Conceptualized in 1936 as a twin-engine, high-altitude interceptor, the P-38, designed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, would go on to become the most successful twin-engine combat aircraft. In 1937 the Army Air Corps authorized building the prototype XP-38, which was delivered on January 1, 1939. First flight of the prototype took place on January 27, 1939 and the first service models were delivered in June, 1941.
Nicknamed “Der Gabelschwanz Tuefel,” or “the fork-tailed devil,” by the German Luftwaffe, the P-38 shared credit for the destruction of the first German aircraft by an U.S. Army Air Force fighter on August 14, 1942. The P-38 primarily served in Europe and North Africa. Its long range and twin engines made it well suited to duty in the Pacific, although smaller numbers were deployed to the Pacific theater due to production limits.
The P-38 played a vital role in Allied war efforts, helping to achieve air superiority over Africa in 1942 and 1943, supporting the invasion of Sicily, escorting B-17 and B-24 bombing runs, and bombing Romanian oil refineries. One of the more famous P-38 missions took place on April 18, 1943. In a well planned mission, 16 P-38s took off from Guadalcanal and intercepted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane, shooting it down near Shortland Island in the Pacific. By war’s end, the P-38 was responsible for downing more Japanese aircraft than any other Allied plane.
As the war went on the P-38 turned out to be much more than just a combat aircraft. Many P-38s were fitted with cameras and used as reconnaissance aircraft, providing valuable intelligence data throughout the war.
By 1944 P-38s were being phased out, but continued to play a major role in the war effort in both combat and reconnaissance roles until VE Day. Some of the aircraft that stayed in service after the war were transferred to the new United States Air Force and redesignated as F-38s in June, 1948. By 1950 all of the P-38/F-38s were retired from service.
See more P-38 Lighning photos on Flickr
P-38 Specifications (P-38L)
Span: 52’ (15.85 m)
Length: 37’ 10” (11.53 m)
Height: 12’ 10” (3.91 m)
Empty Weight: 12,000 lb (5,806 kg)
Max Speed: 414 mph
Cruising Speed: 290 mph
Rate of Climb: 20,000 ft/6 min
Service Ceiling: 44,000 ft
Range: 2,600 miles