Riding the Lightning

by Paul Pierce

Flying's correspondent, who knows an unusual experience when he sees one, goes for a "piggy-back" ride in an interceptor.

Don't let anybody kid you about that fast, sturdy, flashing hunk of lethal airplane — it's Lightning! It's a big lightning, and I can prove it with facts and figures hitherto restricted by the Army. I can prove it also by telling you how it feels to ride as a passenger in one of the fastest, highest-flying hardest-hitting and best-protected of all fighters.

The carefully guarded talk of my test pilot friends never quite satisfied my curiosity. The Lightnings flashing over my house every day only partly verified my guesses. It took a ride to find out the truth.

My pilot was Jimmy Mattern, 10,000-hour veteran of Army, barnstorming, mail flying and round-the-world hopping. Jimmy is one of Lockheed's test pilots and a specialist on P-38s. He knows them — and he loves to show what they'll do. That's why he's been assigned to the "piggy-back" plane being used to demonstrate single-seat twin-engined fighter technique to commanding officers and flight leaders of Army fighter bases, who pass their observations on to their men. This new method of pilot training has already cut flying accidents from an index of 6.5 to a new low of 1.5 within two months.

Jimmy was standing on the flight line when I arrived at the airport. The overcast was almost solid over Burbank, with the ceiling between 3,000 and 4,000 feet and a slight mist falling.

Jimmy went to the tower to check on the weather and I looked over the airplane I was to ride in. The P-38 has been described as "three bullets on a knife," and that's close enough when it's in the air with gear retracted. The "bullets" are the pod-shaped cockpit and the slim motor nacelles which fair back into the characteristic twin booms of the Lightning's tail. The knife is a razor-like wing that helps give this fighter its sensational performance. Halfway back are the bulging Prestone coolers, and clear aft are the twin, elliptical rudders, spaced by a long, thin horizontal flipper. Right now she stands on her three-legged landing gear, looking like a recalcitrant bronco, but ready to go. Her sister planes on the line have concentrated lead-tossing trouble sticking from their bullet-shaped cockpit noses, but our plane has had her guns removed to balance the weight of her passenger.

Mattern came back with a "go-ahead" and we climbed aboard. My quarters were not exactly palatial. The radio equipment had been removed from its place behind the pilot's seat and I squeezed in. I had my harness on and snapped the parachute to it, sliding the pack behind my back. I couldn't sit on it because my head was already banging the canopy and I found I would have to remain stooped over for the entire flight. My seat was the main spar that runs clear through the ship, and the upholstering was a coat of paint. Mattern had his usual comfortable accommodations with an inch or so of headroom when sitting up straight, but then the P-38 wasn't designed to accommodate deadheads.

Visibility from the cockpit was almost perfect and Jimmy taxied out like you'd drive your car. The tricycle gear makes ground handling easy. A quick run-up of the engines, a crackle in Jimmy's earphones and a "Roger" from him to the tower in return, and we were set for take off. The canopy was closed and the engines revved up while Jimmy held the brakes on. There was a sudden rush. I clicked the stopwatch on my wrist, then looked up to see the airspeed reading 90 and winding right on up. As it passed the 100 mph mark Jimmy pulled the wheel back an inch and we literally leaped into the air with the gear moaning up into the wings beneath us and the airspeed climbing frantically. A DC-3 started across our course at our altitude, but we were 1,000 feet above it and a mile beyond it before I could tap my pilot on the shoulder and point. We finished one-quarter of our climbing circle of the airport and ran smack into a shredded, misty ceiling at 3,500 feet.

Jimmy stuck the nose down to stay underneath while we both looked for the few tiny holes, We dove under the stuff and both saw it at once — a tiny patch of blue sky almost above us. Back came the wheel, down went my stomach and up went the Lightning through the hole. A few seconds and 15,000 feet later we were on top of a world of cotton and climbing into the sunlight.

