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The P-38 Lightning

A beautiful shot of a beautiful aircraft - the Lockheed P-38 Lightning!

This was one hot bird for its day.

Even today it is still a special aircraft.  I have long had an affection for this big twin engined World War II fighter aircraft.  It was big.  It was heavy.  It packed an awesome amount of firepower.  It was maneuverable and it was fast.  Blisteringly fast.  The prototype of this aircraft set a world speed record on one of its first flights back in 1939.  This was as high tech as it got back then.

It was also a handful.  The P-38 was an intimidating airplane to fly for most of its pilots.  You either learned to master this big beast or you would remain forever at its mercy.  A lot of pilots in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) never did learn who to properly fly this bird.  As a result it was never particularly popular in European skies.  In the Pacific however, things were different.  The pilots there did learn how to truly work this machine and they got the best results from it.  America's all time leading ace, Richard E. Bong, got his forty kills flying a P-38.  In the right hands, this was a true aerial killing machine.

The trick to flying this aircraft right was to stay on top of it and use both of its engines.  Most other fighters of the day were single engine machines.  The P-38 was a twin engined fighter.  That made it highly unusual.  It also doubled the power plant management complexities that its pilots faced.  A lot of guys tried to ignore that and simply treated both engines as one.  That was their mistake.  It did simplify things in flying this complex a machine but it also denied these pilots some of the inherent advantages that come with having two power plants to manipulate.

The pilots who got the most out of this aircraft realized you could do some amazing things with those twin engines.  By advancing the throttle on one of the engines and retarding the throttle on the other you could drive the airplane into a high power turn.  Today this is called "thrust vectoring" and is done by manipulating the exhaust from the jet engines of today's fighters.  It is so complex that it requires computer control to fully integrate into the flight control system.  Back then it was just a careful hand on the throttles.  It could be done however and a number of pilots did just that.

The Allies learned early on that their two main aerial foes, the Nazi's Me-109 and the Japanese Zero, were more maneuverable than most Allied aircraft.  To get into a dog fight with these nimble little airplanes would be to invite certain death to the Allied pilots.  The word came down that no Allied pilot should engage either of these Axis aircraft below 10,000 feet, where they were particularly maneuverable, and that dogfighting should be avoided in general with these aircraft.  They could turn inside most Allied fighters and then shoot them down.  Such was the standard approach.  Not with a P-38.

By using the thrust vectoring technique and extracting the unique advantage of being a twin engined fighter, a skilled P-38 pilot could engage in a turning dog fight with either a Me-109 or a Zero and come out ahead.  The P-38 pilot would simply pull into a sharp turn and begin climbing within it.  This is the most particularly difficult thing to do while turning.  Most aircraft lose speed in a turn and having to climb while turning kills that speed even faster.  Lose too much speed and your aircraft can't stay in the air.  It then stalls and loses falls back towards the ground.  A skilled P-38 pilot would suck an adversary into this type of turn and start climbing up.  With proper use of his throttles he could pull his turn ever tighter and climb ever more.  A few go 'rounds of this and the bad guy following him would have lost so much airspeed that he would have to break off or else stall his aircraft.  When he did then break off he would be in a perfect position for the P-38 pilot to reverse onto him and blow him out of the sky.

That brings up another advantage of the P-38; its guns.  Because the P-38 had its engines in pods out on the wings, this left its nose free for other uses.  As this was a fighter aircraft, that meant it could be filled with guns - and filled it was!  Four .50 caliber machine guns were put in the nose along with a 37mm canon.  That is a heft battery of firepower and its effect was magnified by the fact that all of those weapons were right along the centerline of the aircraft.  In most other fighters the guns were placed out in the wings where there was space for them.  This meant that if they shot straight forward they wouldn't hit anything truly critical on the opponent's aircraft.  So the wing guns were set to an angle which pointed them inward.  This angle was such that their fire would converge on a point some distance ahead of the aircraft.  This meant that if you were pursuing another aircraft that you had to be right at that exact distance away from it in order for you fire to hit it.  Too far away and the bullets would cross behind the other plane and pass harmlessly on either side.  Too close and much the same thing would happen.  Not so with the P-38.

