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Classic Wings: The P-38 Lightning

The P-38 Lightning was the classic of its era. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, every kid who wanted to be a pilot dreamed of being in the cockpit of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a silvery pursuit ship with a sleek, futuristic look.

“In my mind, the P-38 was the most beautiful thing I ever laid my eyes on,” said retired Lt. Gen. Winton W. “Bones” Marshall. “I saw a P-38 in a movie newsreel. My father took me to an Army airfield and I got to see a real P-38 taking off, sleek and streamlined and beautiful. It was the newest and the greatest.” Marshall flew P-38s in Panama in 1945 before becoming a Korean War air ace during the jet era.

P-38 Lightnings

The P-38 Lightning became an icon during World War II. Lockheed Martin photo

Today, developing a new fighter is a multibillion-dollar business. In the Great Depression 1930s, decisions about new fighters were made at Wright Field, Ohio, by a first lieutenant, Benjamin Kelsey. In 1937, Kelsey had a key role in defining a requirement for a new pursuit plane that would have a speed of 400 miles per hour and the ability to climb to 20,000 feet in six minutes. Fighters with these capabilities were flying in Britain, Germany, and Japan, but not in the United States.


In June 1937, the Army Air Corps ordered a single XP-38 test ship from Lockheed. Kelly Johnson’s design team came up with a twin-engined, twin-boomed aircraft “that looked like the space ships being flown by Buck Rogers in the Saturday movie serials,” said Warren M. Bodie, author of P-38 Lightning in a 2004 interview.

At March Field, Calif., on Jan. 27, 1939, Kelsey made the first flight of the new plane. It was a false start.

Just after takeoff, vibrations shook the plane. The flaps – wing surfaces designed to provide lift and slow the aircraft during takeoff and landing – were moving up and down, out of control. Kelsey solved that problem by retracting the flaps. This meant he would have no flaps for landing and would land at high speed. Observers in a chase plane, a Ford Tri-Motor, assured Kelsey that everything looked all right. It was later learned that control rods connecting the pilot to the flaps had broken. Kelsey made a “hot” landing after 34 minutes, unharmed.

Richard Bong

Richard Bong in the cockpit of his P-38 Lightning. Bong scored 40 aerial victories during World War II while flying the Lightning. U.S. Air Force photo

After minor teething troubles that included the loss of the prototype, the P-38 Lightning became the only U.S. fighter that was in production at the start of World War II and at the end. Lockheed and other companies manufactured 10,037 Lightnings. The two top U.S. aces of the war, Majors Richard Bong (40 aerial victories) and Thomas McGuire (38 victories), flew P-38s. Lightnings carried out the long-range Pacific mission that killed Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. Lightnings excelled in the Pacific, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, but did less well in northern Europe, in part because the cockpit was never properly heated. In The Mighty Eighth, Roger Freeman wrote:

“At 26,000 feet over Germany, pilots shivered in bitterly cold cockpits, flying conditions were unusually bad, and the probability of mechanical troubles at that temperature did not help.”

Of P-38 pilots, Freeman wrote, “Their hands and feet became numb with cold and in some instances frost-bitten; not infrequently a pilot was so weakened by conditions that he had to be assisted out of the cockpit upon return.” The only source of heat in the cockpit was warm air ducted from the engines far out on the wings, and it was little help.

Still, there were successes. On Sept. 16, 1944, 2nd Lt. James Kunkle was tail-end Charlie on an armed reconnaissance mission and saw that his comrades were about to be ambushed by a superior force of German fighters. Kunkle was unable to reach his leader on the radio, so he “alone unhesitatingly pulled away from his formation and vigorously attacked the enemy, immediately destroying one of his aircraft.”

P-38 Lightning Production

P-38 Lightning production was sometimes completed on the flight line due to limited production facilities during WW II. Lockheed Martin photo


Kunkle was attacked from the rear and from above by Focke Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The Germans “started walking those 20 mms up my left wing,” said Kunkle. “My left vent looked like a blow torch.” Although his P-38 was on fire, and despite burns to his face, neck and hands, Kunkle continued his attack against the German fighters. He shot down a second plane. He was in the middle of what the trade journal Army Times called a “one-man war.” He broke off combat only when his left fuel tank exploded.

Said Kunkle, “The whole fight lasted about six minutes … I either climbed and jumped or I was blown out at about 4,000 feet … I fell through a cloud and then I pulled the rip cord when the ground looked close.” Kunkle said he thought he was behind the German lines so he did not want to open his parachute too early as he believed the Germans would shoot at him.

Soldiers of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, fighting to take Aachen, rescued Kunkle, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest U.S. award for valor.


Kunkle was typical of American pilots who received sufficient multi-engine training, knew how to perform several tasks at once when a complex situation erupted, and mastered the P-38. Every version of their famous fighter was powered by some version of the Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder piston engine with an all-important turbo supercharger. The engine was a challenge to logisticians and maintainers, but on the P-38 it usually performed well, even at high altitude where the pilot may have been shivering. Experts have speculated that a shift to the Packard V-1650 license-built Merlin V12 — as was made with the P-51 Mustang — might have given the P-38 longer range, improved reliability rates and better overall performance.

P-38 Lightnings

P-38 Lightnings from the 20th Fighter Group in formation over France, June 29, 1944. The black and white invasion stripes painted on all Allied aircraft for the Normandy invasion were probably redundant in the case of the distinctive and easily recognized Lightning. United States Air Force photo

As described by Bill Gunston in The Illustrated History of Fighters, the P-38 was “unusually quiet for a fighter, the exhaust muffled by the turbo-superchargers.” It was “extremely forgiving, and could be mishandled in many ways, but the rate of roll in the early versions was too slow for it to excel as a dogfighter.” Until the P-38J-25 version reached Europe in spring 1944, German pilots could readily evade P-38s because of the lack of dive flaps to counter compressibility in dives. A Luftwaffe pilot not wishing to fight could perform the first half of a Split S and continue into a steep dive, knowing that a Lightning pilot would be reluctant to follow. The P-38J and L models also had the improved heating that earlier Lightnings lacked.

Legend holds that the Germans referred to the P-38 as the “fork-tailed devil” (Zwieselsteißteufel). This idea seems to have been proffered first by Martin Caidin, a prolific author on aviation topics. No one seems to have found documentation from the German side that the term was used. In the postwar era, however, German aces acknowledged something their American counterparts had said all along: They, too, were captivated by the sleek shape and unique design of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.


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