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Lockheed P-38 Lightning heavy fighter

Written by Sakhal

The two engines of the Mitsubishi G4M2 buzzed regularly that morning of April 1943. At the controls a veteran expert piloted the aircraft with particular attention. He knew that he had aboard an exceptional passenger, Admiral Yamamoto, who was in his way to inspect some bases. Until that moment the flight had been tranquil. The escort of Zeros seemed to ensure the safety of the illustrious passenger against any danger, when unexpectedly six strange silhouettes appeared in the sky. We do not know if the pilot of the bomber had chance to see them, but if that were the case he could immediately understand which aircraft they represented, because of being so characteristic. The escorting fighters immediately rushed against the agressors, but not even the excellent Zero could do much against the P-38 Lightning that were attacking them. Maneuvering desperately they managed to shoot down one of them, but this did not prevent the others from accomplishing their mission: to kill the most renowned Japanese strategist. But which was this aircraft and why had been it chosen for this particular mission?

The history of the P-38 started in 1936, when the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had ordered to the aeronautical industry a fighter of extraordinary prestations. Among these, for example, a maximum speed not lesser than 580 kilometers/hour. Thinking that the two best fighters of that time, the Spitfire and the Me Bf 109, reached respectively 571 and 550 kilometers/hour, was enough to be discouraged, and so were all of the companies requested except the Lockheed, which started to examine all the possibilities, even the less orthodox ones, to solve the problem. Meanwhile, to start, it was decided to equip the aircraft with two propulsion plants, two powerful Allison V-1710 of 1150 horsepower each one. Naturally, it appeared the constructive problem of the fuselage, which was solved by dispensing with it and prolonging the fairing of the engines in a twin tail boom united by a long horizontal stabilizer. The pilot was placed, along with the fore landing wheel and the armament, in a strongly armored cell placed in the center of the wing.

The armament comprised four 12.7-millimeter machine guns and a light cannon, initially of 23 millimeters and later of 20, everything installed in the nose. Hence, the concentration of firepower was impressive. However, despite the aircraft being product of the most advanced concepts and refined aeronautical techniques, it was not a perfect machine. It was gifted with high speed, but its maneuverability, in respect of the single-engined fighters, was rather low. This and other inconveniences made this aircraft to be adored and feared at the same time by the pilots. For example, in the maneuver recommended to abandon the aircraft, it had to be effectuated an inversion so the pilot, once the canopy was opened, could drop down himself to avoid the danger of being cut in half by the long tail plane. Despite of all, the P-38 was the aircraft that in the Pacific downed more Japanese aircraft than any other. Entering service in July 1941, the "Lightning" showed itself as an excellent polyvalent fighter, fighting in every front until the last days of the war. Total production for all the versions reached 9393 units.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning heavy fighter

Lockheed P-38 Lightning heavy fighter

Specifications for prototype XP-38

Projectist: Technical team directed by H. L. Hibbard and C. L. Johnson

First flight: 27 January 1939

Wingspan: 15.85 meters

Wing area: 30.43 square meters

Length: 11.53 meters

Height: 3.91 meters

Weight (empty): 5220 kilograms

Weight (full load): 6993 kilograms

Engines: Allison V-1710-11 of 1150 horsepower each one

Time to reach 6096 meters of altitude: 6 minutes 30 seconds

Service ceiling: 11582 meters

Maximum speed: 665 kilometers/hour

Operational range: N/A

Armament: One 23-millimeter cannon and four 12.7-millimeter machine guns

Offensive load: N/A

Early versions

The first operative version, P-38D, entered service in August 1941, achieving its first victory in August 1942, when shooting down a Fw-200 over the Atlantic, operating from bases in Iceland. In the late 1942 arrived to Britain the two first groups from the USAAF equipped with it; however they took no combat action in this theater of operations, being transferred in the late year to the 12th Air Force in North Africa. Later it was used by the 15th Air Force in this same theater. In the Pacific it started to serve in the late 1942 as well. Several P-38G based in Guadalcanal intercepted and destroyed the aircraft Mitsubishi G4M transporting Admiral Yamamoto, near the island Bougainville, about 1600 kilometers far from their base.