There was more to come, however! The nose tilted higher until it was pointing up at 60° above the horizon and the rate of climb read over 5,000 feet a minute! Jimmy half turned and said, "A mile a minute straight up" and I could well believe it as I was lying almost on my back, with my shoulders on my parachute pack, and being shoved upstairs by some 2,300 hp. Far from faltering in the climb, the ship picked up speed. Every few seconds Jimmy hauled back on the throttles a little more. explaining that "the higher we go the more power we have with these turbos."

At 10,000 feet we square away for cruising. As nearly as I could tell we were 20 miles from the field and two miles above it somewhere over Santa Monica, and the stopwatch said four minutes and 50 seconds. The engines were barely pulling and there was so little noise that we could talk freely, but we were gobbling up space at an appalling rate. Jimmy adjusted the prop pitch and the nose went down into a dive. The sensitive altimeter started unwrapping and the airspeed went up to — well, let's say "over 400." Jimmy pulled back on the wheel gently, but in my hunched over position I found that I could not hold my head up. My mouth dropped open, my cheeks felt drawn and I felt five times as heavy in my seat as usual. The chandelle started at 5,000 feet and we rolled out at the top above 12,000 feet.

Then came a demonstration. The right prop was feathered, the engine stopped and we cruised along on one engine. We climbed, did turns with and against the dead engine and finally peeled off after a fast medium bomber that slid by underneath us just above the clouds. Leveling off about three miles behind, Jimmy let the P-38 lose all the speed of the dive while he commented that the bomber was a pretty fast airplane. I agreed and he said, "Watch this." On one engine we took out in pursuit and went by the bomber like it was hanging on a sky hook. Our plane rolled away in a steep bank and I squashed down into my seat again as I wondered how a gunner in combat ever keeps track of the enemy. I was too busy holding my head up to turn it around and look at the bomber.

The twin concrete ribbons of Sepulveda Boulevard flashed past through a hole in the clouds and I sang out our position to the pilot, who certainly did not need any help from me to know where he was. He knew all along and I had just found out. The wing went down, we swung back the three or four miles we had traveled in the last few seconds and slid down through a hole in a spiral dive. I caught a glimpse of the circular rainbow around our shadow on the shining white cumulus and then we were going through while I wondered about the traffic in the valley air below us. We broke out in the clear, dodged under a big patch of cloud (while I wondered about the hills that I knew were on the other side), and banked around for the airport. I made a suggestion about starting up the dead engine but Jimmy said "Why bother, it flies fine on one." I shut up and the pilot concentrated on working off some excess air speed without pulling back up into the clouds. We gobbled up the full width of the valley getting down to a slow 175 mph where we could put the wheels down. Polished aluminum spots on the camouflaged nacelles provided reassuring mirrors in which we could see the nose wheel. Jimmy started the other engine and we squared away for a landing.

The approach was easy and perfectly normal with the flaps going down in the last three quarters of a mile at about 1,000 or 1,500 feet. The glide is done power-off with the nose down only a little, a fairly high rate of sink, and with a quick flare-out just before touching down. Once the main wheels are on, the nose goes down and the tricycle gear rolls straight ahead. Jimmy made it look almost too easy, although he claims that any pilot can land this airplane. The airspeed said an even 100 when we touched, although the ship can be landed at 80 mph.

The stop watch said 20 minutes and six seconds and we had really been places. I had a grin a mile wide and felt like Jimmie Doolittle although all I had done was take a routine airplane ride … and get myself a fine case of P-38 fever. Looking for facts to back up my roaring enthusiasm I discovered some mighty intriguing things about my new aeronautical love.

First of all, the Lightning originated as an interceptor, but as its versatility was discovered, it turned into the all-around airplane of the Army Air Forces on all the fighting fronts. It is used as interceptor, fighter, attack plane, light bomber, camera plane — in short it does a bit of everything and does it well. Its utility stems from its 2,300-hp twin engines.

The P-38 wing lifts a terrific load, permits an airspeed of "well over 400" and yet provides for the low landing speed of 80. Though the wing is loaded at the unusually high weight of 48 pounds/square foot, the plane still maneuvers effectively against fighters having half this wing loading. A special maneuvering flap of Lockheed design permits the ship to be slowed up for fighting without sacrificing speed when it's needed.

