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P-38 Lightning


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One usually doesn't hear the P-38 mentioned in the same manner as the P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, Me-109 or other classic WW2 fighters, even though the two top USAAF aces of the war flew it. It's twin engine configuration admittedly puts it in a different class, and it seemed to have more of an impact in the Pacific than in the ETO.

 

So what's the overall evaluation of this aircraft? Did it fill a gap that other fighters couldn't, or was it kind of an "also-ran' in the war?

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It was quite good in two aspects at least: twin engines ment less operational losses especially flying over ocean and also when suffering hits. P-38 had also good range and survivability with large weapon payload.

 

It did take some time until right combat tactics were developed for it and during that time they suffered in combat against experienced Luftwaffe pilots.

 

It was very good plane, though..right with P-51 and P-47.

 

Cheers,

 

M.S.

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This guy might have disagreed, though.. :P

 

Heinrich Bartels

 

"Bartels gained 14 victories in October 1943, including three USAAF P-38 twin-engine fighters shot down on 8 October (54-56) and five victories, including a further three P-38s, shot down on 25 October (57-61). By the end of 1943, Bartels score stood at 73, including four victories on 15 November (67-70), all P-38 fighters shot down on one mission over Greece."

 

He shot down those 4 in 15 Nov in 2-3 minutes...that might not been doing good for morale of P-38 pilots.

 

67. 15.11.1943 13:10 P-38 11./JG 27 SE Kalamaki

68. 15.11.1943 13:10 P-38 11./JG 27 SE Kalamaki

69. 15.11.1943 13:11 P-38 11./JG 27 SE Kalamaki

70. 15.11.1943 13:12 P-38 11./JG 27 SE Kalamaki

 

That is clear example about consequences using unsuitable tactics when flying P-38.

 

Cheers,

 

M.S.

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Martin Caidins book got me sold on them. The late model P-38 seems to have been a great fighter from treetop to all but very high altitude. The 8x 50 cal were good armament and not obstructed by propellors. The engines were designed to compensate torque reactions.

Edited by Martin M
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For an "also ran", it has the distinction of being (I believe) the only American fighter designate that was in production from the beginning until the end of the war. When something so resource intensive (big, twin engines) stays in assembly, it's because it fulfills needs that nothing else does as well. Speed, range, armament and stability as a gun/camera platform are among those reasons.

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For an "also ran", it has the distinction of being (I believe) the only American fighter designate that was in production from the beginning until the end of the war. When something so resource intensive (big, twin engines) stays in assembly, it's because it fulfills needs that nothing else does as well. Speed, range, armament and stability as a gun/camera platform are among those reasons.

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Very true, Doug, and think of the range it had, esp. the J-model, very important for an AAF on the offensive most of its war, esp. in the Pacific. I remember cherrypicking the stats in my William Green books [date?] to 'prove' the P-38 the best fighter of WWII, etc. Ken

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The P-38 was probably the best twin engine fighter of the war. Unlike nearly every other twin fighter, it had the performance to compete with the singles in air-to-air combat and was able to carry large payloads, had long range, and superb performance. Poor tactics and doctrine hampered it, as did poor field support and production issues (intercooler issues, compressibility, detonation, and a host of smaller problems). Poor pilot training in twin operations and abysmal dissemination of lessons learned seem to have earned it a bad reputation in the ETO that appears to be largely unfair. It was continuously upgraded and improved, though, and remained cutting-edge until the end. It is my understanding that the airfoil was a bit on the thick side and limited its performance a bit more than some of its single-engined contemporaries in that it reached its critical Mach number sooner, but I am not the expert on this.

 

It apparently had good handling characteristics and, once the pilots were properly trained, was safe and relatively easy to fly.

 

Douglas

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P38 shot down a Japanese General IIRC, thats pretty cool...and it did that because it was the only fighter with the range at the time needed for the mission IIRC.

