How the F-35 Got its Name

P-38 and F-35

In the early days of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program there was a great deal of speculation about what the jet would eventually be named. For months, several potential monikers – like the Black Mamba, Cyclone, Piasa and Spitfire II – were batted about the defense community and hotly debated on aviation blogs around the world.

But, on July 7, 2006, all the guesswork came to an end. At a ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, the U.S. Air Force officially announced that the F-35 would be called the Lightning II. The name pays homage to two venerable fighters of days gone by: the World War II-era Lockheed P-38 and English Electric’s supersonic Lightning, which entered service in the mid-1950s.

At the naming ceremony, then U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley underscored the historic nature of the Lightning II’s name, saying, "This aircraft represents the fruits of lessons learned over a hundred years of flight and aerial combat. We’re excited about bringing it into our inventory, and warfighters around the globe are excited about flying it in defense of freedom."


The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the first true modern fighter. Capable of reaching speeds of 400 miles per hour in level flight, the P-38 could approach the sound barrier in a controlled dive. Designed by famed Lockheed engineer and Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson, the P-38 revolutionized the aerospace defense industry with its smooth metal skin, flush riveting, all metal control surface and bubble canopy. Its pilots said it climbed like a homesick angel while their German counterparts called it the “fork-tailed devil.”

In the Pacific Theater during World War II, seven of the top eight scoring aces piloted the P-38. It was ideal as both a gunner and photo reconnaissance aircraft. P-38 pilots shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other fighter and, as a reconnaissance aircraft, obtained 90 percent of the aerial film captured over Europe. More than 10,000 P-38s were built during the war, and the P-38 would go on to fly more than 130,000 missions in theaters around the world.

As the Cold War was heating up, English Electric was quietly developing its own Lightning. The revolutionary aircraft would become the first all-British Mach-2 fighter, and the first aircraft in the world capable of supercruising – meaning it could break the sound barrier without employing its afterburners – thanks to two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines. The Lightning’s vertically stacked twin engine configuration, rather than the traditional side-by-side alignment, was a hallmark of its design. Developed to counter increasingly advanced and capable bombers, the Lightning was built to strike quick. It boasted renowned climbing acceleration and a top-end speed of upwards of 1,500 miles per hour.

The Lightning defended the skies over the United Kingdom for nearly 30 years before retiring in the late 1980s. English Electric would eventually become BAE Systems, a principal industrial partner on the F-35 program.

P-38 flies with F-35

Like its predecessors, the Lightning II seeks to provide transformative capabilities. It pushes the edge of the envelope and sets a new standard for modern warfare. With stealth, next generation avionics and advanced weaponry, the F-35 Lightning II makes its famed forefathers proud.

Learn more about the F-35 Lightning II’s history and unprecedented capabilities.

June 24, 2014