Click on Picture to enlarge


P-38 Development, Testing, &  Training,

+ Larger Font | - Smaller Font


Modern aircraft undergo many computerized simulations during its design phase. In most cases, the designers know before the aircraft prototype is constructed whether or not it will fly. In most cases, actually flying the aircraft confirms what the designers already knew. Computers aid in this process to a great extent, but the knowledge of flight was paved by those aircraft visionaries such as the Wright bothers, Alberto Santos Dumont, and the brave men and women who flew the designs. Newer aircraft designs were constantly pushing the limit of existing knowledge and in most cases new designs capitalized on knowledge gained from a previous failure. When Kelly Johnson and his team of engineers began work on the P-38, they had to overcome phenomena that was either never explained properly or even encountered. Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the P-38 design was how it was able to encounter and overcome new problems throughout the course of its design and operational status. This was possible because of tremendous knowledge and experience of the design team and also an aircraft design that was extremely versatile.


The Training

While the P-38 design was starting to prove itself in testing and combat, one underlying problem still existed. Compressibility was still a major obstacle in the performance of the P-38, and it led to many rumors and myth about the flight characteristics. One prototype P-38 was modified for dive testing. An older P-38 E was the aircraft used for this experimentation. The forward gondola section was moved forward by thirty inches, and the cockpit was move forward by thirty-six inches. The cockpit flight controls were the same, but there was room behind the pilot for a co-pilot/observer/test engineer. This modified P-38 E "Swordfish" first too flight on June 2, 1943 and was immediately put into extensive dive tests. The tests would have limited results, but this design led into another use for this type of P-38.

Click on Picture to enlarge

The P-38 Swordfish

AAF training before Pearl Harbor was only designed to train between 12,000 - 13,000 pilots each year. After the attack, plans were changed and the numbers were increased significantly. However, the problem was that the government was unprepared for any armed conflicts, and pilots were being forced into the P-38 without adequate training. There were no twin-engine trainers available, but when the British balked at purchasing the Model 322 Lightning I fighters, they were employed as trainers. They were basically stripped down models of the P-38, but they were still rather advanced for the average trained pilot taking the controls for the first time. Johnson envisioned the P-38 Swordfish to be used to take pilot trainees along for demonstration flights with an experienced pilot at the controls. This would dispel many rumors and raise confidence in inexperienced pilots. Lockheed test pilot Jimmy Mattern was sent on tour with a Swordfish version of the P-38. He performed maneuvers that were normally feared by the recruits, such as rolling into a "dead" engine and many low-level aerobatics. After five months of training sessions, P-38 accident rates dropped from 6.5% to 1.5%. Mattern would receive the Civil Medal of Merit for his actions, which saved the lives of many recruits. Once again, the P-38 demonstrated its versatility and value to the Allied cause.


Toney LeVier

Click on Picture to enlarge

Tony LeVier & Kelly Johnson

Early 1944, Tony LeVier was ordered to get to the ETO ( European Theater Of Operation ) fast. The P-38 was awash in rumors or how deadly it can be to fly. Pilots not experienced with twin-engine flying were having many preventable accidents. Many of these pilots were killed not by the enemy, but a lack of knowledge on how to operate in case of an emergency. With the many engine problems, operating with one engine was a necessity. At some point in the war in the ETO, every pilot would probably be faced with a one-engine flying situation. LeVier was to get to Britain and demonstrate flying techniques to the pilots and would in the process hopefully dispel many rumors, which were unfounded.

LeVier believed too little testing at high altitudes was done before sending the P-38s to Britain. He also believed that too many experienced pilots were spread too thin in the pilot ranks, and that the cockpit heat was a serious problem. It was not just the comfort of the pilot, but when the pilots were cramped in a small cockpit under extreme cold situations, they were not in a good flying condition when encountering enemy aircraft. Also, the windows would fog up, and reduce visibility. He arrived at the 364th Fighter Group at Honington. LeVier was not spreading propaganda, and was honest with the pilots he met with. They were informed about all the known limitations of the aircraft, but he also spoke with them on all the positive aspects of the aircraft as well. Manu demonstrations were preformed, such as recovering from a dive.

