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The P-38 - Best of the Twins
April 1971 American Aircraft Modeler

April 1971 American Aircraft Modeler

April 1971 American Aircraft Modeler - Airplanes and Rockets Table of Contents

These pages from vintage modeling magazines like Flying Aces, Air Trails, American Modeler, American Aircraft Modeler, Young Men, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, R/C Modeler, captured the era. All copyrights acknowledged.

A lot has been written about Lockheed's venerable P-38 Lightning. It was one of the most frightening sights and sounds in the skies of Europe and the south Pacific during World War II. Frightening for Axis power fighters, that was. For the Allies, it was one of the most comforting. Like most military aircraft built in the era, their airframes and engines were not designed to last for more than a few years. So surviving examples of these airplanes are both rare and expensive to procure and to own. For the vast majority of people - myself included - the closest we can ever hope to get is a flying scale model. Here is a little more information to add to your collection of trivia and photos of the P-38 Lightning. The incredible Bjorn Karlström provided the 4-view drawing.

The P-38 - Best of the Twins

Don Berliner

Although all of the WW II twin-engined fighters left something to be desired, the Lockheed lightning did just about everything a military airplane could do.

The P-38 - Best of the Twins - Airplanes & RocketsThe twin-engined fighter was a phenomenon of World War II. It offered speed, range, versatility, dependability, firepower and a host of other wonderful qualities. But it had one major flaw: it didn't work very well.

The Germans tried it with the Messerschmitt 110, and the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes quickly covered the English countryside with pieces of them. The British tried it with the Mosquito, which worked, but the Mossy was supposed to have been a light bomber. The Japanese tried it with several impressive machines but were too late.

Of all the enthusiastic efforts, Lockheed's P-38 Lightning probably came the closest to success, although it suffered from some of the same drawbacks as did the others, mainly a lack of maneuverability due to size. With a wingspan of 52 feet and empty weight of more than 14,000 lbs., it dwarfed the Focke-Wulf 190 (span 34 1/2 feet, empty weight 7000 lbs.) and the Zero (span 36 feet, empty weight 4000 lbs.).

 - Airplanes and RocketsBiggest advantage of the P-38 was a center pod configuration which allowed concentrated firepower without converging fire.

By World War II, a fighter's cockpit was a far cry from the simple instrumentation of WW I - Airplanes & Rockets

By World War II, a fighter's cockpit was a far cry from the simple instrumentation of WW I. Almost 10,000 Lightning fighters were built.

Twin tail booms allowed excellent streamlining of the engine - Airplanes & Rockets Twin tail booms allowed excellent streamlining of the engines while eliminating a useless rear fuselage. Note the turbosupercharger on the top of each boom.

But for all its size, the Lightning did practically every job assigned to it with a high degree of effectiveness. To make up for its limited maneuverability, it offered outstanding diving and climbing speed, very heavy concentrated firepower, and the safety of an extra engine. It was the first American aircraft to shoot down an enemy plane after the U.S. entered the war, and it was the first American aircraft to land in Japan after it was all over. Almost 10,000 were built, and they did just about everything that a military airplane can do.

The story began in 1937, when the USAAC announced its interest in a high-altitude interceptor. Convinced that no single available engine would produce the needed power, Lockheed's chief designer Hal Hibbard decided to use two of the brand-new 1000-hp, V-12 Allison V-1710 engines. After considering all sorts of arrangements, the veteran firm picked the twin boom set-up because the center pod would allow a group of guns to be aimed directly ahead instead of with converging streams of fire, and the booms would allow excellent streamlining of the engine nacelles without the need for a bulky and useless rear fuselage.

Construction began in June, 1937, and the extremely radical fighter was rolled out for its first flight in January, 1939, almost three years before the U.S. entered the Second World War. Just two weeks after the first test flight, Lockheed jolted the country with a cross-country dash from California to New York in seven hours, including two stops for fuel. Despite its size and the fact that its test program had hardly begun, the P-38 cruised near 400 mph, at a time when the USAAC's main pursuit plane, the Curtiss P-36 Mohawk, could barely top 300 mph.

Even though the prototype was washed out when it hit a ditch on landing at the end of its sensational speed run, 13 YP-38's were ordered for tests. Before that order had been completed, the situation in Europe had become so serious that 66 more were ordered and the P-38 was on its way. Its competitors in the USAAC competition for a fast interceptor had flopped. The runner-up Grumman XP-50 (similar to the F5F Skyrocket) crashed on its first flight, while Bell's radical twin-pusher FM-1 Airacuda lacked all sorts of important qualifications.

The P-38, the first really modern fighter ordered by the Army, featured efficient turbosuperchargers buried in the tail booms, opposite-rotating propellers to counteract torque and P-effect (a technique first used in the Wright Flyer, but somehow forgotten), and generally superb streamlining. More important was its so-far-unrealized potential to accept an amazing variety of modifications without slowing down. The interceptor was about to become a fighter, a bomber, a photoplane, a cargo and troop transport, an air ambulance and a glider tug.

When the U.S. entered the war, fewer than 75 P-38's were on hand, but at least they were in production, while the other types which were to play such important roles - the P-47 and P-51 in particular - were still being tested. The only other fighters then being built for the Army were the Bell P-39 and the Curtiss P-40, neither of which was up to the standards of performance being set in Europe by the Messerschmitt and Focke- Wulf, or in the Pacific by the Zero.

The first really combat-ready P-38 to be delivered was the P-38D, the first of which appeared in August, 1941, with four .50 cal. machine guns and a huge 37 mm. cannon in the sleek nose. This model was quickly followed by the P-38E which carried a smaller 20 mm. cannon and thus set the pace for all those which were to follow. A low point in the history of the Lightning was reached when the first one ordered by the RAF arrived in England. Lacking the turbosuperchargers and the opposite rotations of the propellers, its performance was understandably poor, and the airplane was rejected and sent home.

