Lightning Strikes as Lockheed Goes to War

Lockheed went to war with a great reputation to uphold. The company's splendid civil aircraft had garnered twenty-seven of the world's records. The names of Amelia Earhart, Sir Hubert Wilkins, Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Col Art Goebel, Capt Frank Hawks, Howard Hughes, Ruth Nichols, Lieut Jimmie Mattern, and Wiley Post — many of whom have since flown into the Airman's Valhalla — made news largely through the use of the early Lockheed Vega, Orion, Altair, Sirius, or Electra. Lockheed went to war when Britain did — on September 3, 1939 - when the now-famous Hudson went into action with the RAF Coastal Command. For about two and one-half years the Hudson upheld the Lockheed tradition in the best of fashion — so well, in fact, that the British recently referred to it as the "bomber of the year."

his plane has now been joined in battle by two equally superb stablemates, the Lightning and the Ventura. The latter is a military modification of the new Lodestar transport and the Lightning is already in its eighth modification as the P-38H. Coming along, but not yet ready for service, is the huge Lockheed Constellation transport and other craft which are on the secret list.

The career of this amazing company was launched when Allan Loughhead taught himself to fly in 1910. Allan and his brother, Malcolm, built their first airplane in 1912. It was a three-place seaplane in which hundreds of air-minded passengers were subsequently given their first flights at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco in 1915. The first small factory of the Loughhead brothers went into operation in 1916 at Santa Barbara. The organization became a company in 1926 and moved to Hollywood a year later, then to the present site at Burbank in 1928. The name was changed at this time to Lockheed to conform with the proper pronunciation of the Loughhead brothers' name.

The present management bought all property, rights and assets on June 21, 1932. The group included Lloyd Stearrnan, who was elected President; Robert E Gross, who became President following the resignation and departure of Stearman in 1934; Cyril Chappellet, Secretary and Executive Assistant to the President, recently elected Vice-President; Carl B Squier, Vice- President and Sales Manager; Walter T Vamey, Jacqueline S Walker, and Thomas F Ryan, III. In addition to Messrs Gross, Chappellet and Squier, Lockheed's top management now includes Charles A Barker, Jr, Vice-President in Charge of Finance; Hall L Hibbard, Vice-president and Chief Engineer; R. A. Von Hake, Vice-president in Charge of Manufacturing, and L W Wulfekuhler, Secretary.

Closely affiliated with Lockheed is the Vega Aircraft Corporation, also of Burbank, which recently was merged with the parent organization but which retains its own personnel, engineering, and manufacturing autonomy. Lockheed has been first in production with many features which have been widely adopted in the industry. The Electra itself was one of the early bi-motored metal transports and the first modern plane to use the twin-tail construction which is now all but standard on multi-motored aircraft. The Orion was the first commercial ship to use the retractable landing gear, reducing the drag by as much as 60% in some planes today.

Pioneering of the single-spar all-metal wing was another Lockheed privilege, allied somewhat with the perfection and first use of the Fowler flap for reduction of landing speed to a safe level without loss of flying speed. Thus began the Lockheed pioneering of heavy and heavier wing loading, for the sake of greater speed and higher efficiency with safety. From this basic development of an effective transport ship come the quick redesign which is the Hudson bomber, first American plane to go into mass production for this war and of course the first to fight over Europe. The Hudson is a military version of the Lockheed Model 14, just as the Vega Ventura is an adaption of the larger and later Lodestar. Groping into the stratosphere began with the XC-35, first successfully pressurized "stratosphere ship" which opened up a new list of problems. At the same time there was much pioneering in the research on "supercharging" the pilot, which was undertaken with the collaboration of the Mayo Clinic.

Lockheed's most outstanding contribution to date is probably the Lightning. This craft made the news back in the winter of 1939 before Army officials were quite ready to have its existence known when Capt Ben S Kelsey, one of the Army's ace test pilots, made a record cross-country dash which ended in an unfortunate landing accident near Mitchel Field, LI. The craft is of unusually clean design, having the twin tail booms faired back as continuations of the engine nacelles and having the pilot and armament concentrated in the center nacelle. The craft is so well streamlined that when its tricycle landing gear is extended the gear represents almost 60% of the total drag. The twin 1,150-hp Allison engines with their turbosuperchargers afford the Lightning a sufficiently low power loading to insure good takeoff, climb, and maneuverability.

On the score of versatility the Lockheed P-38 will carry bombs over medium fighting ranges. Without these loads it will climb to more than 40,000 feet and fly "well over 400 miles per hour," yet it lands at 80 miles an hour and maneuvers effectively against fighters with half the P-38's unusually heavy wing-loading of 48 pounds per square foot. These advantages are not gained by sacrificing sturdiness, for the ship is vastly more rugged than most, and the pilot is better armored.

This incredible range in performance is achieved by a quick-acting "maneuvering flap" developed by Lockheed and in full production on the Lightning for many months, which greatly increases the "lift" of the wing with almost no effect upon its drag. An improved version of the original Lockheed-Fowler flap which is now widely used, it can be lowered in three seconds and raised in four. Thus the Lightning can take off on an interception or other mission; reach its target with unsurpassed speed — and in three seconds become a highly acrobatic dogfighter, dive bomber, ground strafer, or precision bomber under conditions of bad visibility or hazardous terrain.

Then the maneuvering flap may be raised again, restoring all the P-38's peerless speed for the trip home. The same flap shortens the takeoff run, especially in mud or snow, until the ship can operate from small fields formerly closed to fast ships. In effect it gives the P-38 a dual performance.

