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The Crash of The Lockheed XP-38

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The XP-38, 37-457, was built under tight secrecy and made its maiden flight on January 27, 1939, with Air Corps test pilot and P-38 project officer, Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey, at the controls. The P-38's performance justified Lockheed's investment of nearly $6,000,000 of its own funds to complete the prototype. The Army was so delighted with the big new fighter, it lifted the wraps of secrecy from the plane for a transcontinental speed dash on February 11, 1939. This event was marred by a crash when Kelsey undershot the runway at Mitchell Field, NY. Kelsey survived the crash and remained an important part of the Lightning program. The airplane was written off, but Lockheed received a contract for thirteen YP-38s along with the usual list of improvements.

The XP-38 had been powered by two liquid cooled, Allison V-1710 engines turning 11 1/2 foot Curtiss Electric, inward turning, counter-rotating propellers. With the YP-38s and all subsequent Lightings, the propellers rotated outward negating torque when both engines were operating (A batch ordered by Britain did not have counter-rotating propellers.) One XP-38A was built with a pressurized cabin. Armament on the YPs was altered by replacement of two of the .50s with .30s, and the 20 mm cannon gave way to a 37 mm. But even before the YP-38s were completed, the original machine gun arrangement was standardized for production types. The first production order was 35 P-38Ds, followed by 210 P-3XEs which reverted back to the 20 mm cannon. These planes began to arrive in October 1941, just before America entered World War II. With the P-38D came self sealing fuel tanks and armor protection for the pilot. The Lightning was ready for war!

A major problem surfaced with the loss of control in a dive caused by aerodynamic compressibility. During late spring 1941, Air Corps Major Signa A. Gilke encountered serious trouble while diving his Lightning at high-speed from an altitude of 30,000 ft (9,120 m). When he reached an indicated airspeed of about 320 mph (515 kph), the airplane's tail began to shake violently and the nose dropped until the dive was almost vertical. Signa recovered and landed safely and the tail buffet problem was soon resolved after Lockheed installed new fillets to improve airflow where the cockpit gondola joined the wing center section. Seventeen months passed before engineers began to determine what caused the Lightning's nose to drop. They tested a scale model P-38 in the Ames Laboratory wind tunnel operated by the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and found that shock waves formed when airflow over the wing reached transonic speeds and became turbulent. Lockheed never remedied this problem but the firm did install dive recovery flaps under each wing in 1944 to restore lift and smooth the airflow enough to maintain control when diving at high-speed.

Pilot - Lieutenant Kelsey

Lockheed XP-38 Airplane

Airplane- - - - - - - - -Lockheed XP-38, Pursuit

Engines - - - - - - - - -Allison, twin, 1000-hp. (cylinder-in-line)

All-metal, twin-fuselage, shatterproof transparent cowling, streamlined fighting craft, with 6 aperatures in nose for machine guns


Time of leaving March Field, California - February 11, 1939 9:12 a.m.
Arrived at Amarillo, Texas

Arrived at Dayton, Ohio - Wright Field

Took off from Wright Field

Arrived at Mitchel Field, Long Island, N.Y.

12:22 p.m.

3:10 p.m.

3:28 p.m.

4:55 (4:57) p.m.


Elapsed time

Flying time

Average speed

2400 (2490) miles

7 hours, 43 minutes

7 hours, 2 minutes

350 miles per hour at 17,000 ft.


MITCHEL FIELD, N.Y., Feb. 11, 1939-The newest and fastest thing in fighting aircraft, the Army's twin-engine pursuit plane which took a year and a half to build, crashed today as it roared to a landing after a secret, record-breaking speed flight across the continent.

With Lieut. Ben S. Kelsey at the all-metal single-seate controls, the "mystery" plane's tricycle undercarriage struck the top of a tree and crashed into a sand trap on a golf course adjacent to the Army airport.

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Kelsey was badly shaken but not seriously hurt. He was treated for a slight cut over the left eye and a scratch on one hand at the post hospital and then taken to post headquarters where he told officers "I'm okay."

The plane, which had reached speeds of almost 400 miles per hour in preliminary tests, left March Field, Cal., where its existence was divulged for the first time today., at 9:12 a.m., eastern standard time, and flew over Mitchel Field at 4:55 p.m., having stopped at Amarillo, Tex., and Dayton, O., for fuel.

The elapsed time was 7 hours and 43 minutes, but the flying time, subtracting 21 minutes spent at Amarillo and 20 minutes at Dayton, was 7 hours and 2 minutes. The non-stop transcontinental record is 7 hours 28 minutes 27 seconds, set by Howard Hughes in a 2,490-mile flight from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J., on Jan. 19, 1937.

