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The Lockheed P-38 Lightning: Strange but Deadly Design

WWII

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning: Strange but Deadly Design

The most astonishing looking common aircraft of World War II was arguably the twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

The most astonishing looking common aircraft of World War II was arguably the twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

by Brooke C. Stoddard

Contrary to most other planes designed and used in World War II, Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning had twin booms ending in vertical stabilizers and rudders. The pilot sat in a span between twin engines, nothing behind him but air until the horizontal stabilizer connected the booms at the rear.

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The Story of the Lightning

The story of the P-38, which was in production all through World War II—possibly the only plane so honored—and which flew in every theater of the war, goes something like this: In the late 1930s, the U.S. Army Air Corps saw the need for a high-altitude interceptor fighter with speed, firepower, and range. Because propeller aircraft engines were coming to the peak of perfection beyond which they might not proceed much farther, the idea flourished that two was better than one.

There were plenty of two-engine planes then, of course, but the idea of the twin booms was, according to Gil Cefaratt, who worked at Lockheed in 1944 and founded the P-38 National Convention in 1986, less drag and the fact that landing gear could be braced in the engine compartments and not in the wings proper. In fact, the P-38 was the first fighter with “tricycle” landing gear, that is, wheels mounted on the nose and two engines without one at the rear. This allowed the craft to take off and land with its tail about as high as its nose.

Strength vs. Manuverability

The two engines also reflected the fact that the U.S. military was keen on “heavy” aircraft, those with armor that would protect the pilot and other equipment that would make them effective in combat. The Japanese relied on stripping their fighters such as the Zero to the bare necessities. Consequently, Zeros could maneuver well—they could out-turn P-38s and most other aircraft—but caught fire more quickly when hit and far more often took their pilots down with them.

The P-38 did not have a “joy stick” for the pilot, but something more akin to a steering wheel. Its propellers spun in opposite directions. This, of course, meant that the torque created by one propeller was negated by that of the other. Thus the pilot would not have to struggle against torque as he accelerated the aircraft for takeoff. In 1939, the P-38 broke a speed record for transcontinental flight.

Richard Bong: P-38 Fighter Ace

Lloyd Curtis, who also worked at Lockheed during the war, points out that the P-38 offered difficulties when the pilot had to bail out: He was in danger of hitting the horizontal stabilizer. A remedy for this was eventually a pilot’s seat that was ejected from the cockpit, a forerunner of today’s versions. Other measures, says Cefaratt, included putting the plane into a stall, crawling out on the left wing and jumping, or inverting the aircraft and falling out (hoping the fighter would not loop around and smash you seconds later).

The pilot who was most successful in the P-38 was Richard Bong, the United States’ most accomplished fighter ace. Between December 27, 1942, and December 17, 1944, he shot down 40 Japanese planes, still a U.S. record. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and twice was pulled from combat owing to the psychological impact on both sides should be he killed by the Japanese. Bong is thought to have been so successful in P-38s due to eye/hand/foot skills gleaned from a young manhood handling large farm machinery in rural Wisconsin.

The two engines of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning also reflected the fact that the U.S. military was keen on “heavy” aircraft, those with armor that would protect the pilot and other equipment that would make them effective in combat.

The Bong World War II Heritage Center

He preferred to climb and then dive down on Japanese planes, or to rise up swiftly beneath them—and to come so close before shooting that he often flew through the explosive wreckage. He was killed at age 24 in California on the day the Hiroshima bomb was dropped while testing Lockheed’s first jet fighter.

The Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center opens in September 2002 in Superior, Wisconsin. On display, of course, will be a replica of “Marge,” Bong’s exquisite P-38.

Add Your Comments

3 Comments

  1. Anatolio Cruz Jr
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Your posts are always significant historically and accurate. Worthwhile reading and review.

  2. Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    One of the most notable accomplishments of the P-38 was the long range mission to shoot down the man who planned Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto.

  3. Horace Wynn
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    My Children’s step-Grandfather “Fred Kuykendall” whom I had the privilege of spending many days with before his passing recently flew the P-38 “Black Widow” version from an island in pacific running missions to Japan at wave top level. He didn’t get into much detail but the respect he had for the P-38 and the joy he had flying it was well expressed. He was atypical of the WWII fighter pilots being a classy gentleman every day of his life. I am saddened at his passing and the world was a better place because of “men” like him. Such an example to follow. Being a Vietnam career Army vet myself I could only marvel at the bravery shown by these men…a breed so rare. God Bless his soul and heaven now has amongst it’s angels a man above men…a man to protect them…a WWII P-38 Pilot !!!.

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