Celebrated as one of the Pacific War’s best fighters, Lockheed’s Lightning earned a less-than enviable reputation in European air combat.
The American fighter pilot spotted two indistinct shapes cutting diagonally across a road just slightly above and in front of him. They were blemishes in motion. Twelve o’clock high, he thought. He rechecked his armament switches, rammed his throttles to full power and went down low, as low as he dared, hugging the treetops. The afternoon shadow of his P-38 Lightning raced across French hedgerows and fields as the pilot sought to identify the other two aircraft. He wanted them to be Focke-Wulf Fw-190s, falling nicely into the crosshairs of his nose-mounted 20mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns.
Captain Robin Olds kicked left rudder, slid his pipper across the nearest plane’s left wing and, in an instant of epiphany, saw the Iron Cross painted on the rear fuselage. Until that instant, he hadn’t been certain the planes were German. Olds shot down one of the Fw-190s moments later, then followed the second into a violent left break, fired and watched the pilot bail out. It was August 14, 1944, and Olds had just used his P-38 Lightning to rack up the first two of his eventual 13 World War II aerial victories.
“I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it,” Olds recalled. “The fact is, the P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.”
It was, Olds hastened to add, “the most beautiful plane of our generation.” And it fought well in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. So what happened in northern Europe, and how could things have gone so wrong?
A survey of Stateside training bases in 1941 showed that 87 percent of prospective pilots requested to be assigned to the big, sleek, twin-engine Lockheed Lightning. “We were in awe of the P-38,” said future ace Jack Ilfrey. “It looked like a beautiful monster.” “If you were a boy in America, you wanted to fly it,” said another future ace, Winton “Bones” Marshall. “If you played with Dinky metal toys and balsa wood airplane models, you wanted to fly it.” On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the P-38 captured the imagination of young Americans like no other fighter. Eighth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle would later call the P-38 “the sweetest-flying plane in the sky.”
With tricycle gear, twin booms and a centerline fuselage pod brimming with guns, the P-38 was powered by two 1,600-hp Allison V-1710-111/113 liquid-cooled engines driving three-bladed, 9-foot Curtiss Electric propellers. Although a fully loaded Lightning weighed more than 10 tons—nearly twice as much as a P-51 Mustang—a skilled pilot could fling the P-38 around like a lightweight. The problem was that while American pilots were generally well trained, they weren’t well trained for a complex twin-engine fighter.
Struggling to keep the air campaign over Europe alive in the face of disastrous bomber losses, the U.S. Army Air Forces rushed two P-38 combat groups to England. On October 15, 1943, the 55th Fighter Group became the first to conduct operations. The Lightning men mixed it up with Me-109s and Fw-190s on November 6, and racked up their first aerial victories. “We were arrayed against the Luftwaffe and they were facing us head-on,” one of the pilots said, “and we were not winning.”
The P-38 performed usefully but suffered from a number of problems. Its Allison engines consistently threw rods, swallowed valves and fouled plugs, while their intercoolers often ruptured under sustained high boost and turbocharger regulators froze, sometimes causing catastrophic failures.
Arrival of the newer P-38J to fill in behind the P-38H was supposed to help, but did not help enough. The J model’s enlarged radiators were trouble-prone. Improperly blended British fuel exacerbated the problems: Anti-knock lead compounds literally seethed out and became separated in the Allison’s induction system at extreme low temperatures. This could cause detonation and rapid engine failure, especially at the high power settings demanded for combat.
The P-38’s General Electric turbo-supercharger sometimes got stuck in over-boosted or under-boosted mode. This occurred mainly when the fighter was flown in the freezing cold at altitudes approaching 30,000 feet, which was the standard situation in the European air war. Another difficulty was that early P-38 versions had only one generator, and losing the associated engine meant the pilot had to rely on battery power.
In an article on ausairpower.net, Carlo Kopp noted that in their early days in the European theater, “Many of the P-38s assigned to escort missions were forced to abort and return to base. Most of the aborts were related to engines coming apart in flight….[due to] intercoolers that chilled the fuel/air mixture too much. Radiators that lowered engine temps below normal operating minimums. Oil coolers that could congeal the oil to sludge. These problems could have been fixed at the squadron level. Yet, they were not.”
Eighth Air Force historian Roger Freeman described how bravery plus the P-38 was not enough during a mission on November 13, 1943, “an unlucky day for the 55th. In typical English November weather, damp and overcast, forty-eight P-38s set out to escort bombers on the target leg of a mission to Bremen; one turned back before the enemy coast was crossed and two more aborted later. At 26,000 feet over Germany, pilots shivered in bitterly cold cockpits, flying conditions were unusually bad, and the probability of mechanical troubles at that temperature did not help. Again outnumbered, the 55th was heavily engaged near the target as it strove to defend the bombers, for which it paid dearly. Seven P-38s fell, five to enemy fighters and the others to unknown causes.” Another 16 Lightnings limped home with battle damage.
