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.
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.
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.
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.
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.