The lines are so clean that 60% of the plane's drag is in the tricycle gear before it is retracted. The drag of the remaining 40% in flight is less than that of an ordinary card table 27 inches square. Lockheed engineers have perfected a method of computing the diving speed of the plane (still a secret) as airspeed indicators fail far below terminal velocity and record only a "shock wave" of air which has no bearing on the true speed.

The Lightning is a big airplane. Gross weight is 13,500 pounds, it has a 53' wing span and is 37' 10" long, yet it stands only 9' 9" high to the tip of the props. Figuring roughly, it's half the size of a Douglas DC-3. Part of its weight is in extra armor for the pilot, a great deal is in self-sealing fuel tanks and armament, but most of it is in rugged construction. All this weight, plus its power and streamlining, give the plane the ability to zoom for thousands of feet in combat where this ability is a vital consideration.

Many of the P-38's unique features are proving invaluable in the combat areas. Back from the fronts come glowing reports. The air officers of our Army who fly this ship go into real raves about it. They tell of the Lightning camera plane in the Coral Sea area which ran away from three flights of pursuing Zero fighters although it had one engine disabled. They tell of bombing missions in North Africa where P-38s go all the way with the bombers on their long hops and run the Messerschmitts ragged while doing a little freehand bombing on their own. A Lightning in the Aleutians came home with bullet holes stitched up and down both sides of its rugged twin booms — punishment which could, and did, annihilate the Lockheed's Zero opponent. Ribless wings, double-skinned and double stressed, bring damaged Lightnings home on one or both engines time after time. If the skin is torn up by enemy fire the massive spar holds the wing together. If the spar is damaged, the skin takes over the load.

Special brackets under the wings hold bombs or belly tanks. These belly tanks were put in production after Lockheed wind tunnel tests on 31 designs. The final result has twice the capacity of early tanks. The tanks are made in two sizes. A pair of the 150-gallon variety give the P-38 an effective combat range of 750 miles — and that's a long range for a fighter. The Army no longer withholds the information that these ships are flown to fighting fronts all over the world, thereby saving shipping space and time. [The Army has released figures giving the normal range of the P-38, fully loaded, as 1,000 miles. This figure, as well as the 750-mile combat range, may be considered as "conservative," if view of customary Army procedure in announcing warplane performance,—Ed.] Without the tanks, the plane has a wider range than most fighters, even when the P-38 has a full armament load.

Speaking of armament: the four big machine guns and cannon with which most P-38s are armed, are concentrated right in the nose where they fire straight ahead. There is no cone of fire, as in wing mountings, with a converging pattern up to the "ideal range" and a scattering of lead beyond that. The fire from a Lightning's nose is a solid blast of shot that's effective straight ahead up to the range of the guns. Up Alaska way a flight of P-38s shot down five Zeros and a four-engined flying boat in a single dive! And the P-38 can pack around enough ammunition to really do a job. Unspecifically it carries more than the Jap Zero, and many other able fighters … enough to give it tremendous potential firing time. In comparative firing tests the Lightning is fired last. Other fighters damage a standard target, but by the time the Lockheed's guns are emptied the target has been blown to bits.

The P-38 has another combat advantage over both single and twin-engined fighters. Its engines turn in opposite directions and the ship runs straight and true on the ground or in the air under full power. Many Nazi ships were shot down after it was discovered that they could pull out of a dive only to the right. The P-38 turns to right or left with equal ease at any time, making it an easy ship to fly and gives it excellent handling characteristics. A test pilot stated that the P-38 was the sweetest handling military airplane he had ever flown. He claims he has seen pilots slow roll the ship, with one engine cut, 50 feet off the ground — and rolling into the dead engine. He claims that stall characteristics are perfect, that the plane hasn't a flying bug in it. I quote him because he is working for a competitive company and is completely unbiased.

Until recently you've heard little about the P-38 in combat. It was deliberately held out of action until it was completely perfected. When it went in, it went in on a big scale and is doing a sensational job.

This article was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 6, pp 44-45, 162, 164.
The original article includes 2 photos.
Photographs from Lockheed.