LeVier continued his demonstration tour and arrived at Kingscliff, home of the 20th Fighter Group. The pilots of the 20th were not overly impressed with his lecture. LeVier proceeded to take up his P-38 (equipped with the new dive flaps). At 25,000 ft., LeVier dove straight down, and the pilots rushed out to see what they thought would be a crash. He easily pulled out without any problems, and for extra emphasis, he preformed several low level one-engine rolls. The current P-38s in the ETO were not equipped with this flap, but he was attempting to showcase the new features, which would be arriving soon. The pilots were shown that they would be able to pursue a German fighter diving out of trouble. The demonstration was indeed successful.

Goxhill was home to a commander who could easily be considered a P-40 man. He disliked the P-38, and the pilots under his command reflected that opinion. LeVier went "all out" in his demonstrations. He convinced them that the problem was inadequate training, not an inadequate aircraft. LeVier won over the opinions of the commander and the pilots. The next stop was in Andover, the headquarters of the 9th Fighter Command. These pilots originally came from a P-47 outfit in the States, and were having difficulty transitioning to the twin-engine P-38. LeVier demonstrated several dives, low-level upside-down passes on one engine, accelerated stalls, and circled the base upside-down several times. Virtually everyone on the base came out to watch the "air show".

LeVier's demonstration tour was an overwhelming success. During the four months he was in Britain, an estimated 2,000 engines were replaced on the P-38s. This staggering number was the main reason for the transfer of the P-38s out of the ETO. Levier was using his special P-38, which was equipped with the newly designed dive flaps. The problem was after he demonstrated the P-38s ability to recover from dives, the pilots had to go back to flying the older P-38s in their units. Lockheed quickly loaded up 400 sets of dive flaps for installation in the ETO. A C-54 cargo aircraft was loaded up and sent to Britain. The results from the installation of the flaps would be tremendous and many pilots and aircraft would be saved. However, during the flight, a British pilot mistook the aircraft for a German aircraft, and shot it down. The loss of the flaps was the final blow to the P-38 in the ETO. General Doolittle had previously started the transition to only P-51s and P-47s. Lockheed would never get a chance to reproduce the dive flaps, and none were installed on P-38s in the ETO.


Operation Bolero

Prior to the United States' entry into the war, they were shipping materials and equipment to assist Britain's stand against the German offensive. One of the problems of shipping was the threat of the German U-boats operating in the Atlantic. Once war was declared, the question of how to get the aircraft over to Britain in order to begin the fight remained. The standard belief was that a fighter aircraft would not be able to fly to their bases in Britain. Perhaps one of the most successful operations in the war would not be direct fighting against the enemy, but rather just getting the planes and pilots to the battlefield. Operation Bolero would be this operation of transferring the P-38s to Britain.

Click on Picture to enlarge


The plan for Operation Bolero would be to actually ferry the aircraft (B-17s, C-47s, and the P-38s) over the North Atlantic. It had never been attempted with fighters before. The P-38 was capable mainly because of Lt. Kelsey's range extension efforts and promotion at Lockheed back in 1941. There were range extension experiments performed on the P-39, but Kelly Johnson felt that the 75-gallon capacity was almost useless. Johnson ordered engineers to double the capacity of these tanks to 150-gallons. After the Pearl Harbor attack, range extension was given top priority. Lockheed designed a good low-drag tank and shackles (which were used well after the war ended). The P-38s were able to carry two individual tanks, either 165 or 300-gallons each. In March 1942, General Arnold inquired if the P-38s would be able to fly to Britain. Kelsey answered that he felt that with their range extension program, they would be able to fly without too much difficulty. The main problem would be weather and navigation during the flights. General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter was given the assignment to expedite and deliver five fighter groups (each consisting of approx. 85 aircraft).