Things got better. The arrival of the improved P-38J-25 and P-38L models, modified on the production line based on lessons learned in Europe, helped, but problems remained. Lightning pilot 2nd Lt. Jim Kunkle of the 370th Fighter Group remembered: “The critical problem with us was we didn’t have much heat in the cockpit. On high altitude missions it was very cold. And we didn’t have the engine in front of us to help keep us warm. Bomber guys had those heated blue union suits that they wore but we tried heated clothing and it didn’t work for us.”
The only source of heat in the cockpit was warm air ducted from the engines, and it was little help. Lightning pilots suffered terribly. “Their hands and feet became numb with cold and in some instances frost-bitten; not infrequently a pilot was so weakened by conditions that he had to be assisted out of the cockpit upon return,” wrote Freeman.
Major General William Kepner, the fiery commanding general of VIII Fighter Command, wondered, as so many others did, why the P-38 wasn’t producing the results everyone wanted, and what to do about it. Asked to provide a written report, 20th Fighter Group commander Colonel Harold J. Rau did so reluctantly and only because he was ordered to.
“After flying the P-38 for a little over one hundred hours on combat missions it is my belief that the airplane, as it stands now, is too complicated for the ‘average’ pilot,” wrote Rau. “I want to put strong emphasis on the word ‘average,’ taking full consideration just how little combat training our pilots have before going on operational status.”
Rau wrote that he was being asked to put kids fresh from flight school into P-38 cockpits and it wasn’t working. He asked his boss to imagine “a pilot fresh out of flying school with about a total of twenty-five hours in a P-38, starting out on a combat mission.” Rau’s young pilot was on “auto lean and running on external tanks. His gun heater is off to relieve the load on his generator, which frequently gives out (under sustained heavy load). His sight is off to save burning out the bulb. His combat switch may or may not be on.” So, flying along in this condition, wrote Rau, the kid suddenly gets bounced by German fighters. Now he wonders what to do next.
“He must turn, he must increase power and get rid of those external tanks and get on his main [fuel tank],” Rau wrote. “So, he reaches down and turns two stiff, difficult gas switches (valves) to main, turns on his drop tank switches, presses his release button, puts the mixture to auto rich (two separate and clumsy operations), increases his RPM, increases his manifold pressure, turns on his gun heater switch (which he must feel for and cannot possibly see), turns on his combat switch and he is ready to fight.” To future generations this would be called multi-tasking, and it was not what you wanted to be doing when Luftwaffe fighters were pouring down on you.
“At this point, he has probably been shot down,” Rau noted, “or he has done one of several things wrong. Most common error is to push the throttles wide open before increasing RPM. This causes detonation and subsequent engine failure. Or, he forgets to switch back to auto rich, and gets excessive cylinder head temperature with subsequent engine failure.”
Another P-38 pilot described the multi-tasking challenge this way: “When you reduce power you must pull back the throttle (manifold pressure) first, then the prop RPM, and then the mixture. To increase power you must first put the mixture rich, then increase prop RPM, then increase manifold pressure. If you don’t follow this order you can ruin the engine.” Rau added that in his own limited experience, his P-38 group had lost at least four pilots who, when bounced, took no evasive action. “The logical assumption is that they were so busy in the cockpit trying to get organized that they were shot down before they could get going,” he wrote.
Rau described part of the solution: “It is standard procedure for the group leader to call, five minutes before [rendezvous with the bombers being escorted,] and tell all pilots to ‘prepare for trouble.’ This is the signal for everyone to get into auto rich, turn drop tank switches on, gun heaters on, combat and sight switches on and to increase RPM and manifold pressure to maximum cruise. This procedure, however, will not help the pilot who is bounced on the way in and who is trying to conserve his gasoline and equipment for the escort job ahead.”
During advisory visits to his fighter group, Lockheed and Allison representatives asked for suggestions. Rau wrote that their number-one request was a unit power control, incorporating an automatic manifold pressure regulator, which would control power, RPM and mixture by use of a single lever. He may not have known P-51 pilots could perform all these functions with one hand—never possible in the P-38, even in later versions.
Rau also pointed to the need “to simplify the gas switching system in this airplane. The switches [valve selector handles] are all in awkward positions and extremely hard to turn. The toggle switches for outboard tanks are almost impossible to operate with gloves on.” That last issue was no small thing given the need to wear gloves in the Lightning’s frigid cockpit.
Critics and champions of the P-38 alike often failed to remark on the obvious—that it was a multi-engine aircraft while most fighters were single-engine. Long after the war, former 1st Lt. Arthur W. Heiden wrote: “The quality of multi-engine training during World War II bordered on the ridiculous. I am convinced that with training methods now in use we could take most of civilian private pilots who might be about to fly the Aztec or Cessna 310, and in ten hours, have a more confident pilot than the ones who flew off to war in the P-38. A P-38 pilot usually got his training in two ways. The first way, of course, was twin-engine advanced training in Curtiss AT-9s, which had the unhappy feature of having propellers you couldn’t feather. After sixty hours of this, the student received ten hours of AT-6 gunnery, although he might get his gunnery training in the AT-9, since AT-6s were in short supply.”
