The P-38 Interceptor

One of the most interesting airplanes being produced in the United States today is the Lockheed P-38. From both a design angle, and because of its potential military value to US and Great Britain, this ship is being watched with great interest.

Top speed, according to reports from England, is 404 m.p.h. at 16,000 ft. Range is 600 miles with the ship cruising at 350 mph. Service ceiling is 30,000 ft. Wing span is 52'; length is 37' 10"; wing area is 327 sq ft. Weight empty is 11,171 lb, and gross weight is 13,500 lb.

The interceptor pursuit is a distinctly recent type of combat plane. Only in the past few years have bombers been fast enough and able to fly at sufficiently high altitudes so that a defending force needed a fighter craft able to get off the ground in a great hurry and have climbing ability great enough to intercept bombers before their objective was reached. In its P-38, Lockheed has one of the fastest climbing fighter ships now in service. Its two Allison engines will climb it at the rate of 2,860 ft. per min. And when it has bored its way up into the high altitude to meet the oncoming bombers, it has plenty of firepower to be effective. On the prototype ship ordered by the British there was a cannon in the nose and four machine guns in the wings. Rumor has it that the British are putting in an additional cannon, and that it is being built for them as a two-seater with a gun turret. Information on the equipment for US planes is restricted.

The first production model came off Lockheed's assembly floor recently. This is one of the ships for which real production orders have been placed by our Air Corps and England, also, has ordered it in quantities. The British order is reported to be nearly 1,000.

This type of airplane has not only presented new problems to the design engineer but it is offering new obstacles to the pilots who will fly it. In most pursuit ships the climbing speed is gradual enough so that the pilot gets accustomed to the thin air as he reaches high altitudes. The P-38 climbs so rapidly that, in the case of Lockheed's test pilot at least, it was thought wise to "supercharge" him.

To prepare for his test flights, Milo Burcham of Lockheed inhaled pure oxygen for 30 min. while he was taking exercise. The combination of oxygen and exercise eliminated approximately 50 percent of the nitrogen in his system. It is the nitrogen that expands to form bubbles in a pilot's tissues and blood stream if he reaches great altitudes too rapidly. This condition is known as the "bends."

On the advice of the Mayo Clinic, Lockheed built a decompression room next to its test hangar at Union Air Terminal, Burbank. In the room was a bicycle exercising machine, oxygen cylinders, inhalation apparatus, oxygen fittings and flasks. Burcham donned the inhalation apparatus, which consists of a nasal face mask, a breathing bag and a rubber tube connected with an oxygen cylinder. Then he turned on the oxygen and began to pedal the bicycle. By the time he had ridden for 30 min. he was ready for the flight. Still inhaling only oxygen, he walked to the plane, climbed in, and made his flight. He did not breathe any "fresh air" until his flight was over.

Some flight surgeons believe that combat pilots awaiting a call to fly interceptors to high altitudes may have to spend a half hour in a ready-room where they will breathe pure oxygen. This would prevent them from getting the "bends" during combat fighting at high altitudes.

Marshall Headle, Lockheed's veteran chief test pilot, recently said: "Very little good is accomplished in developing planes capable of high speeds in the stratosphere if the pilots are not in condition to utilize that speed and performance. Reactions are always slower at high altitudes, even with an adequate supply of oxygen, and speeds are greater. Any further handicap could easily render the pilots virtually useless and jeopardize their safety."

This article was originally published in "Flying Equipment" column of the April, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 4, pp 72-73.
The original article includes 2 photos, a 3-view silhouette, and two detail drawings.
Photos are not credited.