Two British airfields already existed in Iceland, and the Air Corps would be responsible for the construction of additional fields. The 1st, 14th, 78th Pursuit Groups were to make the initial crossings. Units of the 97th Bomb Group would also ferry their bombers at the same time, and single B-17s would be given the task to act as a lead aircraft to perform the navigation for four P-38s. The P-38 pilots would only have to fly in formation and follow the bomber.

This operation was possible, but there were many hazards facing the pilots.

  1. Nobody previously established a basic functional system for gathering crucial weather data.
  2. Radio Reception was subject to unpredictable fadeouts.
  3. Airstrips were only 30% completed in April 1942.
  4. Path proximity to the north magnetic pole would affect compass readouts.
  5. Foen winds (fierce 150 mph winds that strike the Greenland icecap) would appear in unpredictable manner with no more than a four-hour notice.
  6. German Luftwaffe would make false radio transmissions in order to confuse the American pilots.
  7. General rapid visibility changes.

General Arnold asked a 2nd Lt. Cass Hough if he thought the P-38 would be able to fly to Britain. Hough wanted to take a small group of aircraft to fly the route and prove it could be done. Bolero would get off to a slow start. While the groups were gathering in Maine to initiate their flights to Britain, the Japanese attacks in the Pacific were mounting. General George Marshall knew the defensive plans in the Pacific were in bad shape, and he ordered a halt to all eastbound flights. Marshall then ordered all available aircraft to the west coast. Most of the groups reached Charlotte, NC by June 6 1942. Before the groups could get anywhere else, the Battle of Midway had been decided, and the Japanese offensive threat was neutralized. The groups then flew back to Maine to resume Operation Bolero. Once returning to Maine, the initial flights took off to Britain within two weeks. The initial flights went well, and there were no problems. The pilots were able to stay with the lead B-17, and there were no major weather or navigational problems. On June 26, 1942, ten B-17s of the 97th Bomber Group left Goose Bay heading for Bluie West 1 in Greenland. Weather turned bad, and Greenland radioed the flight and ordered then to return home. Not all aircraft received the message, and four of the bombers had to crash land.

General Arnold was concerned. If almost half the bombers sent out did not make it, how could the P-38s fly safely to Britain? There were four factors, which further reduced the chances.

  1. The airfields were not 100% complete.
  2. None of the special communication equipment was in place.
  3. Weather reports inaccurate and vague.
  4. Gas and oil stocks were low.

Click on Picture to enlarge

On June 1 1942, the first aircraft from Operation Bolero reached the UK. There were some minor engine failure problems. None of the P-38s were lost, which was proof that the two-engine design would save many pilots from capture or being killed. The 94th Flight Squadron was the next in line to make the trip to Britain. On July 6, 1942, four elements of this squad (Tomcat Black, Tomcat White, Tomcat Yellow, and Tomcat Green) took off in good weather from Goose Bay. Tomcat Black eventually experienced bad weather and turn back. Tomcat White encountered the same problem. They tried to climb over the bad weather, but were not able to get above it. The B-17 then experienced an engine problem, and lost communication with the P-38s. Tomcat Green experienced bad weather with only 150 miles to go, and was able to reach the top at 20,000 ft. Tomcat Yellow found a break in the weather at 10,000 ft., and Green tried to follow but was unable to locate it. Tomcat Green tried to contact Yellow, but was not successful. In actuality, pilots from Tomcat Yellow thought the radio contact was a German trick, which was common. A navigational error by Green resulted in the flight being 350 miles off course and had to return back to the original base. Tomcat Yellow flew on and was able to land at the target airfield.