Development record

The prototype XP-38 was armed with one Madsen 23-millimeter cannon and four Colt-Browning 12.7-millimeter machine guns. The test model YP-38 was a modification of the XP-38 armed with one Oldsmobile 37-millimeter cannon, two 12.7-millimeter machine guns and two 7.7-millimeter machine guns; 13 units built. The initial series model P-38 was fitted with an engine Allison V-4710- 27/29 and armed with one 37-millimeter cannon and four 12.7-millimeter machine guns; 30 units built. The model XP-38A was a conversion of a P-38 with pressurized cockpit. The model P-38D was a modification from the P-38 with modified tailplane and self-sealing fuel tanks; 36 units built. The model P-38E was like the P-38D but with the 37-millimeter cannon replaced by a Hispano 20 -millimeter cannon; 210 units built. The model P-38F was like the P-38E but fitted with different engines and tropicalized; some of them converted into training two-seaters; 527 units built. The model P-38G was like the P-38F, fitted with engine V-1710-51 or 55; possibility to carry 900 kilograms of bombs; 1082 units built. The version P-322 were training aircraft of the USAAF; 140 units retained from a British order. The F-4 and F-4A were unarmed versions for photographic reconnaissance; modifications from the P-38E (99 units) and the P-38F (20 units), respectively. The version F-5A were 181 P-38G equipped for photographic reconnaissance. The version F-5B was like the F-5A but fitted with heat exchanger (200 units). The model Lightning I was the equivalent to the P-38 in the RAF, fitted with engine V-1710-C15 of 1040 horsepower, without supercharger; 143 units ordered and only three of them tested in Britain, with the rest being retained by the USAAF to be converted into trainers P-322. The model Lightning II was the equivalent to the P-38F/G in the RAF; 524 units ordered, 495 built, all of them retained by the USAAF.

Specifications for P-38F

Type: Fighter/long-range fighter-bomber

Wingspan: 15.85 meters

Wing area: 30.43 square meters

Length: 11.53 meters

Height: 3 meters

Weight (empty): 5563 kilograms

Weight (full load): 8165 kilograms

Engines: Allison V-1710-49/53 of 1250 horsepower each one

Time to reach 1500 meters of altitude: 1 minute 48 seconds

Service ceiling: 12000 meters

Maximum speed at 1500 meters of altitude: 560 kilometers/hour

Operational range: 684 kilometers (3098 kilometers with supplementary tanks)

Armament: One Hispano 20-millimeter cannon and four Browning 12.7-millimeter machine guns installed in the nose

Offensive load: 908 kilograms of bombs

Late versions

The P-38J and P-38L, which were the most numerous variants of the Lightning, entered service, respectively, in 1943 and 1944, being widely used in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. The ones belonging to the 8th and 9th Air Forces based in Britain took part in the first mission to bomb Berlin, and also in multitude of ground strikes. Some units were fitted with a glazing prow to accommodate a bombing post with a sight (Droop-snoot) and others with a radar (Pathfinder). The great operational range of the P-38 was ideal for the geographical situation in the Pacific, taking part in every mission during 1944-45. The night fighters P-38M entered service during the last weeks of the the war. The F-4 and F-5, the most numerous among the reconnaissance ones of the USAAF, served in every theater. After the war they were used by France, Honduras, Italy and Nationalist China.

Development record

The model P-38H was a modification from the P-38G, fitted with engine V-1710-89/91 of 1425 horsepower, with improved supercharger and increased bombs load; 601 units built. The model P-38J was an improved P-38H with different configuration for the radiators; the last 1400 with increased fuel capacity; 2970 units built. The P-38K was the version for high altitude converted from the P-38J. The model P-38L was like the P-38J but fitted with engines V-1710-111/113 of 1600 horsepower and rockets under the wings; 3810 units built by Lockheed and 113 by Vultee. The model P-38M was the two-seater night-fighter fitted with radar ASH, converted from the P-38L. The TP-38M was a training version converted from the P-38L. The F-5C was a conversion from the P-38H for photographic reconnaissance (128 units). The F-5D was a F-5A converted into two-seater. The F-5E and F-5G were conversions of the P-38J and P-38L for photographic reconnaissance (more than 705 units).

Lockheed P-38 Lightning heavy fighter

Lockheed P-38L Lightning (number 210) "Rickie Boy" from the 18th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force, Zamboanga (Mindanao), Philippines, June 1945. Used in bomber escort missions in the South China Sea, taking part in attacks against Borneo, French Indochina and Formosa. Fuselage in natural metal, unpainted, with distinctives of the group/squadron in clear blue and side panel in red squares.

Specifications for P-38H

Wingspan: 15.85 meters

Wing area: 30.43 square meters

Length: 11.53 meters

Height: 3 meters

Weight (empty): 5615 kilograms

Weight (full load): 9028 kilograms

Engines: Allison V-1710-89/91 of 1425 horsepower each one

Time to reach 1500 meters of altitude: 2 minutes

Service ceiling: 13500 meters

Cruising speed: 465 kilometers/hour

Maximum speed at 7600 meters: 665 kilometers/hour

Operational range: 483 kilometers (3862 kilometers with supplementary tanks)

Armament: One Hispano 20-millimeter cannon and four Browning 12.7-millimeter machine guns installed in the nose

Offensive load: 908 kilograms of bombs or 10 rockets under the wings

Article updated: 2015-07-10

Categories: Aircraft - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-05-29

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