The Lockheed P-38 Lightning became an important fighter of the Second World War, providing air support, bomber escort and interception capabilities. It earned its value through its long-range capabilities. It did not possess the agility of most of the single-engine piston fighters of the time but found its own place in the history of Classic Warbird aviation.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was designed in 1937 as a high-altitude interceptor. The first one built for the U.S. Army Air Corps, the XP-38, made its public debut on Feb. 11, 1939 by flying from California to New York in seven hours.
The unconventional layout resulted from the high-demand specifications for a high-altitude, high-performance aircraft capable of heavy armament roles, good climbing rate and exceptional range. These requirements thusly eliminated the possibility that any single engine aircraft would be the solution. The design team (led by Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson of Lockheed) opted for a twin-engine design centered around a central cockpit 'tub', or nacelle, sided by two 'booms' on either side housing the engine components. The wide design also added stability in the extra surface features and provided the aircraft with two vertical rudders instead of a traditional single one.
Because of its unorthodox design, the aircraft evolved for several years before becoming the fighter destined to see combat in all theaters of World War II. The P-38 Lightning introduced a new dimension to American fighters - a second engine. The multi-engine configuration reduced the Lightning loss-rate to anti-aircraft gunfire during ground attack missions.
Late in 1942, it went into large-scale operations during the North African campaign where the German Luftwaffe named it "Der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--"The Forked-Tail Devil."
Equipped with droppable fuel tanks under its wings, the P-38 was used extensively as a long-range escort fighter. A very versatile aircraft, the Lightning was also used for dive bombing, level bombing, ground strafing and photo reconnaissance missions.
As with any long-term production aircraft, the P-38 underwent many modifications. The fastest of the modifications was the P-38J with a top speed of 420 mph, and the version produced in the greatest quantity was the "L," of which 3,735 were built by Lockheed and 113 by Vultee. The P-38J intakes under the engines were enlarged to house core-type intercoolers. The curved windscreen was replaced by a flat panel, and the boom mounted radiators were enlarged. Some were fitted with bombardier type noses, and were used to lead formations of bomb-laden P-38s to their targets. The P-38M was a two-seat radar-equipped Night Fighter, a few of which had become operational before the war ended.
By the end of production in 1945, 9,923 P-38s had been built. Only 27 of the aircraft exist today. The P-38 Lightnings were used to great success in the European and Pacific Theaters of War, and were gradually resolved to the role of close support bomber craft and nightfighters upon the introduction of sleeker and faster aircraft such as the P-51 Mustangs.