The P-38 Lightning-The plane that proved Lockheeds brilliance

By Amith Babu

The P38 Lightning was one of the most feared fighters during the second world war It had two very powerful engines which gave it an impressive climb rate and top speed. Backed up by its nose mounted armament, it could shoot at long range with deadly accuracy, earning it the nicknames "The fork-tailed devil" by the Luftwaffe and "Two planes, one pilot" by the Japanese.

The P38 Lightning was one of the most feared fighters during the second world war. Photo © U.S. Air Force/

In February 1937, the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) released a set of requirements, for a new proposed fighter. The Air Corps was looking for a fighter that could reach speeds of 580 km/h and climb to 20,000 ft within six minutes, the toughest set of specifications the Army Air Corps had put forward to that date. Lockheed responded with a team led by Hall Hibbard and Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, who is the architect of some of the most significant aircraft in history such as the P-80 Shooting Star, the SR-71 Blackbird, Constellation and F117 Nighthawk stealth bomber. He also led Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects better known as Skunk Works until 1975.

The nose guns of the P-38. Photo © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/

Nose guns of a P-38 Lightning aircraft lighting up the night sky as an armorer test-fired weapons after routine maintenance. Photo © United States Air Force

The team began work on the P-38 designated by Lockheed as Model 22-64-01, concentrating around twin-engine configurations and finalised on a twin boom and central nacelle design. The cockpit and armament, which consisted of 1 x 20mm Hispano canon and 4 x .50 calibre Browning machine guns, were designed to be in the central nacelle, giving it an edge over wing mounted guns which suffered from trajectories set up to meet at a convergence zone limiting their range. Nose-mounted guns were not limited by this and could shoot much farther. P-38s were known to comfortably hit distances of up to 900 m.

A P38 ready for an early morning sortie. Photo © United States Air Force

Hibbard and Johnson's design combined a tricycle undercarriage and featured a 12 cylinder turbo supercharged Allison V-1710C engine in each boom producing 1,000 hp. Each engine was fitted with a counter-rotating propeller that rotated outwards from the cockpit, making it more stable and cancelling the effects of engine torque. It had two turbo-superchargers which muffled the exhaust making it remarkably quiet for a fighter and giving it good high-altitude performance, making it one of the earliest Allied fighters capable of performing at such altitudes.

On the 23rd of June 1937, The Army Air Corps awarded Lockheed with the contract and a year later construction of the first experimental prototype began. After six months of construction the prototype XP-38 was ready. It was then dismantled and covered in canvas to be secretly transported by three trucks to March Field, California where it went through testing. At the early stages of testing, it would suffer from brake failure and end up in a ditch but then finally on the 27th of January 1939 it made its maiden flight.

On 11th of February 1939, the US Air Corps approved a speed run from California to New York. The XP-38 took off flying from the west coast to the east coast, a distance of about 4000km. It completed the run in 7 hours and 2 minutes setting a new world record and the first military airplane to fly faster than 400 mph (640 km/h) in level flight. However, while on finals, it lost engine power, caused by carburettor icing and crash landed in a golf course, leaving the pilot unharmed but wrecking the plane.

An early, highly polished P-38 Lightning rolls out of the Lockheed hangar in Burbank, California, United States. Photo © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

However, it had impressed the army air corps enough for 13 more orders to be placed. After production delays due to Lockheed expanding its infrastructure as it was now moving from a small commercial manufacturer to a defence contractor with the P-38 and Ventura series of aircraft, the first production prototype had its first flight on the 17th of September 1940.

The 13th prototype was delivered in June 1941 at which time the Army Air Corps was renamed to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF),12 of these YP-38s were used for flight testing and the remaining one for Destructive Stress Testing.

The office of the P38. Note the yoke instead of a stick. Photo ©

Lockheed's end product was an extremely forgiving, high speed and high climb rate fighter. So it was no surprise that the P38 was in service from the very beginning of America's involvement in the war. Lightings flew over 130,000 sorties in the European theatre. In the Pacific theatre, it downed more than 1,800 aircraft, including the one that carried Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbour attack. Yamamoto, who was on a morale boosting tour over Bougainville, was killed in the attack.

A P38 on a high-level reconnaissance mission. Photo © USAF/

The P-38 was fast:- not only did it set a record of the first fighter to fly above 640 km/h, it later encountered undiscovered problems at high speeds because wind tunnels then couldn't simulate speeds as high as the P-38 could attain. It was an extremely flexible machine, capable of under-taking long range escort, night fighter, interceptor, pathfinder, reconnaissance and med-evac roles. P-38s captured about 90% of all aerial film taken over Europe. The top two American fighter aces, both Medal of Honour recipients, Richard Bong with 40 confirmed kills and Thomas B. McGuire with 38 confirmed kills flew P-38s.

The top two American fighter aces both flew lightnings. Photo © U.S. Air Force

The P-38 lightning proved Lockheed's brilliance. The companies "Skunk Works" has produced some of the most ground-breaking military aircraft such as the U-2 Dragon Lady, the SR-71 Blackbird, the C-130 Hercules and F-35 Lightning II, named in honour of the P-38.

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