The plane, powered by two (12) cylinder-in-line engines set in the leading edge of either wing, roared over the field at 1,000 feet altitude. At that height it looked like a disembodied wing with a bulge where the cockpit was.

Kelsey turned the craft back into the wind and headed for the field with engines idling. Apparently realizing the plane would not clear the trees on the golf course, he attempted to gain speed and altitude. The right motor did not respond, observers said, and the plane went into a short turn. Kelsey cut the left motor to avert a full spin and tried to nose the ship up.

The undercarriage fouled the trees, however, and the plane pancaked into the sand trap, about a quarter of a mile from the field, at 4:58 p.m.

The right wing was ripped off, the fuselage and outriggers damaged and the propellers bent. Kelsey shut off the ignition in time to keep the plane from catching on fire.

Col. James E. Chaney, commanding officer at the field, placed guards around the wreck and refused to permit photographers to take pictures. Crowds were kept at a considerable distance.

Kelsey, who said his injuries "didn't amount to anything," was taken to the post hospital by a motorist and about 10 minutes later went to headquarters to be interviewed by Chaney.

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Reporters were denied access to the pilot, and Mitchel Field officials said he would spend the night at the post.

Kelsey, who in speed tests on the west coast had driven the plane at six and a half miles a minute, flew to Amarillo in less than 2 hours, landing there at 11 a.m., eastern standard time, and taking off again at 11:21.

He landed at Dayton at 3:10 p.m., eastern standard time, having averaged 350 miles an hour from March Field, and departed 20 minutes later.

The flight was unannounced and air corps officials here maintained the aura of mystery with which authorities on the coast had shrouded the plane.

The craft, built by the Lockheed Aircraft Co. in Burbank, Cal., and delivered a month ago, was described as "the most perfect example of streamlining yet achieved in aviation."

The fuselage behind the cockpit consists of two steel frames extending to the tail assembly. The nose, a bulge in the forward edge of the wing, contains six apertures for machine guns.

The plane, first single-seat pursuit aircraft ever built with twin-engines, was the Army's answer to new high-speed bombers. It was "experimental pursuit ship No. 38" and the aircorps planned to order more if it proved acceptable.



"Mystery" Plane Crashes At End Of Test Speed Hop;
Fails to Break Hughes Mark


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New York, February 11 (1939)-(AP)- A new secret twin-motor Army pursuit monoplane crashed into a tree on the edge of Mitchel Field on Long Island tonight at the end of a near-record transcontinental test flight.

The pilot and sole occupant, Lieutenant Ben S. Kelsey, crack test flier, was saved from serious injury by the plane's all-steel cabin.

Kelsey took off from March Field, Calif., at 9:12 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time), stopped briefly at Amarillo, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and arrived here at 4:57 p.m. His elapsed time of 7 hours 45 minutes was only 16 minutes and 35 seconds longer than Howard Hughes's 1937 Burbank, Calif.-Newark, N.J. nonstop record.

He apparently overshot the field, observers said, and zoomed the motors to pick up speed and altitude. The right motor appeared to choke, sending him into a steep right turn.

As Kelsey cut the throttle again, the plane slipped down and sheared off the tops of trees bordering the field, the undercarriage caught in a thirty-five-foot tree, and the plane plunged down into a sand pit on the Cold Stream Golf Course.

Bystanders pulled Kelsey out of the wreckage. He was taken to a hospital with cuts on one eye and one hand, and suffering from shock. He was released after examination.

Scores of cars jammed around the spot. Field officials threw a fifty-man guard around the wreckage and rushed the plane's instruments to the field office, their condition undetermined.

Colonel James Chaney, field commandant, called an inquiry board into session immediately, with Kelsey present. The findings were expected to be kept secret and sent to Washington in an army plane.

The weather at the time of the crash was clear, with a light shifting wind. At the time of the crash it was blowing southeast.

The plane was a new Lockheed, the Army's first twin-engine pursuit plane, completed at the Lockheed Burbank plant two weeks ago and capable of doing 350 miles an hour.

It was an all-metal single-seater, with stratosphere operating equipment, tricycle undercarriage, and super-high lift devices.

It was designed to carry a nest of high-power machine guns, but none today. Its designation was XP-38.

Kelsey left Amarillo at 12:21 p.m. (E.S.T.), stopped at Dayton for 20 minutes, and took off at 3:34 p.m. (E.S.T.)

His distance was estimated officially at about 2,400 miles. Hughes flight was about 2,587 miles.

Kelsey, 33, is married and is regularly assigned to the laboratory division of Wright Field, Dayton.

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