Lt. Peyton Mathis had some problems during his flight on July 1. The weather was clear, and 12 B-17s and 24 P-38s took off for Greenland. All aircraft arrived without any problems except for Lt. Mathis. He was thought to have been lost during the flight, but soon he arrived on one engine. He experienced problems about two-thirds of the way across. His right engine experienced a total failure, but was able to continue on with his other engine. He lost radio contact with the rest of the flight, and was approaching mountains. Mathis was forced to perform several circle patterns to build up altitude to clear the mountains. He was able to make a successful landing.

Click on Picture to enlarge

Another ferry flight on July 10, 1942, had similar problems and most aircraft had to turn back. By July 14, all flights were in Greenland and preparing to fly to the next target in Iceland. One flight of six P-38s and a B-17 took off, but did not receive reports of a rapidly moving weather front. The flight started without any problems, but soon the weather turned bad. Visibility was very limited, and a navigational error by the B-17 caused the aircraft to stray off course. After eight hours, the flight tried to get back to the original airstrip (BW-1). The P-38s began to run out of fuel and the section leader Lt. McManus decided to land while they still had power. He came in for his approach and tried to land with his gear lowered. The ground was full of crevices and he tried to abort the landing. The engines froze up very similar to the XP-38 crash, and he ended up flipped over. He only suffered minor injuries and had to be dug out of his aircraft. The rest of the flight bellied in without any problems. The B-17 circled overhead and sent repeated signals allowing BW-1 and their destination field BW-8 to get their positions. Finally, all the pilots were rescued on July 17, and no serious injuries were reported.

Operation Bolero would continue, and the only problems encountered were due to weather, operational errors, and navigational errors. The external tanks proved to be invaluable and performed beyond expectations. Nearly two hundred pilots took part in the operation, which was totally unprecedented. Many said it could not be done. By August 1942, 164 P-38 made it to British airfields. The only losses experienced were the six that had to crash land together, and only one additional P-38 was lost. By December, the weather made it impossible to continue until the next spring. Many people ask why the decision was made to ferry the aircraft instead of using transport ships. During this time, the German U-boats were still a viable threat. It was not until 1943 before the battle in the Atlantic was in favor of the Allies. The American military leaders did not want to take the chance of having the transport ship sunk by U-boats. Their decision proved to be sound because of the tremendous success during the entire operation. Later in the war, it would be much safer for planes and pilots to ferry the equipment to British airfields. There would be no major victories, or no targets being bombed, but Operation Bolero was just as successful, if not more, because it allowed the core groups to get to the battlefield and begin to gain valuable experience. These pilots would later for a solid corps of experienced fighter pilots in the Mediterranean.


Arrival And Return

Though Operation Bolero was continuing, combat operations in Britain would begin. The first missions of the First Fighter Group occurred on September 2 1942. No enemy contact would occur until October 25, 1942. At the end of October, Allied military leaders were planning Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. The P-38s being built up in Britain were soon diverted to support the invasion. No other significant P-38 combat operations would occur until the African invasion was over.

The American military leaders diverted the P-38s to the Mediterranean in support of the invasion of North Africa. Meanwhile, the B-17 was going to begin the long anticipated daylight bombing raids in Germany. At this point in the war, only the P-38 was able to escort a bomber any significant distance. Initially, the B-17s ran into many problems with German fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Their losses were great, and crews could not be trained fast enough to replace crews lost in battle. The P-47 was available, but the German fighters would wait until the escort had to return home, then they would attack the bombers.

Click on Picture to enlarge

A P-38F & B-24D

In early 1943, the P-38 provided escorting duties, and was facing odds of 10:1 (10 German fighters for 1 P-38). Lt. Col. Jack Jenkins described the P-38 in Europe as, "It is the opinion of the experienced pilots in the Lightning group that with favorable, or at least not unfavorable, winds, we can successfully execute a target cover mission to distant coastal targets, such as Kiel or Bordeaux, each some 400 miles from the English Coast." Pilots tended to favor missions over water versus land. Over land, they were exposed to AA fire, and encountered enemy fighters more often. Over water, they flew to their targets with much less resistance. The P-38 would eventually begin to have problems operating in the ETO. With the introduction of the P-38 J, accidents and engine problems begin to rise significantly. The 'J' model had the ability to produce 1600 hp at war emergency power (WEP). Stateside testing encountered no problems, but it was a different story in Britain. Many problems were a result of inexperienced pilots, and the problems coincided with the arrival of these pilots to the battlefield. These problems would take time to correct, but General Doolittle did not want to wait for these problems to be worked out, and decided to phase out the P-38 in favor of the P-51 and the P-47.

