56 HomeYamamoto and the Secret Admirers
Neal Stephenson


P-38 Lightning
The P-38 Lightning was one of the most important American fighters of the Second World War. Although its operational record was somewhat mixed, in general the P-38 was a fast, powerful, and capable aircraft that performed well in a wide range of roles.

The aircraft had twin tail booms mounting the engines, and a single forward nacelle containing the pilot and armament. The engine sounds were a unique, rather quiet "whuffle" sound, because the superchargers muffled the exhausts of the twin Allison V-12s. In the tropics, the cabin could not be opened without severe buffeting, so that pilots were often too hot. In northern Europe, the distance of the engines from the cockpit prevented effective heating of the cockpit. Thus it was always either too hot or too cold.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Lightnings go to war
The first combat-capable Lightning was the P-38E, which featured improved instruments, electrical systems, and hydraulic systems; new Curtiss Electric duraluminum propellers, though early P-38E production retained the older Hamilton Standard Hydromatic hollow steel propellers; and the definitive armament configuration, featuring four 12.7 millimeter machine guns with 500 rounds per gun, and a Hispano 20 millimeter cannon with 150 rounds instead of the unreliable Oldsmobile 37 millimeter gun.

Interestingly, while the machine guns had been arranged symmetrically in the nose on earlier variants, they were "staggered" in the P-38E and later versions, with the muzzles sticking out of the nose in the relative lengths of roughly 1:4:6:2. This was done to ensure a straight ammunition belt feed into the weapons, as the earlier arrangement had led to jams.

The first P-38E rolled out of the factory in October 1941. 210 P-38Es were built. They were followed, starting in April 1942, by the P-38F, which incorporated racks inboard of the engines for fuel tanks or a total of 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of bombs. 527 P-38Fs were built. Over a hundred P-38Es were completed in the factory or converted in the field to a photo-reconnaissance variant, the F-4, in which the guns were replaced by four cameras.

Most of these early reconnaissance Lightnings were retained stateside for training, but the F-4 was the first Lightning to see combat, beginning operations out of Australia and then New Guinea in April 1942. Three of the F-4s were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in this theater for a short period beginning in September 1942.

By June 1942, P-38s were operating in the Aleutians as well. The fighter's long range made it well-suited to the campaign over the almost 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile) long island chain, and it would be flown there for the rest of the war.

It was one of the most rugged environments available for testing the new aircraft under combat conditions. More Lightnings were lost due to weather and other conditions than enemy action. There were cases where Lightning pilots, mesmerized by flying for hours over gray seas under gray skies, simply flew into the water.

Nonetheless, the P-38 scored successes. On August 4, 1942, two P-38Es, operating at the 1,600 kilometer (1,000 mile) end of a long-range patrol, bounced a pair of Japanese Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boats and destroyed them. They were the first of many Japanese aircraft to be shot down by the Lightning.

In the meantime, Lightnings were ferrying themselves across the Atlantic via Iceland to England, though most of them made the trip on freighters. On August 15, a P-38F and a P-40 operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf 200 shipping raider over the Atlantic. This was reputedly the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.

The Lightnings sent to England were part of the force being built up for the invasion of North Africa. The invasion took place in November 1942, and Lightning units, including a photo-reconnaissance unit under command of Colonel Elliot Roosevelt, the American president's son, then began acquiring familiarity with operating under "austere conditions" and matching their skills and aircraft against the enemy.

The Lightning proved surprisingly maneuverable at low altitudes. The contra-rotating props had the benefit of eliminating the effects of engine torque, and on occasion a Lightning could even out-turn smaller fighters. However, maneuverability wasn't its strong suit, its major virtue in combat being a "terrific zoom climb" that would leave pursuers in the dust.

Luftwaffe pilots also quickly learned not to make head-on attacks on the P-38, since its concentrated firepower made such a tactic suicidal. Although not the best dogfighter, the P-38 was a formidable interceptor and attack aircraft, and in the hands of a good pilot could be dangerous in air to air combat. The P-38 remained a force in the Mediterranean for the rest of the war.

