A Brief History
On January 27, 1939, one of the great American fighter planes of World War II, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, made its first flight. Appropriately named, the Lightning was the fastest fighter in the world at that time, being the first to exceed 400 mph in level flight.
The Lightning was designed by the master aircraft architect Clarence Kelly Johnson who also designed the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
Conceived as a high-speed, high-altitude (44,000 feet!) interceptor, at its introduction, the twin-engine Lightning also had a greater range (1,300 combat miles) than any contemporary fighters. The long-range fighter could also be equipped with drop tanks.
The central nacelle (fuselage) containing the pilot and weapons was accompanied by twin booms that carried a turbo-supercharged engine on each side and connected by a common tail. The armament consisting of 4 x .50-caliber machine guns and 1 x 20mm cannon was clustered in the nose and gave the Lighting highly focused firepower instead of the spread of bullets fired from the usual wing-mounted guns of other Allied fighters.
For a fighter, the Lightning was capable of carrying a heavy load of bombs. These might include 2 x 2,000 lb bombs or a pair of smaller bombs. It was also commonly used as a rocket platform since it could launch rockets from its 4 x triple rocket launchers or its 10 x single rocket launchers.
Despite all of its capabilities, however, the Lightning did not have the maneuverability (roll rate) of the single-engine fighters used in Europe, which made it unsuitable for dog fighting.
The Lighting did achieve great success in the Pacific where Charles Lindbergh was used as a consultant to teach Lightning pilots how to get the most range and performance from their planes. It also served in the Pacific as well as Europe as a superb surface attack aircraft and even as a guide plane for bombers.
Over 10,000 of these fine fighters were produced through 1945 at a cost of just under $100,000 each (or about $1.3 million in today’s dollars). The beautiful design of this fine fighter was the inspiration for the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Cadillac and Studebaker cars.
The 2 top-scoring U.S. fighter aces of World War II (and all time so far) flew the Lightning and certainly thought highly of it. In fact, over 100 pilots became aces flying it, shooting down over 1,800 Japanese planes.
The last operational Lightnings were retired from service with the Honduran Air Force in 1965.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning certainly ranks among the greatest fighters of all time. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bodie, Warren M. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Motorbooks Intl, 1991.
Blake, Steve and Dayle L. DeBry. P-38 LIGHTNING Unforgettable Missions of Skill and Luck. P-38 National Association, 2011.
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