 

There were some engine troubles with the P38 early on IIRC, I can only imagine what it would have been like with twin Merlines, much like the Twin Mustang I would guess, only much earlier on.

 

It had a cannon, something most other US fighters lacked.

 

It had a dive issue, it would start bumping the sound barrier and control would be lost, they added airbrakes to fix it.

 

As was said, it was one of the main go to warbirds for the entire conflict, that says something. Did any servie in Korea? Or were there only P51s there?

 

IIRC they cost more to produce then P51s, that was a drawback. They were also more complex to produce.

 

Just imagine a twin Merlin P38 with a 37mm and 4 .50cals in the nose!!! It could have done it all (well, so did the production 38 after all), dogfight, intercept, tank busting...

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P38 shot down a Japanese General IIRC, thats pretty cool...and it did that because it was the only fighter with the range at the time needed for the mission IIRC.

 

There were some engine troubles with the P38 early on IIRC, I can only imagine what it would have been like with twin Merlines, much like the Twin Mustang I would guess, only much earlier on.

 

181093[/snapback]

 

Actually it was Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, whose G4M was interceted thanks to the P-38's long range and MAGIC intercepts.

 

Also, only the B model Twin Mustang used Merlins/Packards, all other marks had an enhanced Allison V-1710, which seemed to have a few bugs but was eventually worked out. Thus the last USAF piston fighter was engined with a design that was first built in 1931.

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This guy might have disagreed, though.. :P

181047[/snapback]

You might have to be careful there though with claims v. losses, late 1943 a transitional period between early in the war when German claims tended to be accurate, and 1944 by which time they were increasingly diverging from reality. Skimming over Rust's histories of the 12th and 15th AF's I can't find any of those, but not very thorough books.

 

But statistically from the US perspective the P-38 had a higher sortie loss rate in MTO/ETO than any other US fighter. In part because asked to do challenging missions, deep penetration of Axis air space when US numbers were still limited and LW strong. And specific examples from the Rust 12th AF book, 82nd FG's claim loss record for Tunisian campaign 166 for loss of 64. Given the typical (relatively low, perhaps 30-40%) claim accuracy of the USAAF at that point, and lots of transports and bombers among those claims, likely to have been short end of stick v. LW fighters. And 82nd was the leading group among the 3 in 12th AF at the time, 14th removed from combat because of losses in January, 1st's record not mentioned. Then 30 August 1943 1st FG lost 13 of 44 P-38's on an escort over Italy claiming 8 (but with such heavy losses proabably a heavy overclaim). On 10 June 1944 1st and 82nd lost 22 P-38's on disastrous fighter bomber missions in Ploesti area mainly to fighters with few claims.

 

Isolated incidents latter two, but it's hard to find similar disasters involving P-47's or especially P-51's. Nor are such incidents found in PTO use of the P-38. Likewise in the few 9th AF P-38's groups heavy losses when jumped by enemy fighters seem more anecdotally common than with the much more numerous P-47's.

 

Joe

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Short answer: best all-around fighter of WW II

 

Longer answer: had some major problems with compressibility and more importantly pilot training that caused the 8th AF to ditch them in favor of the P-51. The PTO and MTO couldn't get enough of them. They were a more complicated aircraft to fly than any single-engined fighter, except perhaps the P-47, took longer for a pilot to get the experience necessary to get the most out of the plane than its single-engined counterparts. But once a pilot got to that level he was awfully tough to beat, the P-38 could play angles with the best angles fighters, and energy with the best energy figthers. And nothing had the same versatility as far as payload/range.