The Lightning proved ideally suited for the Pacific theater, as it combined excellent performance with very long range. While the P-38 could not out-maneuver the Zero and most other Japanese fighters, its speed and climb gave American pilots the option of choosing to fight or run, and its focused firepower was even more deadly to lightly-armored Japanese warplanes than to the Germans. Japanese ace Jiro Horikoshi wrote: "The peculiar sound of the P-38's twin engines became both familiar and hated by the Japanese all across the South Pacific."

General George Kenney, commander of the USAAF Fifth Air Force operating in New Guinea, could not get enough P-38s, though since they were replacing serviceable but inadequate P-39s and P-40s, this might seem like guarded praise. But Lightning pilots began to compete in racking up scores against Japanese aircraft, including one of the most famous missions of the war, the airborne assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on April 17, 1943.

Yamamoto was the architect of Japan's naval strategy in the Pacific. When American codebreakers found out that he was flying to Bougainville Island to conduct a front-line inspection, 16 Lightnings were sent on a long-range flight to intercept him: 4 to actually attack the bombers and the other 12 as top cover. The mission went off perfectly, the Lightnings met Yamamoto's G4M "Betty" bomber and escorting Zero fighters just as they arrived, and the G4M was shot down over the jungle. The admiral was killed.

The P-38F was followed in early 1943 by the P-38G, with more powerful Allisons with 1,400 horsepower each and a better radio. 1,082 P-38Gs were built. The P-38G was followed in turn by 601 similar P-38Hs, with a further uprated Allisons with 1,425 horsepower each, an improved 20 millimeter cannon, and a bomb capacity of 1,450 kilograms (3,200 pounds). These models were also field-modified into F-4B and F-5A reconnaissance aircraft.

There was never a "P-38I". The USAAF didn't use the "I" designation since it looked like a "1".

The Lightning in Maturity: P-38J, P-38L
The definitive P-38J was introduced in August 1943. The twin booms of previous Lightnings featured a sleek, art-deco streamlining. However, the coolant system that had been housed in the inner part of the wings had proven vulnerable to combat damage and was inefficient anyway, and so engine fit was rethought.

The most noticeable feature of the new fit was that the radiators were placed under the prop hub at the front of the booms, forming a "beard" that made the P-38J visibly different from its predecessors. The space left open in the wings was replaced with fuel tanks, further increasing the aircraft's long range. The revised engine fit made cooling much more efficient and improved both performance and reliability.

Late production P-38Js also finally overcame the compressibility problem, through the introduction of minor aerodynamic changes, most particularly the

addition of a set of small dive flaps just outboard of the engines, on the bottom centerline of the wings. With these improvements, a USAAF pilot dived one to a terminal velocity of almost 970 KPH (600 MPH) and recovered in one piece.

Finally, later production of the P-38J was equipped with power-boosted flight controls, one of the first times such a system was fitted to a fighter, and did much to improve the Lightning's roll rate and maneuverability. With a truly satisfactory Lightning in place, Lockheed ramped up production, working with subcontractors across the country to produce hundreds of Lightnings each month. Some 2,970 P-38Js were built.

Lockheed P-38J Lightning
specmetric english
wingspan15.85 meters52 feet
length11.53 meters37 feet 10 inches
empty weight5,797 kilograms12,780 pounds
max loaded weight9,798 kilograms21,600 pounds
maximum speed676 KPH420 MPH / 365 KT
service ceiling13,410 meters44,000 feet
range, no drop tanks1,891 kilometers1,175 MI / 1,022 NMI
range, with drop tanks3,627 kilometers2,260 MI / 1,965 NMI

This page is based on the "The Lockheed P-38 Lightning" version 1.3, by Greg Goebel. The original version (placed in the public domain) can be accessed at: http://www.vectorsite.net/avp38.html

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