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Lockheed P-38 Lightning: The Best Fighter of World War II?

P-38
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was indeed the very first aircraft produced by Skunk Works and its iconic mastermind, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson.

I have written multiple stories on the aircraft originating from Lockheed/Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works program, and passing references to the World War II-era P-38 Lightning fighter plane pepper those pages. It is time to finally dedicate a story to the Lightning herself. After all, this was the plane flown by America’s Ace of Aces. 

Skunk Works Births Its First Baby

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was indeed the very first aircraft produced by Skunk Works and its iconic mastermind, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. As a quick aside, this P-38 is not to be confused with either the American P-38 GI Pocket Can Opener, or the German Walther P38 9mm semiautomatic pistol, both of which coincidentally also served during the Second World War. 

The Lightning made her maiden flight on Jan. 27, 1939, and it was officially introduced into operational service in July 1941. As noted by the official Lockheed Martin info page on this historic warplane:

“[T]he twin-boomed P-38 was the most innovative plane of its day, combining speed with unheard-of advances: two supercharged engines and a potent mix of four 50-caliber machine guns and a 20-mm cannon…Upon its official introduction in 1940, the P-38 was capable of climbing to 3,300 feet in a single minute and reaching 400 mph, 100 mph faster than any other fighter in the world. It also doubled as an intimidating long-range threat, capable of carrying a larger payload than early B-17s and boasting a range of 1,150 miles…Its versatility and ruggedness were legendary. It could sink a ship.  Strafed enemies on the ground. Crippled tanks. Destroyed entrenched pillboxes and shot down numerous fighters and bombers in all theaters of war.”

Lightning Strikes in the Pacific

The late, great Maj. Richard Ira “Dick” Bong, America’s “Ace of Aces” as mentioned above, scored all 40 of his aerial kills against Imperial Japanese aircraft in a Lightning. America’s second-place ace, Maj. Thomas B. “Mickey” McGuire Jr., also scored all of his victories — 38 of them, poetically enough — in a P-38. Tragically, neither of these heroes lived to see the end of the war. Mickey McGuire died over the Philippines on Jan. 7, 1945, while Dick Bong did manage to come home but was killed during a test flight on Aug. 6, 1945, the same day that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The tragic irony of Dick’s death was further compounded by the fact that it occurred when he was flying another Skunk Works project, the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. 

Most significantly from a strategic standpoint, the P-38 was the platform used to fatally shoot down Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a deathblow from which the collective morale of the IJN never truly recovered. As military aviation historian Don Hollway puts it, “In all of American history, the only equivalent is the operation that killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden. Yamamoto was no different from any officer caught in a sniper’s crosshairs – in uniform, on a combat mission, a legitimate military target. Today, when the enemy rarely wears a uniform, the debate centers on targeting terrorist leaders with remote-controlled drones. Few remember that the precedent was set 70 years ago, over the jungles of Bougainville.”

All in all, the P-38 downed more than 1,800 Japanese aircraft — with more than 100 of her pilots attaining ace status — thus making her the most statistically successful U.S. Army Air Forces fighter of the Pacific theater of WWII.

Superstar in the Pacific, B-List Celebrity in Europe

For various reasons, this same fighter scored only moderate success against the Luftwaffe in the European theater. Yes, a P-38 was the first American warbird to score a kill against a German adversary during the war, doing so against a Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor on Aug. 14, 1942. Yes, the Germans referred to the plane as “der Gabelschwanz Teufl,” the “fork-tailed devil.” And yes, it was a P-38 that enabled the legendary U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Col. Robin Olds to score the first two aerial victories of his storied career. However, the P-38 also struggled to adapt to the climate of Europe. As described by Col. Olds himself and by the late, great aviation author Robert F. Dorr, himself a USAF veteran:

“‘I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it,’ Olds recalled. ‘The fact is, the P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.’ It was, Olds hastened to add, ‘the most beautiful plane of our generation.’ And it fought well in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. So what happened in northern Europe, and how could things have gone so wrong?…The P-38 performed usefully but suffered from a number of problems. Its Allison engines consistently threw rods, swallowed valves and fouled plugs, while their intercoolers often ruptured under sustained high boost and turbocharger regulators froze, sometimes causing catastrophic failures…Arrival of the newer P-38J to fill in behind the P-38H was supposed to help, but did not help enough. The J model’s enlarged radiators were trouble-prone. Improperly blended British fuel exacerbated the problems: Anti-knock lead compounds literally seethed out and became separated in the Allison’s induction system at extreme low temperatures. This could cause detonation and rapid engine failure, especially at the high power settings demanded for combat.”

