P-38 Lightning, U.S. Fighter

Photograph of P-38 Lightning

National Museum of the USAF

Lockheed P-38E Lightning


Crew 1
Dimensions 52’0" by 37’10” by 12’10”
15.85m by 11.53m by 3.91m
Wing area 328 square feet
30.5 square meters
Weight 12,700-15,482 lbs
5760-7023 kg
Maximum speed       390 mph at 25,000 feet
628 km/h at 7620 meters
Cruise speed 200 mph
322 km/h
Landing speed 85 mph
137 km/h
Climb rate 48 feet per second
14.6 meters per second
Service ceiling 39,000 feet
11,900 meters
Power plant 2 1325 hp (988 kW) Allison V-1710-49/52 vee-12 liquid-cooled turbocharged piston engines driving three-bladed metal propellers
Armament 1 20mm Hispano M1 fixed nose cannon
2 0.50 fixed nose machine guns
2 0.30 fixed nose machine guns
Range 845 nautical miles
1570 km
Fuel 306 gallons
1158 liters
Production 9942 P-38 of all types at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, CA:
  1 XP-38
  13 YP-38
  29 P-38
  1 XP-38A
  143 P-332
  36 P-38D
  210 P-38E
  526 P-38F
  1082 P-38G
  601 P-38H
  2970 P-38J
  1 P-38K
  3923 P-38L
About 1607 P-38Ds and Es were produced and about 3923 P-38Ls.
Variants The P-332 was originally manufactured for Britain, but was never delivered due to contract disputes. It was used as a fighter trainer by American forces because it lacked turbochargers, and was derisively referred to as the "Castrated P-38".

The P-38D was equipped with 1150 hp (857 kW) V-1710-27/29 engines and had a M4 37mm cannon in place of the 20mm cannon.

The P-38F introduced pylons for 1000 lb (454 kg) bombs or 150 gallon (568 liter) drop tanks and introduced a combat flap setting to improve maneuverability.

The P-38H introduced 1425 hp (1062 kW) V-1710-89/91 engines.

The P-38J had an improved engine arrangement that permitted installation of wing leading edge fuel tanks with an additional 55 gallons (208 liters) of fuel. It could reach 414 mph (666 km/h) at 25,000 feet (7620 m).

The P-38L was equipped with 1600 hp (1193 kW) V-1710-111/113 engines and could carry 4000 lbs (1814 kg) of bombs or two 300 gallon (1135 liter) drop tanks and ten rockets.

The F-4 and F-5 variants were photoreconnaissance aircraft in which the nose armament was replaced with four K-17 cameras.

The P-38 Lightning was the only really successful twin-engine daytime fighter of the war. Unfortunately, it was just coming into production when war broke out, with only a single squadron assigned to the West Coast. Almost all the early production was sent to Europe and the Mediterranean, where it proved less successful. Although a small number were operating out of Port Moresby by the end of November 1942, It was not until 1943 that the Lightning appeared in any numbers in the Pacific. Eventually about half of all P-38 pilots were deployed to the Pacific, primarily in the Southwest Pacific Area, where the aircraft's long range, high speed, and excellent high-altitude performance made it immensely valuable.

Lockheed began work on the Model 22 in March 1936, which was its first attempt at a purely military design. This became the basis for its bid on a February 1937 specification issued by the U.S. Army Air Corps for a long-range interceptor and escort fighter. The company took a great many technical risks in order to produce the most innovative design possible. The prototype was completed in January 1939 but was written off in just two weeks, during which time it ran into a ditch on its first taxi due to brake failure, lost its flaps on its maiden flight, and crash landed at the end of what should have been a record-breaking cross country flight when its carburetor iced up. However, by then it had demonstrated its impressive range and speed, and development continued, with the first production model flying in June 1941. The P-38D, with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection, followed within a month. The design continued to be refined throughout the war, although a proposal to replace the finicky Allison engines with Packard-Merlins was rejected on the grounds that the interruption in production was unacceptable.

The P-38 had the best performance of any U.S. fighter in production at the start of the Pacific War. The use of Fowler flaps permitted an unusually high wing loading without an excessive landing speed. With its then-phenomenal top speed of almost 400 miles per hour (640 km/h), the P-38 was the first American aircraft to encounter the phenomenon of compressibility, in which the air flow across some of its control surfaces approached the speed of sound at high altitude, resulting in poor handling. This was most noticeable during dives from above 25,000' (7600m), where the frigid air reduced the sound speed. Compressibility was aggravated by the relatively thick wing section. The chief designer, Clarence Johnson, initially favored a thin wing section, but concluded that the thicker wing section was needed for structural strength and to provide the required internal fuel capacity. Fortunately, the P-38 was also the first production fighter with all-metal control surfaces, able to stand up to the buffeting produced by compressibility, and the introduction of X-15 fillets at the forward wing roots reduced compressibility effects to acceptable levels.

