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Winged Lightning
January 1944 Popular Mechanics

May 1968 Popular Mechanics
May 1968 Popular Mechanics - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic over early technology. See articles from Popular Mechanics, published 1902 - 2021. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.


Winged Lightning

Ordnance crew servicing P-38's nose artillery - four .50-caliber machine guns and one cannon

More people in foreign lands have seen America's twin-tailed fighter plane than have Americans at home. Practically every new P-38 is flown or shipped to a theater of operation as soon as it gets its factory flight check.

Back from the fighting fronts are coming some remarkable stories about this two-motored fighter. In the South Seas a P-38 pilot flew his rugged plane into a Zero and right through it, scattering the Jap all over the sky, then returned to his base with only minor damage. In the same area another P-38 pilot after exhausting his ammunition deliberately used one of his propellers to saw the tail off a Zero. In fact, quick-eyed young American pilots gravely discuss the best way to use one propeller as a weapon in plane-to-plane combat, knowing that they can get back to base on the other engine.

Left, loading camera substituted for gun in practice maneuvers. The film from camera gun shows "hits"

In Africa when the pilot of a P-38 returned to his field with the tips of one propeller bent back and that engine shut down he explained that he had flown so low in strafing an enemy motor column that he had unintentionally dug one propeller into the ground. During that same campaign an-other pilot hit a telephone pole at such an angle that his plane flipped over on its back and went hurtling along upside down only a few feet off the ground. The pilot cautiously pushed his control wheel forward to "dive" the plane upward and gain some altitude, then rolled right side up again and returned home.

In high-altitude regalia, complete with oxygen mask and goggles, pilot is ready for takeoff. Below, P-38s in formation

Although the P-38 Lockheed Lightning was designed to operate at 35,000 feet or higher, it has also made a name for itself as a fighter-at tree-top height. It was designed as a pursuit and interceptor, yet on occasion it is now used as a tactical bomber and can carry a surprising bomb-weight under its wings. Even today its maximum top speed hasn't been published aside from the statement that during a dive the airplane enters the air compressibility range before it attains maximum velocity. One report is that a P-38 was dived at such a terrific speed that the leading edge of its wing was caved in by the pressure of the air.

Pilot's armament includes personal revolver, two demolition bombs, fragmentation bombs, cannon, and the four machine guns

Ordnance officer inspecting gun controls in P-38 cockpit. Button on arm of wheel fires 20-mm. cannon; button on back of wheel fires machine guns

This plane is so fast that from the ground the roar of its engines seems to come from half a mile or more behind it. At high speed its wing tips cut vapor trails in the atmosphere in making turns. Bullets from the plane's machine guns behave differently than when fired from a stationary point on the ground because their speed is the sum of their own muzzle velocity plus 65 percent of the plane's speed. The guns are sighted-in for flat trajectories.

Ordinarily an automatic cannon shoots out a long thin muzzle blast of flame when it is fired. On the P-38 this muzzle blast is compressed into a fat egg-shaped flame because of the plane's forward speed.

You don't climb into the cockpit of a P-38, rev up the engines, and take off the way you would in a basic trainer. This fighting plane is far more complicated and to fly it you must have a dozen times the knowledge, say, of a pilot of the first World War.

To begin with, even if you are inside a closed cockpit, you are bundled up so that not a square inch of your body is exposed. For a high altitude mission you wear a fur jacket, trousers, boots, and gloves in addition to your flying suit. Over all this goes your Mae West life jacket and over that your parachute. You put on a leather helmet with self-contained earphones and throat mike for the radio, and you wear rubber-padded goggles and a n oxygen mask. Strapped to your leg is a bail-out oxygen cylinder that you will connect to your face mask if you must leave the plane at high altitude.

There is a double purpose in covering yourself so completely. You need such protection against the cold at high altitude in spite of the cockpit heater. And you need to be completely covered if you are going into combat at any altitude. If an incendiary bullet should start a cockpit fire, your covering will protect you during the time you need to struggle free and escape from the plane.

Wearing all this gear, you just fit snugly into the seat. You are comfortable even though there's not much room for shifting around. The cockpit is so completely filled with instruments and equipment that small mirrors are fitted into the corners to permit you to read some of the dials on the instrument board.

Pilot climbs into plane dressed for sub-stratosphere where temperatures drop to 70 below zero and thin air lacks oxygen

You plug in your throat mike and earphones, hook on to the plane's oxygen supply, and adjust your seat belt. Now you throw the plane's master electric switch, turn on the radio, and push the but-ton for today's secret radio frequency. You open the fuel tank valves, turn on the booster pumps that fill the fuel lines, check the mixture controls and propeller governor settings, then prime the engines with straight shots of gas. The engines have been kept warm by the ground crew and you start them by winding up the inertia starters with the plane's batteries. You come back on the throttles to check plugs and magnetos, you glance at the fuel gauges, release the brakes, and move out to the runway.

There is still a lot to do before you begin your accelerated takeoff. When you get your okay from your flight leader or from the tower you roll forward a couple of feet to straighten your nose wheel, then pump up the brakes to hold the plane down while you run up the engines to the point where the superchargers cut in. In a sense you are building up flying speed while standing still, enabling the plane to hurl itself forward like a rocket the instant you release the brakes. But first there are still a few final chores to do. You check both sets of engine instruments; the settings of the control surface trim tabs, roll up the window and make sure that the cockpit hatch lock is secure, that the fuel pumps are on, and that the fuel valves are turned to the takeoff tank positions.

Student pilot gets a "piggy-back" ride in one-man P-38. The students are squeezed in for demonstration flights on the plane's radio shelf

All this sounds like half an hour's work but you have learned to do it in much less time than it takes to describe. It takes no more than a couple of minutes from the time the alarm siren sounds for you to be in the air.

The plane jumps to-ward the sky like a scared jackrabbit when you pull it off the runway. While close to the ground you realize that you are literally strapped to nothing more than the howling engines. At higher altitudes rough air jars as if you were riding a speed boat. In sharp turns you black out momentarily.

These pressed metal shells will be joined to form auxiliary gas tanks for the long range P-38s

To speed up their education an instructor takes student pilots on "piggy back" rides. The P-38 is a single seater but there is cramped room for a student behind the pilot's seat, on the shelf that holds the radio sets. On such a flight the instructor shows the student what to do when an engine is shot out, how he can trim the ship with the control tabs and handle it like a single-engine plane.

A P-38 pilot is not only a flier but a one-man army by himself. He may use more ammunition in a day than an infantry soldier may use during the whole war. Four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20-mm. cannon project from the nose of his ship. Under his wing he can carry a couple of demolition bombs as well as a cluster of anti-personnel fragmentation bombs. This armament equips him to attack enemy bombers or fighters, defend friendly bombers, or come right down to the ground and bomb and gun enemy installations.

There's one thing that puzzles a new pilot-his guns carry ammunition enough for only half a minute's shooting. But he soon learns that this ammunition is enough for a long fight. Because of his speed and the speed of enemy aircraft he can rarely keep a target in his gunsight for more than a fraction of a second at a time. He fires in short bursts. Some pilots have shot down half a dozen Japs on a single flight.




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