Where Are They Now?

The USAF officially retired the P-38 in 1949, but the fighter remained in service with the Honduran Air Force until 1965. The Lightning’s proud legacy is carried on in name by a current Skunk Works project, the F-35 Lightning II. As for the original Lightning, out of the 10,037 total airframes produced, 26 of them survive today, and in turn 10 of those are airworthy. Among these airworthy Lightnings are Skidoo, a P-38J variant at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, and Glacier Girl, a P-38F with Lewis Air Legends in San Antonio, Texas. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). 

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    August 3, 2022 at 11:22 am

    Beautiful plane. I bet it is a joy to fly in the right climate conditions. Always will be 1 of my favorites next to the A10 and F14.

  2. Alison Beer

    August 3, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    Mosquito, much better.

  3. Andrew M. Winter

    August 3, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    If you want the best most detailed account of the P-38 from all perspectives you should read this book by Martin Caiden, who got his start as an aviation history author as the Unit Historian for Fifth Air Force just after World WarII.

    This was my copy. I need to order a new one. I loaned it out and it never came back.
    https://www.amazon.com/Fork-Tailed-Devil-P38-Martin-Caidin/dp/0345024249/ref=sr_1_3?crid=184BX1HX7UPE2&keywords=The+Fork+Tailed+Devil&qid=1659542892&sprefix=the+fork+tailed+devil%2Caps%2C89&sr=8-3

    Fabulous Book, covers every aspect of this beast from inception to hundreds being scrapped just prior to the Korean War.

    Truly truly a great airplane. The only organization that didn’t like it was Eighth Air Force, and his detailing of that debacle is an eye opener. The jist of that mess was that if 8th had “freed the fighters” when they had the earlier 38s they could have achieved everything they got from that tactic in 43 instead of having to wait for Doolittle to free the fighters in 44.

    It had the legs. In 43 it was the only 400 mph fighter in business, at least till the later 190s and mustangs showed up, and at lower altitudes and warmer weather it just ate things alive. According to Caiden fifty of them could and did alter the air war an entire theater of operation.

  4. Steven

    August 3, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    Ever since I was a kid building models, the P-38 was always my favorite. Must have been a gas to fly that hot rod!

  5. Andrew M Winter

    August 3, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    Oh I almost forgot. If you would like to try you hand at flying the P-38 this, very old school flight sim has it.
    https://www.hitechcreations.com/index.php

    The software is free. There are offline missions you can download and fly for free that will let you fly three variants of the 38, the G, J, and L.

    The learning curve is steep, in that the 38 is a complicated machine and you really need to learn how to use the flaps in combat to make it dance. But dance it will. Joystick is really needed, cheap ones work well so long as they have a twist rudder control.

    The graphics are dated. But the flight models are the best that anyone has come up with for World War II aircraft.

    If you go backwards to Aces High II, which you have to find elsewhere, there is a LAN mode that allows you to fly with friends, otherwise you need to study how to set up your own arena, which is also a freebee.

    They make thier money, or used to, on supscriptions. Membership is very low right now, but back in the day hundreds of players would be on in a massive three way “capture the flag” style of arena play.

    But you can fly the 38 there plus over 60 other WWII types.

  6. Tomb

    August 3, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    Nope, not best dogfighter.
    Hard at turning and roll with
    2 engines…
    My vote there is f8 bear cat.

    Notes
    1 could and did cross the atlantic !!!
    2 cost about twice cost of mustang
    3 I think it has too many bulges.. See Italian sm.91 for much much cleaner design.
    4 anyone know how many pilots were saved by having 2 engines ?

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