This unique feature puts the Lightning in a class by itself as a photographic ship as well as a fighter, able to venture out with no defenses save speed and altitude, and bring home closeup shots of enemy strength or bombardment damage. Already a P-38 camera ship — with one engine disabled -- has outrun and climbed away from three pursuing groups of Jap Zeros in the Coral Sea area.

Another hidden virtue in the twin engines, rotating in opposite directions on the Lightning, is equal maneuverability to left or right with no torque effect to be overcome. Many Nazi ships have been shot down since it was learned that they could come out of a dive only toward the right, because of torque reaction at high speed. The Lightning has no torque reaction and will turn readily in either direction at any speed.

Firepower is another quality in which the P-38 excels. Its four big machine guns and cannon are concentrated in the nose where they can fire all-out, without being slowed down to synchronize with the propeller, and they are aimed with rifle accuracy by the pilot. Thus, the P-38 pumps a deadly column of lead, effective at any range and able to chop the wing off a Messerschmitt or saw a Zero in two.

There is no "cone of fire" as is found in wing-mounted armament, which is concentrated at one "ideal" range and widely scattered at all others. The Lightning is a solid slugger at any distance, as proved when a flight of P-38s in the Aleutians shot down five Zeros and one four-engined flying boat in a single dive … again when two Lightnings dived once on two Jap bombers. As far as the tracers reach, the fire is withering and it remains a stream, not a spray.

Fighting time is another proof of a great ship, so the P-38 carries more pounds of guns and ammunition than the 350 pounds carried by the Zero and somewhat less for many other able fighters. In comparative firing tests the Lightning is reserved to fire last of all because, when it has emptied its guns, the standard target has been blown to bits. Other ships damage a target, but the P-38 destroys it.

Bombs are released with the same deadly accuracy as cannon shells, and with the same sights, for the speed of the Lightning hurls the bomb straight into its target from low altitudes — then whips the ship away from the blast. The P-38 was not designed for bombing originally, but its willingness to lift thousands of pounds with slight loss of speed has pressed it into service on this unexpected assignment.

The extra load may be bombs, tanks for laying smoke screens, equipment for delivery to ground forces, or additional gasoline tankage for ferrying or for extending the Lightning's range. Lockheed tested 31 types of droppable tanks in its own wind tunnel, finally designing a streamlined shape which has twice the capacity of the early standard drop tank, yet flies 10 miles an hour faster. It is built in two sizes for various purposes.

Droppable tanks of 150-gallon capacity are used for distant fighting or escort missions, and give the P-38 an effective combat range of 750 miles — just right for convoying bombers over Berlin with ample reserves for combat. This range in the P-38 alone has made possible an entirely new bombardment technique, extending the essential "fighter cover" for daylight bombing to distances otherwise impossible. Bombs or droppable tanks all hang from the same special brackets under the P— 38's sturdy wing and may be carried in any combination, such as one bomb and one large tank.

Only recently were Lockheed engineers themselves able to compute how fast their P-38 was diving. Until then they only knew that airspeed indicators fail, far below that speed, and record a "shock wave" of air which has no bearing on true speed. The unique speed of the P-38 has opened up new phenomena; Lockheed engineers have solved them one by one, and other designers are beginning to encounter them as other ships approach the Lightning's performance. The diving speed is a secret still, but the P-38 still gets there first in comparative tests of the world's best fighting planes whether diving, climbing, or in level flight.

The Lightning is a big ship. Due to this weight, plus power and streamlining, the Lightning will zoom thousands of feet higher than any other fighter before it "falls off," and zooming is vital in combat. It has a 52' wingspread and is 38' long, yet it stands only 9' high from the ground to the tips of the 11½' electrically controlled three-bladed propellers.

Part of its weight is armor for safeguarding the pilot and vital parts; some is self-sealing fuel tanks, and much of it is armament and equipment, but the bulk of it is sturdy airframe construction with maximum ease of replacement. A crumpled wing on a Zero calls for a new Zero; on a P-38 it calls for a new wing, and the same is true of almost any subassembly. Much credit for this ruggedness goes to the P— 38's unique ribless wing with double-skinned and double-stressed design. Flying stresses are shared by the skin and spar of the wing; if the spar is shot in two the skin will sustain flight, and if the skin is riddled by shrapnel the spar prevents collapse.

The twin booms provide added ruggedness and safety — one Lightning has flown home to its Aleutian base with bullet holes stitched up and down both booms, punishment which would have annihilated a Zero. On one engine or both, the rugged P-38 will struggle home after serious battle damage more surely than other fighters, and may soon share the Lockheed Hudson's affectionate nickname of Old Boomerang. Skilled pilots find water landings of "belly landings" no great hazard at the Lightning's low landing speed.

Comparative tests indicate that the P-38 will climb faster than any other ship — faster than the Zero by nearly half again. In the substratosphere the P-38 flies straight and fast, or maneuvers firmly, at altitudes where most ships are "staggering" in the thin air. Repeated tests have proved that the limitations of the human body are the limitations of the Lightning's maximum altitude and performance.

This is the real P-38 — the ship which was kept under wraps until the time was ripe. The Army Air Forces remembered how the tank, secret weapon of the first World War, was dissipated at Cambrai when it was used experimentally in small numbers — giving the secret away with no real gain in exchange for it. They avoided this error with the Lightning, battle-testing it only on isolated fronts; proving it; and then hurling it into major warfare as a smashing blow, not as a "feeler."

This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 1, pp 63-68.
The original article includes 23 photos of various Lockheed planes.
Photos are credited to Lockheed, Vega,Press Association, International, USAAF.

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