Lockheed P-38 Lightning
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Lockheed P-38 Lightning

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Introduced in 1940 with full scale production starting in September, 1941 just a couple of months before Pearl Harbor, the P-38 became one of the most important combat planes of the war with more than 10,000 being produced. The first extensive use of the plane was in North Africa in November, 1942 attacking German ground positions and holding its own against the German planes. In September, 1943, P-38’s were sent to air bases in England where it had the range to escort bombers on runs to German factories and military positions.
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P-38 Lightning
Pilot climbing aboard a P-38 at the Army Field in Chico, California. Click on image to enlarge.

A Radical Departure from Traditional Design

In 1937, the Army contacted leading manufacturers to specify the plane they needed. It would have to reach a top speed of 360 mph and be able to run at full power for an hour. It would have to be capable of reaching an elevation of 20,000 ft. in 6 minutes or less. Unlike Boeing, Curtiss, and Douglas, Lockheed did not have a lot of experience with military aircraft but felt confident they could come up with a winning design. The Lockheed design team concluded that a single engine plane could not meet the speed and power requirements and came up with a twin boom separated from the pilot fuselage. The booms provided ample room for both engines and turbo chargers.
The separate central fuselage made it possible to place heavy armament in the nose. A 20 mm cannon and four .50 cal. machine guns gave the P-38 enough fire power to do real damage. And central guns were more efficient than wing-mounted guns that had to be aimed at a slight angle to converge on a distance point dead center ahead of the pilot.

The plane had a lot of problems in its early production, especially with engine failure. One engine could shut down, leaving the pilot to try to jockey the plane with the remaining engine. This problem caused a number of crashes, especially if it happened on take off.

Most of the P-38’s design flaws were fixed before the plane saw production in large numbers. And pilots were taught the proper technique for dealing with a stalled engine.
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Lockheed P-38 Lightning
USAF Photo
Click on image to enlarge.

Earning its Nickname

The following is from the current Lockheed Martin web site:

“When Lightning Strikes”

“The pilot in a new American fighter, the P-38 Lightning, peeled down from the skies over Iceland on August 14, 1942. “

“True to its name, the P-38 was akin to a force of nature: fast, unforeseen, and immensely powerful.”

“The aircraft’s target, was a German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor patrol bomber. Its crew had never encountered anything quite like it before.
“With its distinctive design, the P-38 was sleek but its twin tails gave the Lightning  a radical new look. The pilot, pumping 409 rounds per minute from its nose-mounted machine guns,  dispatched the Condor in seconds, marking the first successful American engagement of a German aircraft during World War II.”

“Its versatility and ruggedness were legendary. It could sink a ship. Strafed enemies on the ground. Crippled tanks. Destroyed entrenched pillboxes and shot down numerous fighters and bombers in all theatres of war.”

For more on this plane and other great Lockheed Martin planes visit the company’s web site: https://www.lockheedmartin.com

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
P-38 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH. Below: Air Corps photo of P-38 cockpit
Click on image to enlarge
P-38 cockpit
P-38 ammunition belt
Above: Pilot checks the ammunition belt for the 20mm M2 machine gun in the nose of the P-38.
Above: Lockheed's upgraded P-38 assembly line that moved the plane on a mechanized path as parts were added, making it the first aircraft production to work the way automobiles were assembled. Click on image to enlarge
P-38 Basics

Length: 37 ft. 10 in.
Wingspan: 52 ft.
Weight: 17,500 lbs loaded
Max Takeoff Weight: 21,500 lb
First Flight: January 27, 1939
First Service in USAAF: ________
Number Built: 10,037
Top Speed: 414 mph
Range: 1,300 miles
Cruising Speed: 275 mph
Ceiling: 40,000 ft.
Crew: Pilot
Power: Two Allison V-1710 1,475 hp inline engines
Armament: Four .50 cal machine guns, one 20 mm cannon, 4,000 lb bomb capacity (2 x 2,000 lb bombs or 6 500 lb. bombs) … or two 1,000 lb drop tanks to increase range.
Allison V-1710 aircraft engine

