Monday, January 27, 2014

The P-38 Lightning at 75 – "The Sweetest-Flying Plane in the Sky"

One of my most enjoyable pleasures as a kid was building, from kits, scale models of planes and ships.  Sometimes I think I can still smell that “airplane” glue – it seems I wanted my creations to be as hard to destroy as the originals and so invariably I used too much of it.  The machines’ technology combined with the immense courage and skill required to operate them has always fascinated me.  Unfortunately, my models did not survive the years, and exactly why has been lost to time. 

"P-38 in the Pacific" by Charles L. Smith (link), noted painter of trains, ships, and planes.  From author's collection.  
One of my favorite planes was the World War II-era Lockheed P-38, nicknamed the “Lightning” by the British.  Its key features were an unusual double boom design, to carry two powerful engines, and a streamlined, curvy look.  General Jimmy Doolittle personally flew one and called it "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky", letting us non-aviators know the P-38 was as beautiful to fly as it was to look at.  The plane's beautiful lines and twin fins are said to have inspired General Motors design chief Harley Earl to develop the curvy tailfins that first appeared on the 1948 Cadillac and soon spread to most other American auto nameplates, becoming the iconic look of the 1950s.   

Well, today is the 75th anniversary of the P-38’s first flight. Many versions were eventually produced, each one an incremental improvement, and, notably, the P-38 was the only American fighter in production throughout American involvement in WWII.  The plane was land-based and used primarily as fighter, but also saw action in reconnaissance and as a light bomber.  The P-38’s armament was in its nose rather than on its wings, meaning that the plane would shoot straight and far, avoiding the problem of having the narrower range of effectiveness that came from criss-crossing bullet paths from wing-mounted guns.   

Every fighter plane in the war had advantages and disadvantages relative to every other one.  As it turned out, the Lightning matched up better against Japanese fighters than German ones, so the P-38 saw most of its action in the Pacific theater.  Compared to Japanese fighters, principally the Zero, the P-38 was faster, had better armament, was better at climbing, and performed much better at high altitudes, although it was not as agile as the lighter and more maneuverable Japanese planes.  The P-38’s unusual twin boom design accommodated two large supercharged engines that were the key to its superior performance at high altitudes, and the wider wingspan that was supported by the booms also helped high up as well.  The P-38 also had great range, extended by use of dropped fuel tanks, which, along with having two engines in the event one failed, made it well-adapted to the long distances, much of that over water, in the Pacific Theater. 

The top two WWII American aces both flew P-38s against Japan.  Because of its performance and long-range, the P-38 was chosen as the plane to use in the April, 1943, long-distance attack behind Japanese lines to shoot down the plane carrying Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the master-planner of the Pearl Harbor attack and one of Japan’s best military minds.  The P-38 saw more limited and niche action in the European Theater.  As it was, the first American pilot to shoot down a German aircraft in WWII was flying a P-38.  Of historical note, famous aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose work included The Little Prince, was killed just off the southern coast of France in July 1944 when he went down flying a P-38 on a photo reconnaissance mission for the Free French Air Force.

Curiously, there were only a few other planes with a double boom design ever produced, and soon they as well as all other successful aircraft were made obsolete by the development of jet planes, which appeared even before the end of the war.  The days of human-scaled, sweet-flying propeller planes were over.

R Balsamo

No comments:

Post a Comment