Because the P-38's guns were up in the nose, there was no need to set any convergence angle.  The guns just fired straight ahead.  This made aiming them a piece of cake.  All you had to do was point the nose of your Lightning at the enemy and open fire.  Adjusting your fire was just as easy.  Many a pilot reported it was like spraying a garden hose, you just walked the stream over until you hit what you wanted.  This sort of simplicity of operation was just what a fighter pilot needed in the heat of battle.

Unfortunately that simplicity of firepower wasn't matched by the simplicity of operating and maintaining this aircraft.  With two engines it was twice the maintenance load of a single engine fighter.  Also, the aerodynamics of the P-38 produced some unique airflow problems at high speeds.  This took the form of vibrations due to the turbulence hitting the tail that the rest of the aircraft generated from simply passing through the air ahead of it.  This was serious enough that is snapped the entire tail off on several P-38's.  It took several years of difficult engineering before this problem was fully solved.  That didn't slow the aircraft's being deployed however.  There was a war on you know.  In the interim various other stop-gap measures were tried and pilots we warned not to operate their aircraft at such high speeds in such angles and at such altitudes.  Fine advice in peace time but rather difficult to adhere to in combat when you are trying to survive.

Another difficulty that the P-38 encountered was fuel problems.  This was an unexpected culprit and it had unexpected problems.  The P-38 J is the case in point.  Technically speaking, the J model was the most advanced and most powerful.  It incorporated a number of refinements and it should have been a hands down winner.  It was Stateside but once deployed in the ETO it became problematic.  The engines wouldn't put out their stated horsepower.  This left the high speed fighter without enough power to run at those very high speeds.  Even worse is when those engines just up and quit.  Figuring out why this was the case was extremely difficult and the US Army Air Corps did its best to do so and do so fast.  Eventually they determined that it was the specific type of high octane fuel that was used in England, where the new P-38's were based.  It was of sufficiently high octane all right but the problem came in the manner in which it was refined.  Stateside fuel used a different process which didn't leave any lead buildup on the spark plugs and kept the P-38's engines running well.  The fuel used in England wasn't made with that process and it fouled the spark plugs.  When the fouling occurred the engines lost horsepower and when it got bad enough the engines quit altogether.  By the time the Allies figured this out the war in Europe was about over.

Life in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) was very different.  There was no indigenous fuel supply or refining capabilities there.  All the fuel had to come from the US.  That meant that it all used the same refining process and there was no problem with it fouling the engines.  That is one of the reasons P-38's did so well in the PTO when compared to the ETO.  Another reason was the nature of the fighting.  Most combat in the Pacific took place at low to medium altitudes.  The Japanese simply didn't have the turbosupercharger technology to boost their aircraft's engines to operate sufficiently at high altitudes.  So, they were rarely ever flying at those heights.  This contrasts sharply with European air combat which was mostly at 20,000 feet or better.  At least the strategic portion of it.  The P-38's had some problems at those altitudes in their early models.  The cooling system couldn't cope with the cold temperatures at those altitudes.  Strangely enough this meant that the P-38's engines ran colder than they should have and that robbed them of horsepower.  Also, the early model P-38's didn't have an adequate cabin heating system.  This meant that the cockpit windows could fog over with frost.  That was not a good thing.  Since the dawn of aerial combat one its maxims has been: "lose sight, lose fight."  If all you can see out of your cockpit is the ice which has formed inside it then you have some big problems when it comes to fighting enemy fighters.

At the lower altitudes and higher temperatures encountered over the Pacific none of these problems affected the P-38's.  In that theater the P-38 came into its own.  It had a speed and altitude advantage over the Japanese which US pilots used at every opportunity they could.  This allowed them to engage and disengage combat at will.  They would climb above the Japanese aircraft and then dive down when they were in the best position to attack them.  Once they passed through the Japanese formations the P-38's would simply keep going and use their superior speed to get away from the Japanese fighters.  Once far enough away, the P-38's would climb back to a higher altitude and repeat the process.  The Japanese really didn't like fighting P-38's.  In the right hands and in the right setting the aircraft was a winner.

Another factor which endeared the P-38 to its PTO pilots was its twin engined reliability.  The guys in the ETO liked this as well but it was not as much of a life saving thing as it was over the Pacific.  Over Europe you were usually flying over land.  If you lost your engines in an aircraft over those skies you stood a good chance of still living through the experience.  The twin engines there might give you enough of an edge if you lost one to make the difference between having to bail out over enemy territory or limping along far enough to bail out over Allied controled territory.  In the PTO it was different.

