The Lockheed P-38 Lightning is a World War II-era American piston-engined fighter aircraft. The P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament.
The P-38 was used for interception, dive bombing, level bombing, ground attack, night fighting, photo reconnaissance, radar and visual pathfinding for bombers and evacuation missions, and extensively as a long-range escort fighter when equipped with drop tanks under its wings.
The P-38 was used most successfully in the Pacific Theater of Operations and the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations as the aircraft of America’s top aces, Richard Bong (40 victories), Thomas McGuire (38 victories) and Charles H. MacDonald (27 victories). In the South West Pacific theater, the P-38 was the primary long-range fighter of United States Army Air Forces until the appearance of large numbers of P-51D Mustangs toward the end of the war.
The P-38 could indeed fly fast—maxing at 395 miles-per-hour—and far (at slower speeds), up to 1,100 miles.
The P-38 featured a revolutionary design that enabled it to travel higher and faster than any other American fighter plane during the 1930s. It did this with huge, in-line engines and a super-turbocharger.
Here’s How Revolutionary Design Enabled P-38 Lightning to Flew Faster and Higher Than Its Rivals
Each P-38 cost around $120-100,000, twice the price of most U.S. single-engine fighters. 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.
Perhaps the P-38’s most legendary mission occurred on April 18, 1943, after U.S. signals intelligence discovered that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese navy chief and architect of the Pearl Harbor raid, was flying to inspect troops on Bougainville. Sixteen P-38Gs departed from Guadalcanal and flew a 1,000-mile roundtrip to intercept Yamamoto’s G4M Betty transport and send it crashing to the island below. Yamamoto’s body was found still clenching his officer’s katana in one hand.
Though swiftly retired after World War II, the Lightning continued service with French and Italian Air Force and saw combat with Chinese Nationalists (one became the first victim of the Soviet-built MiG-15 jet) and over Guatemala, sinking a ship during a CIA-backed coup.