Not until late 1942 did the airplane hits its stride with the P-38F, first model to see action in quantity. Power of its Allison engines had been increased from 1150 hp to 1325 hp, raising the top speed firmly over the 400 mph mark. Versatility now came into the picture. With drop tanks, its range stretched well over 2000 miles. With the streamlined tanks removed, it could carry 2000 lbs. of bombs. With all armament removed and cameras installed, it became the world's fastest, longest ranging reconnaissance airplane.

Dog-fighting was not the Lightning's specialty, yet it had its greatest success in the Pacific against the light, maneuverable Japanese aircraft. Its concentrated guns simply overwhelmed the lightly built and poorly protected Japanese fighters and bombers, and its great ability to climb and dive enabled it to break off the battle whenever it was in danger of being out-maneuvered. Its finest hours came in service with the 5th Air Force during the island-hopping campaign to clear out the strings of enemy bases. The two top American aces of the war - Richard Bong with 40 kills and Thomas McGuire with 38 - both flew P-38s with the 5th AF.

As long-range P-47's and P-51's gradually took over the escort duties of the P-38, other tasks were created for it. The graceful curves of the fighter nose were replaced by the awkward lines of the hastily created "droop snoot" versions which carried a navigator on special long distance missions, or a bombardier to do the precision work for a large formation of standard P-38's. Others carried special large tank-like containers under the wings, in which not only spare parts but ground crews were transported. Similar pods were used to carry a pair of stretcher cases, each, in the ambulance version.

As radar became more effective, the night fighter grew in importance and all sorts of modifications to standard types were hurried along. One of these was the two-seat night-fighting P-38M, with a bulge in the rear part of the canopy to clear the head of the radar operator, and a bomb-like radar device hanging under the nose. It looked awful, but worked well and flew almost as fast as the clean versions. This was the final modification of the P-38 to see action.

When the war ended, the P-38 continued on, though in a somewhat what changed role. Hundreds were placed on sale as surplus for the disgustingly low price of $1500 for a low-time, late-model Lightning. More were sold to returning GIs than any other type of fighter because of their reputation for doing so many things well. No fewer than 19 showed up for the 1946 Cleveland Air Races, 15 of them starting in the Bendix Transcontinental Race from Los Angeles, and four entered in the pylon events. They were expected to shine in the 2000-mile Bendix, but Mustangs took the first four places. They weren't expected to do much around the pylons, because of their size, but Lockheed test pilot and pre-war racer Tony LeVier beat all the Mustangs to finish second in the classic Thompson Trophy Race. He was at Cleveland mainly to do a sensational aerobatic routine in his P-38L which foreshadowed by many years Bob Hoover's great single-engined and dead-stick work in the Shrike Commander.

Others bought P-38's for more practical reasons, and the type was common for many years throughout the Americas as a high-altitude photo-mapping aircraft. One occasionally still sees them in the classified ads of Trade-A-Plane, but time has a way with old airplanes, and the newest P-38 is now more than 25 years old. Still, there are a few in the air. Two showed up in the September, 1970, Reno Air Races (N25Y and N38LL) and a third in the California 1000 race at Mojave in November, and there is one up around Seattle which flies in shows.

If you want to take a close look at a Lightning, there are P-38L's in the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio; Harrah's Museum in Reno, Nev., and Ed Maloney's Museum in Ontario, Calif. The Confederate Air Force has a P-38L with P-38H nacelles, while the Smithsonian has a P-38J in storage.

P-38 Lightning Specifications and Performance - Airplanes & Rockets

Specifications and Performance


  • XP-38 - prototype first flown Jan. 27, 1939
  • YP-38 - 13 service test-built, 1940-41; first one flown Sept. 16, 1940
  • XP-38A - 1 production model with pressurized cabin, converted in 1941
  • P-38B - never built
  • P-38C - never built
  • P-38D - first production version; 36 built in 1940-41
  • P-38E - 210 built in 1941; P-38D with modified armament
  • P-38F - first major operational version; 527 built in 1941-42
  • P-38G - similar to P-38F; 1082 built in 1942
  • P-38H-increased bomb load; 601 built in 1942-43
  • P-38J-first version with large chin scoops; 2970 built in 1943
  • XP-38K - 1 P-38J with larger propellers, modified in 1943
  • P-38L - 3923 built in 1943-45; 1887 more cancelled at end of war
  • RP-38 - at least one built with second cockpit on left tail boom
  • TP-38L - two·place trainer
  • P-38M - 75 P-38L's modified into two place night fighter
  • XP-49 - experimental high-altitude version with pressure cabin, 1350 hp Continental XIV-1430 engines
  • F-4 - 99 P-38E's converted to camera planes in 1942
  • F-4A - 20 P-38F's converted to camera planes in 1942
  • F-5A - 181 P-38G's converted to camera planes in 1942
  • F-5B - 200 P-38G's converted to camera planes in 1943
  • F-5C - 128 P·38H's converted to camera planes in 1943
  • XF-5D - 1 two-seat F-5A
  • F-5E - 705 P-38J's and p-38L's converted to camera planes in 1944
  • F-5F - P-38J's converted to camera planes in 1944
  • F-5G - P·38L's converted to camera planes in 1945
  • P-322 - Lockheed factory designation for early P-38
  • Lightning I - 143 built for RAF; re· turned to U.S. for training
  • Lightning II - 524 intended for RAF, but never delivered; similar to P-38G

P-38 4-View - Airplanes & Rockets

P-38 4-View

<click for larger version>

Don Berliner Articles:
Björn Karlström Drawings:



Posted April 28, 2012

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