Almost all fighting there was over the mighty Pacific.  In Europe you could at least walk home if you had to bail out.  In fact, no few downed Allied pilots did just that.  They simply hid in the countryside and walked out of German controled lands.  Once down in the Pacific it was a lot harder to swim home.  Those twin engines could mean the difference in not just avoiding being captured but in living or dying.  True, when a pilot lost one engine in a P-38 he was in a lot of trouble.  That aircraft was designed to fly with two engines not one.  It could fly with one engine, and it was very impressive to watch a skilled pilot like Tony LeVere do aerobatics on a single engine in a P-38, but it put an enormous strain on that single engine as it did all the work keeping the big and heavy P-38 airborne.  However, with a lot of attention and some luck a pilot could nurse his P-38 a considerable distance on that one engine.  In some cases that was far enough to get back to an Allied airstrip.  In other cases it was enough to get it close to an Allied ship.  At the least it would get him out of the area he had just fought in.  That in itself was a very good thing because every pilot knew another one of those dictums of aerial combat: "never bail out over a target you just bombed!"

One other thing about how well the P-38's did in the Pacific when compared to the ETO was the popularity they enjoyed there versus that of the P-51 Mustang.  In Europe the Mustang was THE fighter airplane which everyone loved.  It was fast and it was beautiful.  It was highly maneuverable and had few of the problems which plagued the P-38's.  It was also perfectly suited for the long range, high altitude escort fighter missions needed to protect the US bombers over Nazi skies.  In the PTO things were different.  The Mustang was still a "hot ship" and enjoyed a number of advantages over Japanese fighters.  However, combat in the PTO took place at altitudes too low for all of the P-51's advantages to be fully felt.  That plus it was a single engine machine.  If that one engine was shot out or failed during a mission, then you had no margin of safety that the P-38 did with its twin engines.  During the long over water escort missions Mustang pilots had to deal with this thought constantly.  A lot of them yearned to be doing their jobs in the relative safety of the P-38's.

I personally like the P-38 because it was such a powerful and complex machine.  I like powerful and complex machines.  When you add the fact that the P-38 was also a fast and lethal, powerful and complex machine that was also beautiful then I really like it!  The P-38 reflected the state of the art in aerodynamic designs for the reciprocating engine period.  Aircraft designers had begun to perfect what you could accomplish with airplanes driven by piston engines turning propellors.  A few years later, turbojet engines came along and openned new frontiers for designs and things changed once again.  So, for its engine technology, the P-38 was about as good as it will ever get.  That is also one of the reasons I like it.

There aren't a whole lot of P-38's left in the world.  There are a lot of factors in this.  One is that most of them got used up in the war.  If they weren't shot out of the skies or crashed into the ground then their structures and systems were physically worn out through their be flown so much and so hard.  Also, technology changed quickly after the war.  The Jet Age came in and came in fast.  At a stroke, all piston engined fighters were rendered obsolete by the much faster jets.  This meant that there was little place in post war militaries for this particular type of piston engined fighter.

There was a place in the immediate postwar era for piston engined fighters in the air forces of countries that couldn't afford the new jets.  However, the P-38 didn't match that particular need very well.  Its twin engines were once again its biggest problem.  While the major nations might have the depth of resources to afford fielding an aircraft that took roughly twice the maintainence resources as a single engine machine, most other nations could not.  True, you got a uniquely capable aircraft that could do a number of other tasks that a single engined machine could not.  However, pound for pound, it made more economic sense for these countries to buy single engine machines in greater numbers than the fewer P-38's that they could afford for the same amount.  This sort of cold economics also drove the Post War Years air races as well.  P-38's were "hot ships" but they simply cost too much to operate to justify economically when they were going up against surplus P-51's and Corsairs.  As a result, all but a handful of the surviving P-38's went into the scrap heap and were cut up for the metals in their airframe.  Today only a very few P-38's still survive and even fewer of those are still flying.




Living in San Diego I am lucky enough to be near an annual airshow which features World War II Warbirds.  Among these is a P-38 which is based here in Southern California.  It was this aircraft which inspired me to create this page.  The photos I took of it were that intriguing.  Like a lot of aircraft, the need to create an aerodynamic structure for the aircraft winds up yielding a physical creation which is more akin to a abstract sculpture than a machine.  This is especially true for the  P-38 due to its unique twin boom layout and late 1930's aerodynamic styling.

