards were set according to the X-608 directive that specified the maximum speed at the altitude of 6000 m for 580 km/h and 460 km/h for an altitude just above the ground level. The specified range should exceed 500 km while the length of a landing run, after clearing a 15 m high obstacle, and the length of a take-off run were set for 500 m and 650 m respectively. Those high expectations discouraged most of the contestants. Lockheed company that was slowly rising up from a recent downfall was unable to sustain its big production plants together with 50 people of engineering department, despite the good sale of their export blockbuster – Electra passenger aircraft. It is no wonder, therefore, that Lockheed treated the contest as its last hope. On the 23rd of June the contract (AC 9974) for a prototype called XP-38 was signed. The very promising calculations of the performance of the aircraft were a decisive factor in the contest. The theoretical speed was expected to reach 710 km/h at the altitude of 6100 m. Also the aircraft’s reach and climb were expected to be excellent. The designing team led by Hibbard and Johnson prepared a very modern twin-boom, twin-engine airframe with a tricycle landing gear. The aircraft was equipped with counter-rotating propellers, turbo supercharged engines with an advanced colling system, Fowler flaps and armament grouped in the forward part of the central nacelle of the airframe. At first the use of Allison engines was proposed, since at that time they were the most powerful engines available in mass-production. The first flight of the new prototype took place on the 27th of January, 1938 while on the 27th of April, 1939 Lockheed signed a contract for the production of the YP-38 test series of 14 aircraft including one for static ground tests. The same year, in September, another order was placed, this time for 607 aircraft of mass-production series. This was the beginning of the epic history of P-38 that ended with the construction of 9923 of these fighters. During the production period the aircraft underwent 700 major changes and as many as 2000 smaller changes of its construction never leaving the avant-garde of the best machines of the World War II. Easily recognizable thanks to its twin tail booms it was nicknamed “the Fork-Tailed Devil”, while the production name “Lightning” was first given to one of the mass-production series of P-38 D by the end of 1941. The aircraft flew in every war theatre except for the Eastern Front, where the Russians, taking into account the complexity of the maintenance and the need of concrete runways, resigned from supplies under Lend-Lease program. Also the British RAF, despite initial declarations, did not come to like the aircraft and did not use it in its units. It was, however, flown by the French, Italian, Chinese, Portugal and Australian pilots, not to mention the Americans, of course. Although, comparing it with other American aircraft, as far as the total number of produced units is concerned it must be placed on the sixth place and, although it was used by merely 27 Fighter Groups, its spectacular achievements made it, arguably, the most famous in this elite circle. The eminence of the top flying aces, like Richard J. Bong and Thomas B. McGuire who had flown the aircraft increased its renown even more. The group of famous Lightning pilots includes Charles A. Lindberg and Antoine de Saint Exupery, it was also on Lightnings that a spectacular mission of shooting down the Japanese commander-in-chief, admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was conducted. Except for the interceptor fighter version, a reconnaissance P-38, a bomber version of the J model, often called Droop-Snoot, as well as a small number of the double seat version of the P-38M night fighter was constructed. After the war, under the military aid program, many countries received the Lightnings which had been withdrawn from service. They continued flying until 1955, when they often returned to the USA after being bought for private collections. Back in the States they were widely used in races and air shows.
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