 

 

Greg Shaw

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Written by a 8th AF Navigator:

 

Ode to the P-38

 

Oh, Hedy Lamar is a beautiful gal

 

Madeline Carroll is too

 

But you’ll find if you query a much different theory

 

Amongst any bomber crew

 

That the loveliest thing of which one can sing

 

This side of the heavenly gates

 

Is no blonde or brunette of the Hollywood set

 

But an escort of P-38s

 

 

 

In all the days past when the tables were massed

 

With glasses of scotch and champagne

 

It’s quite true that that sight was a thing to delight us

 

Intent on feeling no pain

 

But no longer the same nowadays in this game

 

As we sail onto the missing state

 

Take your sparkling wine but always make mine

 

An escort of P-38s

 

 

 

Byron, Shelley and Keats ran each other dead heats

 

Describing the views from the hills

 

Of the valleys in May where the winds gently sway

 

An army of bright daffodils

 

Take your daffodils Byron, the wild flowers Shelley

 

Yours is the myrtle, friend Keats

 

Just preserve me those cuties

 

All American beauties

 

An escort of P-38s

 

 

 

Sure we’re braver than hell on the ground all is well

 

In the air it’s a much different story

 

As we sweat out our track through the fighters and flak

 

We’re willing to split up the glory

 

Well, they wouldn’t reject us so heaven protect us

 

Until all this shootin’ abates

 

Give us courage to fight ‘em and another small item

 

An escort of P-38s

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Another perspective, from the Caidin book IIRC.

 

Don't give me a P-38

With props that counter-rotate

They'll loop and they'll spin

But they'll soon auger in

Don't give me a P-38

 

The -38 would go on to become one of the best fighters in the air, but it had a troubled history of development.

 

 

Shot

Edited by ShotMagnet
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In general, the P-38 was a great aircraft.

 

The early models had problems with loss of control due to compressibility effects. The P-38 was not particularly agile. Compared to single-engine fighters, it was more expensive to manufacture and maintain. It was also a very dangerous airplane if it lost engine power on one side on take-off or landing. A well-trained, experienced pilot could handle this emergency, but the mass-produced USAAF pilots of WWII were marginally trained (by modern standards) and inexperienced. The P-38 was a big airplane compared to most fighters which made it a bigger target.

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The P-38 was probably the best twin engine fighter of the war. 

 

I agree if you mean the best to see action, but it couldn't hold a candle to the beautiful DH Hornet which was in service by the end of the war but just too late to see action.

 

Tony Williams: Military gun and ammunition website and discussion forum

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I was under the impression that the P38 was originally designed as a bomber destroyer, hence the heavier guns.

 

In the Euro front, it didn't do as well considering performance was roughly the same. When performance was the same, then the only advantage left was maneuverability to which the P38 was a little overweight.

 

But when it was trasfered to the Pacific, it did great against the slower Japanese planes. Think several top American aces prefered the P38. I think the P38 had a higher ceiling as well, which helped in its zoom-and-boom tactics. In dives, I believe only the P47 was equal. And of course, the P38's twins was a blessing over Pacific waters.

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Short answer: best all-around fighter of WW II

 

I would say that it was one of the best all-round combat planes because of its ability to carry a substantial warload as well as face up to enemy fighters, although it was not the best all-round air-combat fighter. That title would be argued over by several single-engined planes.

 

You might be interested in this article which sets out to devise the most useful combat plane - for the RAF: http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/WW2plane.htm

 

Tony Williams: Military gun and ammunition website and discussion forum

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I've read that the P-38 had inadequate cockpit heating which hampered its performance on ETO, but wasn't a problem in the Pacific where it was much warmer and air operations were conducted at lower altitudes. Is this correct?

 

The P-38 is one of my favourite flight sim planes ever. Concentrated firepower on a stable gun platform. Yum. :)

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You might have to be careful there though with claims v. losses, late 1943 a transitional period between early in the war when German claims tended to be accurate, and 1944 by which time they were increasingly diverging from reality. Skimming over Rust's histories of the 12th and 15th AF's I can't find any of those, but not very thorough books.

 

But statistically from the US perspective the P-38 had a higher sortie loss rate in MTO/ETO than any other US fighter.

