Things You Might Not Know About The P-38 Lightning

Things You Might Not Know About The P-38 Lightning
Lockheed P-38L Lightning at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, marked as a P-38J of the 55th Fighter Squadron, based in England. Via Wikipedia

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning is a World War II-era American piston-engined fighter aircraft. Developed for the United States Army Air Corps, the P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament.

Allied propaganda claimed it had been nicknamed the fork-tailed devil by the Luftwaffe and “two planes, one pilot” by the Japanese.

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.

It was controversial, intimidating, and set countless records in WWII.


Here are Things You Might Not Know About The P-38 Lightning

1) The P-38 was the first fighter to fly faster than 400 mph.

2) The only American fighter aircraft in production throughout the entire American involvement in WWII.

3) Car Tailfins Were Inspired By The Lightning’s Prototype

When automotive designer Harley Earl set out to draw up the next wave of new car designs, he drew inspiration from the unique look of the Lightning’s twin booms. This started a two-decade-long competition between automotive companies who tried to come up with the wildest, most intricate tailfin designs. Unfortunately, none of them were as good-looking as the Lightning.

4) The Top Three USAAF Aces Flew Lightning

Richard I. Bong, Thomas McGuire, and Charles H. MacDonald had 40, 38, and 36 confirmed kills respectively. They all flew P-38s, with Bong naming his Marge and McGuire giving him the name of Pudgy V. MacDonald named his girl Putt Putt Maru.

5) P-38s Were Responsible For Shooting Down The Mastermind Behind The Attack On Pearl Harbor

Due to U.S. naval intelligence effort dubbed Magic, 16 Lightnings were sent out to ambush Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s transport. Pitted against 6 Japanese Zeros as part of the escort, the result of the ensuing dogfight ended in the Admiral’s Mitsubishi G4M bomber plummeting into the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

6) The P-38 was exceptionally quiet for a fighter, due to its exhaust being muffled by turbo-superchargers.

7) The P-38 had counter-rotating engines to overcome left-turning tendencies caused by its 1,000-hp engines.

8) The P-38 Prototype Set A World Record Flying From Coast To Coast

In 1939, Lightnings prototype, designated XP-38, was flown by Ben Kelsey from coast-to-coast of the United States in 7 hours and 2 minutes. Although it resulted in a crash landing, the historic flight set a world record and solidified Lockheed’s design in the fight during World War II.

9) Post World War II, A Number Of Them Became Competitive Air Racers

Like many World War II planes that were produced by the thousands, there was a major surplus of P-38s after the war. Some were, in turn, sold off as surplus to private parties, painted in flashy colors and were often seen slashing between pylons at various air races during the 40s and 50s.

10) The P-38 was the first American fighter to extensively use stainless steel and flush-mounted rivets.

11) In 1939, one of the first P-38 prototype aircraft set a speed record from California to New York in 7 hours and 2 minutes, but it crashed short of its intended airport due to carburetor icing.

12) Their Design Earned Them Two Unique Nicknames

As their twin booms were quite distinct and they fought like hell once in the air, seeing an incoming Lightning was sure to stir fear in the enemy. For this reason, the Germans called them ‘the fork-tailed devil’ while the Japanese dubbed them ‘two planes, one pilot.’

13) Early Lightning Pilots Flew In Just Sneakers, Shorts And A Parachute

The first P-38s did not allow the pilot to open his canopy mid-flight as their design would cause major buffeting. With the tropical weather in the Pacific Theater, the heat in the cockpit got so unbearable that pilots were known to get out of uniform until the temperature regulation issues were fixed in later variants.

14) The cockpit windows couldn’t be opened in flight, because they caused buffeting on the tailplane. This made the cockpit very hot in the Pacific theater, and pilots often times flew in just shorts, tennis shoes, and a parachute.

15) The P-38 flew over 130,000 sorties in the European theater and downed over 1,800 aircraft in the Pacific theater.

16) Their Machine Guns Had 4 Times The Range Of Other Fighters

While most warbirds of the era had wing-mounted machine guns, Lightning’s design made that concept tricky if not impossible and called for the armament to be placed in the nose. As the shells were not fired from the wings and did not have pattern convergence, pilots were able to shoot straight with the bullets traveling up to 1,000 yards, approximately 800 yards further than most fighters of the time.

17) In total, over 10,000 P-38s were produced during the war, making it one of the most successful fighters and interceptors of its time.

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