The Allison V-1710 Aircraft Engine

Based on an aircraft engine first designed in 1930, the Allison went through a number of improvements leading up to and during World War 2. The V-1710 is the version that was used for early North American P-51 Mustangs, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, and the Bell P-39 Airacobra as well as the P-38. The Mustang did not find it stride until the Allison was replaced with a version of the Rolls Royce Merlin, but the thing about the P-38 is that unlike the other pursuit planes, the Lightning had TWO of them.
This is a massive 12-cylinder engine in a V configuration. The designation 1710 refers to the total number of cubic inches in the cylinders generating 1,345 horsepower. Automobiles at that time were typically powered by engines with 100 hp or less. One of the things that made the P-38 so stable was that the two engines had opposite propeller shaft rotation to maintain a balance of torque. While carrier-based Naval planes and multi-engine bombers used radial engines, most of the Army Air Corps planes had inline engines, which were more streamlined, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the Vought Corsair being two notable exceptions.
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Ruth Daley, Women Airforce Service Pilots

Women Air Force Service Pilots

At Left: Ruth Daley of the Woman Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) is cheerfully climbing into the cockpit of a P-38. It would be a mistake to believe that only the men of this country wanted to do their part to defeat the Axis Powers. While women in those times were not allowed in combat roles, many were not afraid to jump in wherever they could. Think of the number of nurses who volunteered to go to front to care for the wounded.
Despite the obstacles, over 25,000 women applied to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and just over a thousand were accepted and trained. They had prior flying experience but needed training in the military planes. During the war, these women flew a total of 60 million miles in every type of military plane, from the fast Mustang to the large bombers.

Click on the photo of Ruth Daley to see it larger.
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Richart Bong, Thomas McGuire
Majors Richard Bong (left) and Thomas McGuire, November 15, 1944, in front of a P-38. Between them, they shot down a total of 78 Japanese planes flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Neither of these two young men would be alive a year later.

America's Top Two Aces of the War

Major Richard Bong

returned home for leave in the fall of 1943 when he met his future wife Marjorie. He had already shot down 25 enemy planes. Back in the Pacific, he named his P-38 "Marjorie," and shot down another 15, bringing his total of confirmed kills to 40, making him the number one "ace" of the war, and earning him a medal of honor. All of his victories had been accomplished at the helm of a P-38. After returning home for good and getting married to Marjorie, Bong served as a test pilot flying the new Lockheed P-80 jet fighter. On August 6, 1945, the same day as the bombing of Hiroshima, Richard Bong was killed when the P-80 flamed out on take-off. Bong was born in 1920 to a Swedish immigrant father and grew up on a farm in in Wisconsin. In high school, Bong played baseball, basketball and hockey. He played the clarinet in the marching band. He had become fascinated with flight as a boy and took flying lessons in 1938 before enlisting in the Army Air Corps. He was just 25 when he died. In his short life he had served his country way beyond the call of duty and earned a distinguished place in American history.

Major Thomas McGuire

was also born in 1920. He grew up in Florida and enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology but left before graduating to join the Army Air Corp in July, 1941, about half a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor that got the U.S. into the war. During his service in he Pacific, he rose to the rank of Major and ultimately shot down a total 38 Japanese planes, making him the number two ace of the war. Thomas McGuire was killed in a dog fight in January of 1945 at the age of 24. He had also married on leave and left behind Marilynn Geisler, another young war widow.

The domain name for this site is Great American Planes. It should be Great American Heroes, and it would be a very, very big web site. It is important to remember that young men went to war, not just planes. And while the story of these two heroes has been told, thousands and thousands of other stories are not a great deal different. Thousands of young men, fell in love, got married, and left behind their beloved wives to grieve forever.
A Personal Note,

As the creator of this web site, I have decided to take the liberty of adding a couple of very personal thoughts here. I guess it's my prerogative. When I look at the photo of these two young Americans who did so much for their country and did not live to see their 26th birthday, I think about how young that is… several years younger in fact than my granddaughter. When she was in high school, she also played the clarinet in the marching band. I went to see her in the town parade on Columbus day. I had to turn away from the crowd for fear people would notice my tears of pride.

Another note: My dad served in the North Atlantic and in Guadalcanal during the War, and he came back alive. He was one of the lucky ones. If you think about that, I would simply never have existed if my dad had been one of the unlucky men who lost their lives. When I count my blessings, that is a pretty good place to start counting.

One more thought: Americans celebrated the 78 enemy planes shot down by these two flying aces. I hope you won't think it unpatriotic of me to remember that 78 Japanese mothers would be left grieving, never to see their sons again, never to know their would-be grandchildren. I believe that Americans did what had to be done, and when the war was over, we celebrated — not because of the foes we had killed, but because the killing was over.
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