Search our Website

P-38 Lightning Long-Range Fighter

« Previous | Index | Next »

One of WWII's Most Effective Fighters - P-38

P-38 Lightning - WWII American fighter plane.

P-36 Lightning in flight. USAF Photo.

The P-38 Lightning was Lockheed's first military aircraft and became one of the most effective fighters of World War II.

Fork-Tailed Devil

A long range, twin engine turbo charged, twin boom fighter, it was easily identified by friend and foe alike, earning it the job of fleet protection in the Normandy landings on  D-day (the Navy did not shoot down a single Lightning on D-day, not so for other Allied aircraft). Its twin tail booms were so distinctive that the Germans gave it the nickname of Gabelschwanzteufel, which translated means Fork-Tailed Devil.

Versatility of the P-38 Lightning

Advantages of the twin-boom was the ability to install armament in the nose which was free of propellers and with the raised cockpit, the pilot had an excellent, unobstructed view. Proving to be quite versatile, it also was used as a fighter-bomber, a night fighter, for photo reconnaissance and was experimentally fitted to carry torpedoes, although I did not find evidence that it ever carried torpedoes in combat.

Although USAAC specifications were given in 1937 for a a high-altitude interceptor, the aircraft did not enter service until 1941, as the P-38D model. The biggest of the single seat fighters, the P-38 had a fifty-two foot wingspan and was equipped with two turbo-charged 1,600 hp Allison V-1710-11/113 in-line piston engines.

Concentrated Firepower in the P-38 Nose

P-38 Lightning armament installation at factory

Factory work in progress in the installation of machine guns in the nose of a new Lockheed P-38 Lightning in 1942. Photo from the Collection FDR-PHOCO: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Armament for the P-38 included one 20mm Hispano AN-M2C cannon, and four .50 caliber Browning machine guns all in the nose. In addition, it could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs or ten 5 inch rocket (R.P.) projectiles under wing.

The 2-seater Droopsnoot P-38

Various versions of the P-38 were produced throughout the war and included the J and L two-seater models. These could carry a bombardier with a Norden Bombsight in the modified glazed nose, which was missing the usual machine guns. Thus equipped, the aircraft (sometimes called the pathfinder) would lead formations of P-38s armed with bombs to their target, and after taking sightings, the bombardier would signal the rest of the formation to drop its bombs all at once, a technique that proved quite successful. Because of its appearance, this version was nick-named droop snoot (also spelled droopsnoot).

High Altitude Performance and Compressibility

USAAF training video: P-38 Lightning Characteristics.
2 minutes.

The high performance of the P-38, however, did cause serious problems with compressibility at high altitudes.(Compressibility is the change in air volume when it contacts the leading edges on a plane and causes air to move faster in these areas). Dives in the aircraft at speeds above 500 mph caused the compressed air to reach the speed of sound, at which point the pilot could no longer control the aircraft.

Since temperature (as well as altitude) lowers the speed of sound, the cold weather in the European theater became problematic for the P-38 as a high altitude fighter, however, it proved worthy in ground-attacks and reconnaissance in this theater.

The warmer temperatures in the Pacific and lower altitude fighting allowed the Lighting to give excellent service in this theater.

Jet Age Makes P-38 Obsolete


Produced, and in service continuously throughout WWII, the Lighting's success made it one of the most famous US fighters of the war.

The P-38 proved excellent in gaining air superiority in the Pacific, and was the aircraft flown by American fighter aces Richard Bong, Thomas McGuire, and H. McDonald. But with the coming of the jet age, the P-38 Lightning became obsolete, with the last aircraft being retired in 1949.


« Previous | Index | Next »


* P-38 Lightning facts

Category Fighter
Manufacturer Lockheed
Introduced 1941
Used in
US Army Air Forces
Royal Air Force
Free French Air Force
Produced 1941–45
Number built 10,037
Cruising speed 275 mph
Max. speed Over 414 mph
Altitude 35,000 feet service ceiling
Range 1,100 miles
* Numbers are approximate