Designed as a dive bombing, ground attack and photo reconnaissance twin-engined fighter, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, with its external drop tanks, also saw extensive duty as an escort fighter in support of the USAAF’s daylight bombing campaign over occupied Europe.
It was certainly a unique aircraft for its day, with its twin booms and a central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament although its revolutionary configuration created significant challenges for its designers and the pilots who flew it.
Initial test flights revealed problems first thought to be tail flutter. During high-speed flights and during steep dives, the aircraft's tail would begin to shake violently and the nose would tuck under, steepening the dive.
Once caught in this dive, the fighter would enter a high-speed stall and the controls would lock up, leaving the pilot no option but to bail out or remain with the aircraft until it got down to denser air, where he might have a chance to pull out.
The high speed stalls were something that obviously caused great concerns to both its engineers and pilots but by June 1941 the USAAF was desperate for a long range fighter so the aircraft went into full production with the problem still being remedied. Another issue with the P-38 arose from its unusual outwardly counter-rotating propellers.
Losing one of two engines in any twin-engine aircraft on takeoff creates sudden drag, yawing the nose toward the dead engine and rolling the wingtip down on the side of the dead engine.
Normal training in flying twin-engine aircraft when losing an engine on takeoff is to push the remaining engine to full throttle to maintain airspeed; if a pilot did that in the P-38, regardless of which engine had failed, the resulting engine torque produced a sudden uncontrollable yawing roll, and the aircraft would flip over and hit the ground.
Eventually, procedures were taught to allow a pilot to deal with the situation by reducing power on the running engine, feathering the prop on the failed engine, and then increasing power gradually until the aircraft was in stable flight.
Eventually many of its design issues were fixed and the USAAF began redeploying P-38 fighter groups to Britain which with the aid of their long-range tanks, were flown across the Atlantic via Iceland. It was there in late August 1942 that a P-38 shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor - the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.
In early November 1942, a number of P-38 Squadrons were transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa as part of the force being built up for the invasion of Italy.
While serving in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the war and achieving 31 victories, it was in this theatre that the Lightning also suffered its heaviest losses - with 23 aircraft shot down against only one enemy kill.
Luftwaffe pilots in their new Bf-109’s’s found the P-38’s were easy to outmanoeuvre and suffered from the same lack of agility that the German twin engine fighter/bomber the BF-110 had suffered from.
With the arrival in North Africa of the updated Warhawks/Kittyhawks to counter the Bf-109’s, a large number of P-38’s were transferred back to England to join the Spitfire and P-47 Thunderbolts as bomber escorts until the more nimble P-51D’s took over the escort role.
In the European Theatre, P-38s made 130,000 sorties with a loss of 1.3% overall, comparing favourably with P-51s, which posted a 1.1% loss. While never excelling as a formidable fighter aircraft, the Lightning's greatest virtues were long range, heavy payload, high speed, fast climb and concentrated firepower. In the Pacific however it was a different matter, with P-38’s going onto down over 1,800 Japanese aircraft.
All P-38 Lightning Instruments listed below come complete with detailed Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in aircraft cockpit.
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