In combat, experienced pilots flying the P-38 were able to cope with the best German fighters. Being outnumbered, and usually limited to escorting duties, the P-38s scored over 2,500 kills at the loss of about 1,750 P-38s. These losses included losses of all types, which not only included combat, but also accidents and mechanical problems. A more realistic kill ratio was 2:1, but that was mostly when flying outnumbered. The P-38s flew 130,000 sorties at a loss of 1.3% (1.3 lost P-38s for every 100 missions flown). This could be compared to B-17, which at times was about 25%.

Not everybody looked at the P-38 favorably. Lt. Col. Mark Hubbard openly disliked the aircraft. He argued that compressibility and incorrect intercoolers eliminated the positive aspects of this aircraft. What he did not account for was the newness of compressibility. Virtually all the top scientists had no experience with this phenomena, and the NASA blocked progress for months for fear that the extreme testing would damage their wind tunnels. The problem with the intercoolers could be easily attributed to the original design specifications. Kelly Johnson had no idea the P-38 would be generating the amount of hp in the later models. He thought the amount of hp would not exceed 1060 hp. In 1944, the P-38 engines were generating 60% more power than envisioned back in 1938.

Actual combat missions did not allow the P-38s to freely attack German fighters. They were either providing close escort for heavy bombers, or were flying at low levels attacking ground targets. When flying escort, they had to stay with the bombers, and could not pursue their targets. It was very limited, and reduced the aggressiveness of the pilots. The P-38 did show that it had the ability to go the distance and tangle equally with the enemy. The German fighters were not able to focus only on the bombers. If they were too focused with a bomber, it would be an easy target for a P-38. Morale was high in the initial escorting missions of the 55th Fighter Group. Missions were successful, and the bomber losses were being effectively reduced. By mid-November 1943, the winter weather was turning mostly bad. Bad flying weather posed many problems for the fighters, and mechanical problems were on the rise. Extreme cold cockpits when flying at high altitudes was making effective combat flying extremely hard. Pilot morale was on the decline, and losses were on the rise. During a November 29 mission, seven P-38s were lost, and were only able to destroy three of the German fighters. Several aspects that are attributed to the problems experienced by the P-38 are the following.

  1. Were forced to operate above 30,000 ft.
  2. Germans would easily perform a Split-S maneuver to get out of trouble.
  3. The unique physical look of the P-38, mainly the tail-booms, enabled the German pilots to easily recognize them as enemy aircraft.
  4. Extreme cold cockpits would hamper pilot effectiveness. The pilots would not be in good fighting condition when they encountered German fighters.
  5. Flying above 30,000 ft. would increase chances of engine problems.
  6. Weather could be deadly.

The P-38s were also hard to maintain. Very tight cowled engines made it difficult to ground crews perform maintenance. Landing gear shocks would leak when it got very cold. Turbochargers would freeze up at high altitudes. To make matters worse, the turbochargers only had two settings, low (not enough to sustain high altitude flight) and high (more likely to blow up). There were instances of pilots flying much lower just to warm up, and in the process, exposed themselves to AA fire.


