Lockheed P-38J Lightning

This big fighter is generally considered third best of the Army Air Force fighters in World War II.  No doubt it is very distinctive, and has a pretty high “cool” factor!


After the jump, Lockheed’s deadly twin.

In the mid to late 1930s many countries experimented with, and developed twin, or “heavy” fighters.  It was felt only a twin could have the range for deep penetration or escort missions.  In almost every case this effort proved misguided.  Germany’s famous Bf110 was fast but clumsy. It usually came up second best against single engine fighters of the era. Other countries had similar experiences.

"California Cutie" has quite a scoreboard; trains, fighter sweeps, bombing missions.  But no kills.

“California Cutie” has quite a scoreboard; trains, fighter sweeps, bombing missions. But no kills.

Two 1000 lb bombs under the wings.  That's a lot of ordnance for a fighter.

Two 1000 lb bombs under the wings. That’s a lot of ordnance for a fighter.

Uniquely in the US, twin engine development went a little differently.  While other countries were using twin engines to increase payload, and thereby range; Lockheed made it all about speed and rate of climb.  This was encouraged by the U.S. Army Air Force who felt their long range Bombers were mostly capable of taking care of themselves thanks to better defensive properties.  This lead to problems later with the US strategic bombing campaign, but it was almost entirely good news for the Lightning.  It resulted a very effective twin engine fighter.


Putting the Lightning in its proper perspective can be a little tricky.  I think it’s a mistake to compare it too much with Thunderbolts or Mustangs.  Those were both later designs, and more modern in significant ways.  The Lightning is more a contemporary of the Airacobra and Warhawk.  It was a more advanced design than either of those types, and required a longer development period, but that was the idea.  This led to it entering widespread service a little later; early 1943, when Warhawks were predominant, Airacobras were considered a mistake, and Thunderbolts were still half a year from wide service.

This layout is distinctive.  There's no excuse for friendly fire accidents with a Lightning!

This layout is distinctive. There’s no excuse for friendly fire accidents with a Lightning!

I think from this perspective it is easier to appreciate the Lightning for what it was.  It was the best American fighter available for six months. It had certain strengths, like high speed, high rate of climb, long range, twin engine reliability, very high maneuverability (the tightest turning radius of any American fighter according to Army Air Force testing), and centrally concentrated fire power; that made it an important and valuable type all the way to the end of the war.  In particular, it would be the most popular mount among many pilots serving in the Pacific who valued those two engines for long over-water flights.  The top two American aces of all time (Richard Bong & Tom McGuire) scored all their kills in the P-38.

Those big superchargers on the top of each nacelle are what was needed to get high altitude performance from an Alison V-1710.

Those big superchargers on the top of each nacelle are what was needed to get high altitude performance from an Allison V-1710.

It is really a credit to a sound design that it can be compared favorably to the next generation of more advanced aircraft at all.  But it had weaknesses too.  The most attention often goes to “compressibility”.  Basically, this is about how aerodynamics change as an airfoil approaches the speed of sound.  The fairly old style wing shape of the Lightning combined with its high power and high diving speeds led to serious problems, including several fatal crashes.  Many combat pilots seemed to feel this problem was exaggerated because of findings in flight testing that didn’t come up so often in combat.  The later Thunderbolt had these problems at higher speeds than the Lightning, and the Mustang, with its advanced laminar flow wing, delayed the problem farther yet.

Reflective ovals on the inside of each nacelle give the pilot a visual indicator for his landing gear position.

Reflective ovals on the inside of each nacelle give the pilot a visual indicator for his landing gear position.

The biggest issue for the P-38 really came down to supply and maintenance.  As a complex aircraft, it needed a well equiped and supplied base to keep up with it.  This was notably a problem in the CBI where many commanders felt the type was too big a drain on their resources to be worth the trouble.  Surprisingly it also became a major concern in Britain, for a less obvious reason.  Many complex arrangements existed in the very close Anglo-American global operations.  One of them, was that in Britain, the British supplied the fuel.  Fair enough. But British fuel was less refined than American.  Sturdy radial engines don’t mind.  And gee, Mustangs using British designed engines were fine with that.  But it turns out the combination of Allison engine and the P-38’s superchargers were pretty finicky about what they drank.  This caused serious reliability problems.


This example is from the Hasegawa Kit with Aeromaster decals.  It was assigned to the 20th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force in England.  It is shown here in full invasion stripes indicating its service in the first couple weeks after D-Day.  P-38s were in high demand at this point, since their distinctive outline was felt to decrease the risk of friendly fire accidents.

But they would shortly be phased out.  It was decided that the 8th Air Force would switch to all Mustangs, while the tactical 9th Air Firce wanted all Thunderbolts. Lightnings would serve out of Italy, and in the Pacific to the end of the war.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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4 Responses to Lockheed P-38J Lightning

  1. Theresa says:

    This was the ultimate fighter for a time.

  2. Ernie Davis says:

    Very interesting Dave. I was always a fan of the Lightning but didn’t know a lot of the history of the design. One thing I believe was true that you didn’t mention was that the two engines were counter-rotating. This had both plusses and minuses. On the plus side it was a very stable and forgiving aircraft. On the minus side losing one engine meant it was not.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah loosing an engine is always tough in a twin (unless its a tandem like the Do 335) just having all that torque, way off center. If you had a P-38 with a full load (and therefore at full power) loose an engine on take-off, the pilot would really have his hands full.
      One interesting aside I didn’t get into was the Lightning Mk I bought by the British had neither supercharger nor handed engines. It apparently was underwhelming AND had lousy handling in all conditions. It was so bad, when the British refused delivery of the order, the Air Force re-engined them with counter-rotating engines before even using them as trainers!

      I think the P-38 leads to an interesting “what if” too. With drop tanks, it had nearly the same operational range as the Mustang. As it turned out, so many issues came up with the Lightning operating from England (bad gas, not enough “ceiling” to actually provide top cover to the bomber stream, inadequate cockpit heat for Northern European conditions). But none of those issues were insurmountable, and most Lightning deficiencies had been fixed by the “J” model. So its really not hard to imagine a scenario where the P-38’s problems might have been addressed a little more quickly; and the Lightning might have been the Mighty Eighth’s escort fighter supreme.
      Okay, I think the Mustang really was a little better in almost every way. But I can easily imagine a lot more P-38s ending up on escort duty through 1944 than were actually used. (Only two fighter groups, the 20th and 55th, through 1944, until they switched to Mustangs).

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