The P-38: When
Lightning Strikes

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The pilot in a new American fighter, the P-38 Lightning, peeled down from the skies over Iceland on August14, 1942. True to its name, the P-38 was akin to a force of nature: fast, unforeseen, and immensely powerful.

The aircraft’s target, was a German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor patrol bomber. Its crew had never encountered anything quite like it before.

With its distinctive design, the P-38 was sleek but its twin tails gave the Lightning  a radical new look. The pilot, pumping 409 rounds per minute from its nose-mounted machine guns,  dispatched the Condor in seconds, marking the first successful American engagement of a German aircraft during World War II.

Within six months, as the P-38 showed its versatility in North Africa, a lone hysterical German pilot surrendered to soldiers at an Allied camp near Tunisia, pointing up to the sky and repeating one phrase—“der Gableschwanz Teufl”—over and over.

Once the phrase was translated, U.S. officials realized the focus of the pilot’s madness. The P-38 had been given a new nickname: the “fork-tailed devil.”

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The Ultimate Weapon
First conceived in 1937 by Lockheed chief engineer Hall L. Hibbard and his then assistant, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the twin-boomed P-38 was the most innovative plane of its day, combining speed with unheard-of advances: two supercharged engines and a potent mix of four 50-caliber machine guns and a 20-mm cannon.

Upon its official introduction in 1940, the P-38 was capable of climbing to 3,300 feet in a single minute and reaching 400 mph, 100 mph faster than any other fighter in the world. It also doubled as an intimidating long-range threat, capable of carrying a larger payload than early B-17s and boasting a range of 1,150 miles.

Its versatility and ruggedness were legendary. It could sink a ship.  Strafed enemies on the ground. Crippled tanks. Destroyed entrenched pillboxes and shot down numerous fighters and bombers in all theaters of war.

When a long-range battle-tested airplane was needed for the Allies’ first round-trip mission to Berlin, a modified P-38 was chosen. And in 1943, when code breakers learned of a key inspection flight in the Pacific by Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the attack on U. S. installations in Hawaii, sixteen P-38 pilots were dispatched to fly a five-leg, nearly 1,000 mile-long mission.  

It proved to be a turning point in the war. After intercepting the admiral and his escort of Zero fighters, Japanese naval morale was crushed, and Allied morale soared. The intercept helped set the stage for an Allied victory in the Pacific.

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A Legend in Its Own Time
As a World War II fighter, the Lightning’s legacy is unmatched. A total of more than 10,000 P-38s—including 18 distinct models—were manufactured during the war, flying more than 130,000 missions in theaters around the world. P-38 pilots shot down more than Japanese aircraft than any other fighter and, as a reconnaissance aircraft, obtained 90 percent of the aerial film captured over Europe.

Perhaps Colonel Ben Kelsey, a P-38 test pilot, summed up the war bird’s legacy best of all. “(That) comfortable old cluck,” he said, “would fly like hell, fight like a wasp upstairs, and land like a butterfly.”

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Sources and Additional Reading

  • Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  • Pace, Steve. Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Minneapolis, MN: Motorbooks International Publishers and Wholesalers, 1996. 
  • Stanaway, John. P-38 Lightning Aces of the ETO/MTO. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1998.
  • Gray, William P. “P-38” Life magazine, 16 August 1943.