World War II: P-38 Lightning

Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Specifications (P-38L):


  • Length: 37 ft. 10 in.
  • Wingspan: 52 ft.
  • Height: 9 ft. 10 in.
  • Wing Area: 327.5 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 12,780 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 17,500 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 2 x Allison V-1710-111/113 liquid-cooled turbo-supercharged V-12, 1,725 hp
  • Range: 1,300 miles (combat)
  • Max Speed: 443 mph
  • Ceiling: 44,000 ft.


  • Guns: 1 x Hispano M2(C) 20 mm cannon, 4 x Colt-Browning MG53-2 0.50 in. machine guns
  • Bombs/Rockets: 10 x 5 in. High Velocity Aircraft Rocket OR 4 x M10 three-tube 4.5 in OR up to 4,000 lbs. in bombs

Design & Development:

Designed by Lockheed in 1937, the P-38 was the company's attempt to meet the requirements of the US Army Air Corps' Circular Proposal X-608 which called for a high-altitude interceptor capable of 360 mph and reaching 20,000 ft. within six minutes. Competing against designers from Bell and Curtiss, Hall Hibbard and Kelly Johnson at Lockheed produced a radical design that was unlike any previous fighter. Believing that two engines were necessary to meet the USAAC's requirements, they created an aircraft that placed the engines and turbo-superchargers in twin tail booms.

The cockpit and armament were located in a central nacelle connected to the tail booms by the aircraft's wings. Powered by a pair of 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines, the new aircraft was the first fighter capable of exceeding 400 mph.

Designated the Model 22, Lockheed won the USAAC's competition on June 23, 1937. Moving forward, Lockheed built the first prototype which was named the XP-38. Flying for the first time on January 27, 1939, the aircraft achieved fame when it set a new cross-continent speed record the following month after flying from California to New York in seven hours and two minutes.

Based on the results of this flight, the USAAC ordered 13 aircraft for further testing. Production of these fell behind due to the expansion of Lockheed's facilities and the first aircraft was not delivered until September 17, 1940. That same month, the USAAC placed an initial order for 66 P-38s. As testing progressed, problems with compressibility stall were noticed when the P-38 entered steep dives at high speed. Engineers at Lockheed worked on several solutions, however it was not until 1943, that this problem was completely resolved.

Operational History:

With World War II raging in Europe, Lockheed received an order for 667 P-38s from Britain and France in early 1940. The entirety of the order was assumed by the British following France's defeat in May. Designating the aircraft the Lightning I, the British name took hold and became common usage among Allied forces. The P-38 entered service in 1941, with the US 1st Fighter Group. With the US entry into the war, P-38s were deployed to the West Coast to defend against an anticipated Japanese attack. The first to see frontline duty were F-4 photo reconnaissance aircraft which operated from Australia in April 1942.

The next month, P-38s were sent to the Aleutian Islands where the aircraft's long range made it ideal for dealing with Japanese activities in the area.

On August 9, the P-38 scored its first kills of the war when the 343rd Fighter Group downed a pair of Japanese Kawanishi H6K flying boats. Through the middle of 1942, the majority of P-38 squadrons were sent to Britain as part of the Operation Bolero. Others were sent to North Africa, where they aided the Allies in gaining control of skies over the Mediterranean. Recognizing the aircraft as a formidable opponent, the Germans named the P-38 the "Fork-Tailed Devil."

Back in Britain, the P-38 was again utilized for its long range and it saw extensive service as a bomber escort. Despite a good combat record, the P-38 was plagued with engine issues largely due to the lower quality of European fuels. While this was resolved with the introduction of the P-38J, many fighter groups were transitioned to the new P-51 Mustang by late 1944.

In the Pacific, the P-38 saw extensive service for the duration of the war and downed more Japanese aircraft than any other US Army Air Force fighter.

Though not as maneuverable as the Japanese A6M Zero, the P-38's power and speed allowed it to fight on its own terms. The aircraft also benefited from having its armament mounted in the nose. Unlike fighters with wing-mounted guns, the P-38 did not need to set its guns to converge at a given range. This meant that P-38 pilots could engage targets at a longer range, sometimes avoiding the need to close with Japanese aircraft. Noted US ace Major Dick Bong frequently chose to down enemy planes in this fashion, relying on the longer range of his weapons.

On April 18, 1943, the aircraft flew one of its most famous missions when 16 P-38Gs were dispatched from Guadalcanal to intercept a transport carrying the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, near Bougainville. Skimming the waves to avoid detection, the P-38s succeeded in downing the admiral's plane as well as three others. By the end of the war, the P-38 had downed over 1,800 Japanese aircraft, with over 100 pilots becoming aces in the process.


With the US Air Force moving into the jet age after the war, many P-38s were sold to foreign air forces. Among the nations to purchase surplus P-38s were Italy, Honduras, and China. The aircraft was also made available to the general public for the price of $1,200. In civilian life, the P-38 became a popular aircraft with air racers and stunt fliers, while the photo variants were put into use by mapping and survey companies.

Selected Sources