The P-38 Lightning was designed by Lockheed in 1937 to meet the requirement of a USAAC (US Army Air Corps) proposal for a high altitude interceptor that called for speed (400 mph), range, and climb (20,000 ft within 6 minutes) capabilities—impossible to achieve at that time with a single-engine aircraft. The talented team, led by Hal Hibbard and assisted by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson as chief engineer, produced a radical design that was unlike any previous fighter.
Hibbard and Johnson had first worked together on the Lockheed Electra Model 10, where the young Kelly Johnson’s re-design of the tail solved the stability problem. The visionary Johnson would go on to renown as the designer of almost every outstanding Lockheed aircraft—from the P-38 to the awesome Blackbird—and, as the founder of the famous research and design department at Lockheed, affectionately known as the Skunk Works.
Believing that two engines would be necessary to meet the proposal’s requirements, the duo created a design that placed the engines and turbo-superchargers in twin tail booms, with the cockpit in the central nacelle connected to the tail booms with the aircraft’s wings. Powered by a pair of 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engines at 1150 hp, the new aircraft was the first fighter to exceed 400 mph. Later models, especially the P-38L, were equipped with the Allison engine version 111 and 113 which increased power to 1475 hp at 30,000 ft and a top speed of 414 mph. The distinctive sight and sound of the P-38 made it one of the best-known aircraft in the war.
For high altitude performance, turbo-superchargers were highly successful in U.S. bombers which were powered by radial engines, but were more problematic with liquid-cooled engines. Flying as escort fighters for the long range bombing missions, the P-38s experienced continual problems in Western Europe where the air war was conducted at high altitudes. For this reason, the P-38 was steadily withdrawn from Europe until they were no longer used for bomber escort. The P-38 had fewer problems in the Pacific where operating techniques were better developed, fuel quality was consistently superior, and the Japanese did not operate at such high altitudes.
The P-38 Lightning’s first flight was in January of 1939. It entered service in 1941, and because of its range, versatility, and altitude performance it was popular in every theater of war. With a 20 mm cannon and four 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the nose, the P-38 was a potent weapon with speed and adaptability to match. The Germans named the P-38 the “Fork-Tailed Devil.” The famed Japanese fighter ace, Saburo Sakai, said that the P-38, “destroyed the morale of the Zero fighter pilot.”
It was the Pacific Theater where the P-38 came into its own, primarily due to its twin engine design and long range. On April 18, 1943, a flight of sixteen P-38s flew from Guadalcanal to the Solomon Islands to intercept and destroy a transport carrying Admiral Yamamoto, Commander and Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. Yamamoto had been the mastermind behind the planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Code named, “Operation Vengeance,” the death of Yamamoto significantly damaged the morale of Japanese naval personnel, while raising the morale of the Allied forces.
By the end of the war, the P-38 had downed more than 1,800 Japanese aircraft with over 100 pilots becoming aces in the process. America’s top two WWII aces, Majors Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their performances while flying P-38s against Japanese pilots in the Pacific War.
With over 10,037 produced, the P-38 Lightning was a true workhorse for the USAAF. It served around the world as a fighter, fighter-bomber, and photographic/reconnaissance aircraft, and will always be considered one of the great fighters of WWII.