The Joltin' Josie in flight I wish I was the guy who had taken this shot!  Instead, I lifted this image off of the "P-38 Lightning: Online" site.  That is an excellent resource for more information about this fantastic aircraft.

While this might not be my photo, it is a good photo of the same plane, Joltin Jose, which I was lucky enough to catch on the ground at a Wings Over Gillespie airshow a couple of years back.

This is one of the aircraft maintained by the Planes of Fame Air Museum out in Chino, California.

Just about every angle you look at this machine it seems like it is completely different.

In this view you can see that there is a lot going on here.  This is a left side view which shows the left tail boom, left main landing gear, and one of the two engine cooling radiators. 

The Joltin' Josie at rest

You can also just make out the top of the turbosupercharger (just above and forward of the US insignia) as well as the bubble canopy in the center pod.

Right side view of the Joltin' Josie Here is a view from the other side.  Lots of curves and lots of streamling too!  That, plus a whole lot of rivets!
This is a view from almost directly behind the aircraft. 

The object running across the picture in the foreground is the horizontal tailplane of the aircraft.  The wings are actually ahead of it.  Right in the middle there is the cockpit.

Joltin' Josie from the back

That blurry thing sticking up in the foreground is a mass balance horn.  In order to minimize the forces needed to control this aircraft, the designers sought to balance the controls.  It was better to do this through their layout but sometimes you had to add weights and sometimes those weights had to be outside of the aircraft.

A part of the P-38's unique profile Aside from its unique twin boom layout, another quick way to tell the P-38 from other aircraft was its rudder.  More accurately, its vertical stabilizer and rudder.  The eliptical lines of this were very unique.

It always amazes me to see how different engineers in the same field can come up with such vastly different answers to the same engineering requirements - and see them work just as well as somebody else's.

This tailplane is a case in point.  It works just as well as the more angular tailplanes of its contemporaries yet it is very different in its shape.  These sorts of curves were much more in vogue back in the 30's and fell out of fashion come the 40's. 

Aside from being functional, I think it ads a bit of visual flair to the machine.  Form and function.

Lotsa plumbing in there!

How'd You Like to Have to Maintain This Engine?


That is a lot of plumbing in there!  And this is only the left side engine - all of this is duplicated over there on the right side too!  This sort of thing amazes me.  Not just that people could maintain such a piece of complexity but also do so in the most primitive and brutal conditions.  Yet that is exactly what the maintenance crews did day in and day out.  P-38's operated where the fighting was and that usually meant in some of the most miserable and poorly equipped places on the planet.  Places where the ground crews were usually covered in mud, freezing their fingers, and trying to keep their planes running in the face of wind and rain and snow.  Either that or broiling in the sun, choking on the dust, and having to put up with all sorts of diseases and such that comes with being out in the wilds.  That plus fighting for what spare parts were available.  Not an easy task even when the other guys aren't trying to kill you!

A beauty shot of a beautiful aircraft


I thought I would finish with this "beauty shot" of another P-38 that is still flying.  It is a P-38 L that is owned and operated by the Museum of Flying up in Santa Monica.  Perhaps one of these days they will fly it down for the Gillespie airshow and I'll get some more shots of it then.  For now this is a pretty enough picture of a truly beautiful aircraft.



P-38 Lightning: Online This is an excellent website packed to the gills with information about the P-38.  I highly recomend it.
Eric Scholten's P-38 Lockheed Lightning page This site does something unique in that it lists all the remaining P-38's and who has them.  Pretty handy!

As you might have guessed by now, I have a lot of knowledge about airplanes.  I also have a lot more pictures of them to put up here.  All that it will take to get them here is a few nights of just me and my scanner.  When I get some more of such nights I'll be putting up more images here.  So, stay tuned!

If you would like to know more about me, then ask me directly.  Just click on my email address here:
email me

In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed your "stay" at this site.  Check back again to see what new images I have added.  Until then, stay well, play hard, play safe, and have fun!


This page was last updated on: 27 February 2003  

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and images on this page are copyright protected property of Madoc Pope.  If you would like to use any of my images you must contact me first before you do so.



In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed your "stay" at this site.  Check back again to see what new images I have added.  Until then, stay well, play hard, play safe, and have fun!