Frank E. Birtciel, who flew 72 combat missions in P-38s and 49 in P-51s, said that near the end of training in the AT-9, the usual practice was to give a student pilot a “piggyback” ride in a P-38 with a second seat, and then check him out in the RP-322, a version of the fighter with simpler systems. Birtciel said procedures were so lax that a training instructor simply appeared amid a group of students one day and asked, “Anyone want to fly a ’38?” He raised his hand, expecting to be a backseater, and found a fully operational, single-seat P-38—not an RP-322—waiting for him on the ramp. “The crew chief told me how to start it up and I took off and flew it without any instruction,” he said.
At the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, with the U.S. daylight bombing campaign still moving in fits and starts, the first P-51 Mustangs entered service with the 354th Fighter Group, whose airmen never flew any other fighter once they reached England. The Mustangs’ arrival in Britain altered every aspect of the Americans’ aerial campaign against Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Whatever Lightning or P-47 Thunderbolt pilots might have said then, or might say today with 70 years of hindsight, the Mustang’s combination of speed and maneuverability was superior to that of any other U.S. fighter, and it had the legs to go deep into enemy territory.
A P-51B could carry 400 gallons of fuel, almost as much as the bigger P-47, but the Mustang got 3.3 miles per gallon while the Thunderbolt and Lightning got less than 1.8. The P-51’s lower rate of fuel consumption gave it a combat radius of more than 700 miles, enough to reach any target the bombers could. It was 30-70 mph faster than any German piston-engine fighter until the Fw-190D and had better acceleration, while its maneuverability and climb rate matched or exceeded anything the Luftwaffe could field.
The 55th Fighter Group was the first to get the new P-51D, trading in its old P-38s for the bubble-canopy fighters. The change from the torque-less twin-engine P-38 to the single-engine P-51 caused some initial problems, but once the pilots fully adjusted to their new rides, they found that the Mustang gave them an edge in both speed and maneuverability over all Luftwaffe piston-engine fighters at altitudes above 20,000 feet. The P-51’s chief disadvantage in comparison to the P-38 was its vulnerability to enemy fire, particularly the liquid-cooled Merlin engine, which could be put out of action with a single hit. At those times the former Lightning pilots may have found themselves wishing for a second engine to carry them back to base.
P-38 expert Warren M. Bodie wrote that the Lightning should have been converted from Allison to Merlin power, exactly as was done with the P-51. “Neither P-38 pilots, mechanics, facilities or logistics were prepared to operate efficiently in one of the bitterest European winters on record [1943-44],” he noted. “No other Allison-powered aircraft ever operated at altitudes of more than 20,000 feet over the Continent for even a half hour.” Bodie was a staunch advocate of the P-38, but in a 1991 interview he acknowledged that it achieved “mixed results” in combat with the Luftwaffe over northern Europe.
Only one fighter group in northern Europe, the 474th, flew the Lightning from arrival in Europe until war’s end. As part of the Ninth Air Force, the group flew mostly ground-attack missions at relatively low altitudes, and thus avoided most of the concerns associated with air-to-air action higher up.
One role in which the P-38 excelled, regardless of where, was photoreconnaissance. The F-5—its nacelle packed with cameras and its pilot focusing on high-speed missions intended to avoid enemy aircraft, get the pictures and get home—was a great success, whether at high altitude or “dicing” on the deck (see “Eyes of the Army,” September 2010).
The P-38 served importantly in every theater of the war, but it truly came into its own in the Pacific in the hands of pilots such as Majors Richard I. “Dick” Bong and Thomas B. McGuire, America’s top aces with 40 and 38 victories, respectively. Many of the men in P-38 cockpits fighting Japan started out with far more experience than those who were initially rushed to Europe. They fought in warmer weather and at lower altitudes, and while some of their Japanese adversaries were also seasoned, few were as skilled as the typical Luftwaffe fighter pilot of December 1943. The vaunted Mitsubishi A6M Zero lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks and was overrated in some areas, including its fabled maneuverability.
While a combat radius of 500 miles was a challenge to the P-38 under conditions in Europe, thanks in part to greater efforts to manage fuel consumption in the Pacific—aided by advice from Charles A. Lindbergh, who visited combat units and taught younger pilots how to save gas (see “The Lone Eagle’s War,” March 2013)—550 miles was not un – common. When Major John Mitchell led 16 P-38s to attack and kill Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on April 18, 1943, the mission spanned about 420 miles (see “Death by P-38,” May 2013).
The P-38 Lightning inspired young men, fought a global war and earned a reputation as one of the greatest fighters of all time. In the European Theater of Operations it was somewhat miscast, sorely misused and severely challenged. But it remained the mount of preference for many pilots, who loved this airplane like no other.
Robert F. Dorr is a U.S. Air Force veteran, a retired senior U.S. diplomat and the author of 75 books and thousands of magazine articles about the Air Force. His latest book is Fighting Hitler’s Jets (which is reviewed on P. 61). For additional reading, try: The Lockheed P-38 Lightning, by Warren M. Bodie; The Mighty Eighth, by Roger A. Freeman; Fighters of the United States Air Force, by Dorr and David Donald; and Fighters of the Mighty Eighth, by William N. Hess and Thomas G. Ivie.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.