The P-38 had an exceptionally heavy armament, including a 20mm Hispano cannon. Because of the placement of the guns in the nose of the aircraft, they could be aimed directly forward rather than converging from the wings at the likely attack distance. This aided marksmanship, as did the unusual stability arising from the counter rotating propellers, which neutralized each other's torque. Though its low-speed maneuverability was hardly anything to write home about, its high-speed maneuverability was actually greater than that of a Zero at altitude. Its brute power and great structural strength allowed the P-38 to carry large drop tanks for excellent range, and it was later employed as fighter-bomber, capable of carrying up to two tons of ordnance. This was far in excess of any other single seat aircraft of the war.

Tests showed that the P-38G could carry and drop two aerial torpedoes, but this capability was never used in combat.

Pilots liked the gun arrangement, good forward visibility, and relatively roomy cockpit. On the other hand, two engines meant twice as much maintenance and twice the likelihood of combat damage starting a fire, which invariably meant the loss of the aircraft. If one of the engines cut off during takeoff and landing, the resulting unbalanced torque was often too much for the average fighter pilot to handle. The cockpit heating arrangements were inadequate, a serious concern with high altitude flight, and the large tail booms and elevator restricted rear visibility and made bailing out an unusually risky proposition.

Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Air Force commandeered 40 P-38s awaiting delivery to Britain at the Lockheed plant. These were hastily armed and distributed to Army airfields across the West Coast, still bearing their RAF markings. However, the first Lightnings to see service in the Pacific were unarmed F-4 photoreconnaissance aircraft that tracked Japanese troop movements in the South Pacific. The first Lightnings to see combat were P-38Ds and P-38Es rushed to Alaska in mid-1942, but the first model delivered in quantity was the P-38F. This model began operating against Buna in December 1942.

Famed Zero ace Saburo Sakai said of the Lightning:

On my first confrontation with the P-38, I was astonished to find an American aircraft that could outrun, outclimb, and outdive our Zero which we thought was the most superior fighter plane in the world. The Lightning's great speed, its sensational high altitude performance, and especially its ability to dive and climb much faster than the Zero presented insuperable problems for our fliers. The P-38 pilots, flying at great height, chose when and where they wanted to fight with disastrous results for our own men. The P-38 boded ill for the future and destroyed the morale of the Zero fighter pilot.

General Kenney was immensely fond of the P-38. As quoted by Bergerud (2000):

I wanted the P-38 in the Pacific because of the long distances, but not only long distances. You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around. They never look healthy to a man flying over them. Say we were going into a combat and you go in with a P-51, a 100-percent warplane: Give it a status of 100 for combat. The pilot starts out with a rating of 100. But by the time he gets four or five hundred miles out over the ocean his morale has been going down steadily by looking at that water down there, and my guess was that he would arrive at combat about a 50-percent-efficient pilot. So the total score of pilot and plane is 150. Now the P-38 is not a bad combat airplane -- I'd give it a rating of 75 as compared to the P-51, easily -- maybe more than that -- but give it 75. But the pilot arrives there 100 percent -- he's just as good as when he took off because he knows one of those big fans can bring him home. He's got two engines. So his score - his fighting score is 175 against the other's 150. And you could hang gasoline on them.

The P-38 remained in production throughout the war, with the cost per unit dropping from $163,000 in 1938 to $95,150 in 1945.

Photo Gallery

P-38 in flight


Close up front view of P-38


P-38 "Putt Putt Maru" showing drop tanks

Wikimedia Commons

Left cockpit of P-38


Center view of P-38 cockpit


Right cockpit of P-38


Rearming a P-38 with 20mm shells


P-38 flown by ace Richard Bong

Wikimedia Commons

F-5 photoreconnaissance variant of P-38


P-38 assembly line at Lockheed Corporation


P-38 armorer at Lockheed plant


P-38 in recognition manual



Bergerud (2000)

Bodie (1991)

Gunston (1986)

P-38 Lightning Online (accessed 2007-11-17)

Wilson (1998)

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