181136[/snapback]

 

*snipping a lot*

 

I just wanted to point out that P-38 did need different fighter tactics than single-engined US fighters. When applied tactically correctly, P-38 was one of the most successful US combat airplane in WW II. But when handled inadequatly, people like Bartels did show why it was unwise to do that.

 

Cheers,

 

M.S.

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I agree if you mean the best to see action, but it couldn't hold a candle to the beautiful DH Hornet which was in service by the end of the war but just too late to see action.

 

Tony Williams: Military gun and ammunition website and discussion forum

181363[/snapback]

The Hornet wouldn't even be the best twin engined fighter in the UK at that time as the Meteor had been out for some time. The ME-262 and F7F had better performance than the P-38 but I think we're speaking of aircraft that were able to contribute significantly. Same reason the Hurricane should be considered a great plane.

 

Twin engine fighters didn't live up to expectations. The ME-110 is a good example of the performance lack of course. The P-38 was one of a few that was able to rise above the generally poor performace of that group. It's interesting that the P-38 was successful as a twin engine fighter using the same engine that wasn't able to make the P-40 anything more than mediocre.

 

Regards twin engine prop fighters, the DO-335 is, to me, the most interesting. Not that I would want to fly one.

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I would say that it was one of the best all-round combat planes because of its ability to carry a substantial warload as well as face up to enemy fighters, although it was not the best all-round air-combat fighter. That title would be argued over by several single-engined planes.

 

There were some pretenders to the throne, but other than the P-51, none of them could do it 600-800 miles from home. Put another way, the P-38 could do the point defense interceptor/short range air superiority role of the Spitfire and Bf 109, but they could not do the long-range escort/interdiction/ground attack roles that it performed.

 

As I said earlier, a well flown P-38 could more than hold its own against any single engined fighter of the war, the key being well flown. Its only real deficiency was a poor low speed roll rate, due to the roll dampening of the outboard engines and the long wingspane, although later P-38J and L models with hydraulic ailerons were among the very best high speed rollers.

 

Wing loading at combat weight was a bit high, around 45 lbs/ft2, or about the same class as a Fw 190A, and about 10-20% higher than other USAAF and USN/USMC fighters, or about 25% higher than a Spitfire. But the high aspect ratio, high lift wing and fowler flaps made up for a lot of that. Most importantly, there was no torque reaction from then engines, and very mild stall characteristics. A good pilot could fly it right on the edge of a high speed stall with no worry about departing and spinning. A really good pilot would fly it past the edge of the stall and just let it mush out.

 

Also, the P-38 had the best power loading of any US fighter of the war, and above about 15,000 ft it was the best of any fighter. Meaning it has the most excess power for climb and maneuver, making it an awfully tough energy fighter, combined with the excellent stall characteristics making it a very good angles fighter.

 

As mentioned, it took a lot of experience to reach the full capability of the aircraft. But once a pilot reached that level he could take on any single-engined fighter in the world knowing he could match it angles for angles or energy for energy.

 

It wasn't perfect, no fighter was. Poor cockpit heating, intercooler problems, compressibility, poor low speed roll rate and difficult servicing just to name a few. But I could make a similar list for every fighter of the war. In skilled hands it was a very effective air-air fighter, and a more than adequate fighter-bomber.

 

Would I choose a Spitfire as a better point defense interceptor, maybe, depends on what Spitfire Mk it is. But no single-engined fighter was its equal as an all purpose fighter.

 

Greg Shaw

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Another thing to consider with the P38, it was very hard to mistake it for a enemy aircraft.

 

Nothing else in the sky looked like it.

 

This was a blessing and a curse. It helped to minimise friendly AAA and such, but it also made it easy for the bad guys to spot you while you were still trying to figure out if that was a Spit or a 109.

 

Identifcation at range with the P38 was pretty easy for the opposition.

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Guest Hans Engström

Anyboy except me ind it absolutely beautiful? But then, I have a thing for twin engine piston fighter planes.

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