World War II: P-38 Lightning

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

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was an American fighter used during World War II. Possessing an iconic design that placed the engines in twin booms and the cockpit in a central nacelle, the P-38 saw use all theaters of the conflict and was feared by German and Japanese pilots. The first American fighter capable of 400 mph, the P-38's design also allowed it to engage targets at a longer range than most of its adversaries. While the P-38 was largely supplanted in Europe with the arrival of the P-51 Mustang, it continued to be used extensively in the Pacific where it proved the US Army Air Forces' most effective fighter.


Designed by Lockheed in 1937, the P-38 Lightning was the company's attempt to meet the requirements of the US Army Air Corps' Circular Proposal X-608 which called for a twin-engine, high-altitude interceptor. Authored by First Lieutenants Benjamin S. Kelsey and Gordon P. Saville, the term interceptor was intentionally used in the specification to bypass USAAC restrictions regarding armament weight and number of engines. The two also issued a specification for a single-engine interceptor, Circular Proposal X-609, which would ultimately produce the Bell P-39 Airacobra

Calling for an aircraft capable of 360 mph and reaching 20,000 ft. within six minutes, X-608 presented a variety of challenges for Lockheed designers Hall Hibbard and Kelly Johnson. Assessing a variety of twin-engine planforms, the two men finally opted for a radical design that was unlike any previous fighter. This saw the engines and turbo-superchargers placed in twin tail booms while the cockpit and armament were located in a central nacelle. The central nacelle was 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. To eliminate the issue of engine torque, the design employed counter-rotating propellers. Other features included a bubble canopy for superior pilot vision and the use of a tricycle undercarriage. Hibbard and Johnson's design was also one of the first American fighters to extensively utilize flush-riveted aluminum skin panels.

Unlike other American fighters, the new design saw the aircraft's armament clustered in the nose rather than mounted in the wings. This configuration increased the effective range of the aircraft's weapons as they did not need to be set for a specific convergence point as was necessary with wing-mounted guns. Initial mockups called for an armament consisting of two .50-cal. Browning M2 machine guns, two .30-cal. Browning machine guns, and a T1 Army Ordnance 23 mm autocannon. Additional testing and refinement led to a final armament of four .50-cal. M2s and a 20mm Hispano autocannon.  

A YP-38 Lightning in flight.
YP-38 Lightning. U.S. Air Force


Designated the Model 22, Lockheed won the USAAC's competition on June 23, 1937. Moving forward, Lockheed commenced building the first prototype in July 1938. Dubbed the XP-38, it flew for the first time on January 27, 1939 with Kelsey at the controls. The aircraft soon 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 on April 27.

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. The YP-38s were heavily redesigned to facilitate mass production and were substantially lighter than the prototype. Additionally, to enhance stability as a gun platform, the aircraft's propeller rotation was changed to have the blades spin outward from the cockpit rather inward as on the XP-38. As testing progressed, problems with compressibility stalls were noticed when the aircraft 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.

Lockheed P-38L Lightning


  • 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

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 American 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 Forces 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 as it meant that P-38 pilots could engage targets at a longer range, sometimes avoiding the need to close with Japanese aircraft. Noted American ace Major Dick Bong frequently chose to down enemy planes in this fashion, relying on the longer range of his weapons.

A silver P-38 Lightning fighter flying over mountains
A P-38L Lightning over California in 1944.  U.S. Air Force

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.


During the course of the conflict, the P-38 received a variety of updates and upgrades. The initial model to enter production, the P-38E consisted of 210 aircraft and was the first combat ready variant. Later versions of the aircraft, the P-38J and P-38L were the most widely produced at 2,970 and 3,810 aircraft respectively.

Enhancements to the aircraft included improved electrical and cooling systems as well as the fitting of pylons for launching high velocity aircraft rockets. In addition to a variety of photo reconnaissance F-4 models, Lockheed also produced a night fighter version of the Lightning dubbed the P-38M. This featured an AN/APS-6 radar pod and a second seat in the cockpit for a radar operator. 


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.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: P-38 Lightning." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). World War II: P-38 Lightning. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: P-38 Lightning." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).