An Extraordinary American Aircraft To Hold Two Records, First War Kill and Fastest Coast-to-coast Crossing

Lockheed P-38J Lightning, received the German nickname of Der Gabelschwanz Teufel or The Fork-Tailed Devil, and was the result of a new United States Army Air Corps – USAAC specification for high-speed, high-level interceptor, with an emphasised requirement on extended fuel range capabilities. The aeroplane was the brainchild of the legendary Kelly Johnson, the Lockheed engineer heading up the aircraft’s design and development project that at its culmination produced a total of 10,030 P-38 Lightning aeroplanes. A newly completed prototype recorded its initial test flight during January 1939 successfully. On 11 February 1939 the new design crossed the US in a record-breaking coast-to-coast flight to complete its bicoastal jaunt in only seven hours and 48 minutes at the hands of pilot Ben Kelsey.

Lockheed P-38J Lightning

Its twin-boom fuselage represented a significant departure from military aircraft design at this period in time, for the greater part military aero engineers preferred to employ single fuselage layouts in their designs. The military specification for height, speed, and a long-range capability suggested additional power to reach the speed and height specification as well as increased internal storage volumes to accommodate larger fuel cells, a twin-engine aircraft could meet these specifications with greater ease and such Kelly Johnson employed the uncommon twin boom design two has each of the two Allison V 1710 engines in its own mounting bay housed at the forward tip of each boom directly driving a three blade propeller in a puller configuration. The contra-rotating engines eliminated the interference of torque roll inherent to piston engine aircraft, mounting its single-seated cockpit in a central teardrop shaped nacelle between the two engine-to-tail booms.

On a day of infamy the 7 December 1941, the infamously historical day the Japanese Empire’s Navy attacked the American military base in Pearl Harbour, halfway around the world an Icelandic based P-38 E Lightning downed a German maritime Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor reconnaissance aircraft as the first strike / kill for the American air force. The event occurred as America declared war on the Japanese Empire, which forced the Axis forces to respond in kind. By end 1943, P-38 Es were deployed to be stationed in one of 12 squadrons across the Western coast the cover the USAs specific interests as well as the Aleutian Island chain situated off the Alaskan coast. The remarkable aircraft would soon be deployed across Europe and the Mediterranean war theatre, where the P-38 came into operation during September 1943. Upon its deployment to the United Kingdom this distinctive American aircraft was only fighter that offered the necessary range to serve as a fighter escort to the American heavy bombers into and out of bombing target locations within Germany.

Lockheed P-38J Lightning1

In its illustrious career the airframe was fitted with several improved versions of the Allison V-1710 power-plants, with each improved version delivering some very welcome additional horsepower and reliability, as well as re-configured under wing bomb racks to supplement its machine-gun and cannon main armament. By August 1943 the P-38 J model designate was received into the front lines sporting a bullet-proof windscreen, which proved to be particularly reassuring to its pilots when engaging enemies head-on along with further improvements in flight controls, higher capacity underwing fuel tanks, cockpit heating, improvements to engine cooling that allowed the more powerful engines to deliver improved climbing rates and top speeds. The increased capacity to the internal fuel cell provided P-38 J pilots to fly from its UK bases engaged in aerial combat over Germany to then successfully return to the UK all within its remarkable flight range, in addition to its above par aerobatic and performance capabilities.