The Decline Of The P-38

When the equipment was working properly, the P-38 was a definite match for German fighters. In fact, when below 20,000 ft., the P-38 was superior in many ways. The problem was that the Germans rarely engaged American fighters at lower altitudes. General Doolittle was especially fed up with all the engine problems. Many theories exist as to the reason why. In other theaters, the Allison engines were fairly reliable. One theory was that the quality of the British aircraft fuel was not a high as the American developed aircraft fuel. When operating with the British fuel, this theory states that the turbochargers would become more volatile and cause terminal engine failures. Another possible theory was the nature of the combat and weather. The aircraft, especially in the fall/winter months, were constantly soaked with moisture on the grounds. Combine that with flying at extreme high altitudes, conditions were ripe for engine failures. In other theaters, the P-38s flew at lower altitudes, and were not operating in the same weather conditions. Whatever the reason for the engine problems, the P-38 was on the way out in the ETO.

The P-47s were beginning to get some problems in that design worked out, and the long-range P-51s were arriving. Some of the P-38s were transferred to the 9th Air Force and mostly started carrying out tactical strikes. In January 1944, the 20th Fighter Group engaged a force of German fighters. They proceeded to destroy ten at the loss of only two P-38s. Lt. James Morris had a good day on February 8 1944. Morris was flying at a low altitude when he spotted a German aircraft. He quickly dispatched it, and spotted another German. Morris quickly downed three German fighters, a locomotive, and took down yet another fighter on his way back home. The 20th took had another good mission on April 8. They were on a sweep with no bombers to escort. They attacked several targets of opportunity and also attacked an airfield near Salzwedel. Several German fighters intercepted the P-38s, but were forced to retreat after suffering some losses. In the months leading to invasion of Normandy, the P-38s would have tremendous success, and were responsible for hundreds of targets destroyed.

The P-38s continued supporting the invasion forces after D-day. On July 9, the P-38s were out in force and engaged a large force of German aircraft. They destroyed many of the Germans without any significant losses. The 20th Fighter Group protected attacking B-24 bombers. Shot down seven Germans for the loss of only one P-38. The 55th Squadron destroyed eight FW-190s and three ME-109s without taking any losses. At the end of the day, twenty-one German aircraft were destroyed to the loss of only one P-38. Captain L. E. Blumer was flying with the 367th Fighter Group on August 25. He just completed a bombing attack. On the way back, he came to the assistance of another squadron of P-38s and proceeded to shoot down five German fighters.

The P-38s played an important role in the invasion. Their aggressive attacks on German targets essentially paralyzed their communication system. Field Marshall von Runstedt and Reich Marshall Goering cited the communication system takedown was the most important factoring the defeat of the German forces in the west. The relentless attacks also instilled terror and despair into the German troops. Between April 8 and July 24, the 20th destroyed the following:

  • 315 locomotives
  • 100 ammunition cars
  • 87 oil tank cars
  • 1000 freight cars
  • 370 motor vehicles
  • 89 German aircraft in flight
  • 39 German aircraft on the ground
  • Many barges, boats, radar installations, high-tension towers, small factories, and hangars

The P-38 did more to inflict damage onto German forces while operating at low-levels than they would have flying high altitudes. When flying low, the P-38 did not have nearly as many problems with engine problems than if flying over 20,000 ft. If the German fighters decided to engage the P-38, the low-level advantages of the P-38 would come into play and give the American pilots the advantage. The German pilots would also not be able to dive out of trouble, so dive flaps were not needed. A couple of drawbacks of flying low-level missions was the exposure to AA fire from the ground and the height advantage the German pilots would possess.


The P-38 VRS ME109 / FW 190

The P-38 was able to take advantage of its speed. It could make quick attacks and gain altitude for another attack. This method of attack created better results that engaging in pure dog fighting. These tactics were based on the P-38 having better speed than either German fighter. It also required close teamwork between the American pilots. Preferred to take either German fighter to low altitudes. The P-38 could out-dive and overtake the German fighters. Normally they achieved good results.

Common German tactics would use a lone fighter flying low as bait. If some P-38 pilots decided to go for the "easy" kill, the rest of the German fighters would have the altitude advantage and pounce on the P-38s. American pilots quickly learned to leave some P-38s flying topside cover in these instances to prevent a German surprise attack.




Last Updated