Lightning strikes the Axis

Air Tech presents the first complete story of the Lockheed P-38's design and structure

Lockheed P-38

The best story to come back from Africa concerning an American airplane, also concerns a Free-French fighter pilot. He crawled out of the pod-like fuselage nacelle, walked forward and, with a gesture that only a Frenchman could master, planted a kiss on the Lockheed Lightning's nose.

Some doubt has been expressed as to the truth of this story. There are some who state that, as far as they know, no personnel other than US or RAF has ever flown the P-38. Nevertheless, it sums up with dramatic fervor, the average veteran P-38 pilot's opinion of the star US twin-engined fighter.

It took the Lightning a full four years and a heap of flying and fighting to win her way into the pursuit fraternity's good graces. There was a time when "that dog" was a mild expression of popular opinion of the twin-engined design which is rated as a major factor in the African victory.

The American public got its first hint as to the existence of the P-38 early in 1939. Lieut (now Colonel) Ben Kelsey eased it across the United States in a routine transfer flight in 7¾ hours, a few minutes under the world's record time previously established by Howard Hughes.

The only persons who had faith in the unconventional twin-boom design were General H H Arnold, the Lockheed staff and a few engineering-minded radicals in the Army.

It took quite a while to iron the "bugs" from the new design. The basic problem of loading two 1150-hp liquid-cooled Allison engines with their turbo-superchargers into one single-place airplane, loading it up with a cannon and four machine guns, keeping good pilot visibility both on ground and in the air was a tough one.

The major problem was to transfer experience from veterans to new men in the shortest possible time. Obviously dual controls were impossible in the close confines of the single-seater ship. The solution arrived when Lockheed removed some of the long-range communications equipment from the back end of a Lightning and installed a small seat. Thus a student can ride behind an instructor and watch him fly. Later; the student can fly while the check pilot leans over his shoulder.

The Lightning's final payoff comes in reports from Africa, where they were used to thin down the Luftwaffe at high altitudes, escort bombers to Italy, strafe tanks, wreck supply columns. In England, they have been used as long-range escorts, as their extreme range nearly matches that of heavy bombers.

In the Alaskan theater, their long range makes them particularly useful. In the Pacific theater, their superior speed and fire-power has made them tops as Zero erasers.

The P-38 has a wingspan of 52' and an length of 38'. It is powered by two Allison engines (1150 hp at takeoff), swinging full-feathering Curtiss propellers in opposite directions. The all-metal skin-stressed wing is built in three parts, a center section incorporating the wing tanks and forward booms, and two outer panels. Differential ailerons rigged in the outer panels are statically and dynamically balanced.

The fuselage-nacelle is also metal monocoque. The two tail-booms, which also contain the supercharger installations, are skin-stressed semi-monocoque structures, as are the members of the tail group, the single stabilizer-elevator and twin fin and rudder units.

Special Lockheed-Fowler flaps are installed which be individually controlled for superior maneuvering. These are hydraulically operated.

While great variety of armament has been used in the P-38, four .50-cal machine guns and on 20-mm cannon grouped in the nose is the commonest installation. The Lightning's top speed is over 400 mph., and it can fight comfortably at 40,000 feet.

The illustrations and captions on the following pages tell the complete story of the P-38's design and structural arrangement, thus revealing for the first time many of the reasons for its superior performance in combat.

This highly pictorial article was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Air Tech magazine, vol 2, no 6, pp 21-39.
The article consists of photos, photo-realistic renderings, drawings and diagrams showing details of the P-38.
Photos credited to Lockheed, [Hans] Groenhoff, [Rudy] Arnold.

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