This page was researched because I was reading an otherwise interesting book
that referred to a squadron of Army P-38s firing their wing guns into enemy destroyers
at Rabaul to suppress antiaircraft fire for following B-25 bombers. I had never heard that
any P-38s had wing guns. They don't and never have. Thus the need for this
web page. I have always wondered how the P-38 could have been authorized before higher numbered P-40 and P-51s that appeared in combat earlier, and I wanted to know the answer to that also.
On January 23, 1937, Lockheed was authorized to build one XP-38 to meet a requirement for a high speed, fast climbing, long range interceptor. This was completed in December 1938 and first flew 27 January 1939. This took a full two years to design and hand build. Elsewhere we have seen
Lockheed criticized for assigning their top people to modifying their Electra 14 passenger liner for off-shore sale as the Hudson maritime reconnaissance bomber, an immediate and profitable venture of 2,941 aircraft.
Therefore what is perhaps the supreme fighter of WW2 was relegated to a back burner
and increase US casualties and prolonger American involvement in WW2.
On Feb 11 this prototype was flown cross-country, California to Ohio, for delivery cruising at an average speed of 360 miles per hour. On delivery it was sent on to New York for a speed demonstration and crashed in landing from carburetor icing. Never the less the performance was so superior that a contract for 13 YP-38s was awarded 27 April40. The first was
delivered 16 September 1940 and the last in March 1941.
During this period Britain and France placed orders for 667 aircraft and the USAAF for 673. The P-38 was a radical new design that had teething pains. For instance, the
two engines originally rotated in the same direction causing low speed (including landing and takeoff) torque instability. The airplane was so fast that the problem of compression,
an unexpected buffeting and control freeze so prevalent in later jet aircraft development, was first uncovered in the P-38 at Mach 0.67. There was no supercharger, therefore it had poor high altitude performance. These first aircraft were not ready for combat. The Brits canceled their order, including the French order which had been transferred to England when France fell.
There was only one model A and no B or C models.
The P-38D (36 planes) was fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks/armored windshield as were all US fighters at that time.
First overseas deployment was as a photo reconnaissance plane in Australia, April 1942. And in Alaska in June 1942. These were unarmed P-38E (210 aircraft). By the model P-38F (527 planes), it saw combat as a low level fighter in late 1942 in the deserts of North Africa. With many earlier problems fixed and armor added , the P-38G became the middle-war combat model with 1,082 built plus 160 as F5A photo reconn planes.
The P-38H with bigger engines and superchargers and 601 were built by Aug 1943.
The P-38J had 2,970 built, but only the last 210 had all the features of a high altitude, long distance fighter.
The P-38L had 3,810 built. The P-38 became the air superiority fighter in North Africa, Mediterranean, and in the Pacific.
The first P-38s in the Pacific were rushed to Guadalcanal with first combat deployment on 18Nov 1942 to escort a B-17 mission. These 38s downed 3 zeros. Demand for P-38s soared. The next month saw a squadron operating over New Guinea. The first big dogfight was 7Dec1942. At that point all new production was sent to North Africa where it drove the Luftwaffe away and had to concentrate on ground attack. Meanwhile, back in the Pacific, the one squadron in New Guinea sent 18 to join in on the annihilation of a Japanese reinforcement fleet in the Battle of the Bismark Sea. The reader will recall that until North Africa was secure, the Pacific was relegated to a defensive only position with only 15% of military production allotted to the Pacific and Asian theaters by the "Germany First" policy.
Advantages of the P-38. The guns were all mounted in the nose firing straight ahead and accurate at any range whereas wing mounted guns of other fighters had a convergence zone -- only one range at which the bullets concentrate. Counter rotating propellers created stability at all speeds including accelerations.
Two engines are comforting when far from home. Silhouette easy to recognize.
The P-38 became the most numerous Army fighter in the Pacific, whereas the P-51 Mustang and P-48 Thunderbolt were most popular in Europe. Like the B-24 bomber,
the P-38 were the planes suitable for the great distances in the Pacific. The leading American Ace, Dick Bong, downed 40 aircraft. He was awarded a Medal of Honor, Dec 1944, and sent home. He was killed testing the P-80 jet fighter 6 August'45.
After the surrender, the big P-38s were simply removed rather than repaired and was replaced with P-51s from Europe. Thousands were bulldozed before the Korean conflict and it
was the slower P-51s that had to confront Mig-15s.
* - normal is with drop tanks which can vary.
|USAAC Fighters||P-38 Lightning||P-47 Thunderbolt||P-51 Mustang||F4U Corsair|
|Manufacturer ||Lockheed||Republic||North American||Chance Vought|
|Max Speed ||414 mph||433 mph||431 mph||417 mph|
|Service Ceiling||44,000 ft||41,000 ft||41,900 ft||41,500 ft|
|Normal Range *||1,300 miles||1,900 miles||3,347 miles||1,015 miles|
|Weight ||12,800 lb ||9,950 lb||7,125 lb||9,982 lb|
|Armament ||4-50cal,1-20mm ||8- 50cal||6- 50cal||6- 50cal|
|Bombs ||3,200 lb||2,500 lb||1,000 lb||2,000 lb|
|Prototype Flew ||27Jan'39||6May'41||26Oct'40||29May'40|
|First Combat ||14Aug'42||Apr'43||13Dec'43||13Feb'43|
|Ratio||4.6 : 1||11.3 : 1 |
|Total Built ||10,037||15,673||15,386||12,571 (1952)|
All aircraft went through improvements over their life; several initial models were unacceptable.
Data is for the most popular variant, not the final form. Example: final F4U was 462 mph
Development time :
The P-38 Lightning was a totally new design that took longer to develop, two years before the prototype flew, than other top WW2 fighters which were improvements of prior designs in which many problems had already been resolved. The Grumman F6F Hellcat came from the Grumman F4F Wildcat. The Chance Vought F4U Corsair was the biggest engine available attached to a shrunken Vought SB2U Vindicator navy bomber. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk came from the Curtiss P-36 Hawk. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt grew from the Republic P-34 Lancer. The North American P-51 Mustang was built upon the P-40 design and had gone into production as the NA-73 for Britain before the USAAC got interested.
Last updated 13 January 2010
URL : http://www.pacific.com/P38.html