Flying the P-38 Lightning by Bill Harris: 15.5 victories, 339FS and 18FG

During training at Muroc Dry Lake, later named Edwards AFB, I learned to pre-flight the P-38. With two engines etc. it did take longer than a single engine fighter but it was simple to do so. Also, it was my first fighter and one that I had dreamed of for years to fly, so it was an act of love to check it out and just be around it. Later in combat the pre-flight was second nature and you trusted your Crew Chief and ground crew.

The cockpit was about perfect in size for me at 5’8′ but some of my taller pilot friends could be a bit cramped. A 6’6″ wingman and former B-25 pilot was not able to wear a seat pack parachute when flying but adjustable seat and rudder pedals helped. Early cockpit heating was poor. Even in the tropics at altitudes over 25,000 feet the cockpit windows could frost over. Throughout my entire time in the various P-38 models I was never warm enough but I guess we had it better than P-38 pilots in Europe. The instrument layout was excellent and grouped for easy use for a twin-engine fighter. Every important instrument could seen with one sweep of the eyes and any abnormality noticed at once. Cockpit visibility was good except for the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock down at a 20- degree angle. The only other blind spot was directly to the rear because of the armor plate which could easily be looked around if you moved your head a little to the side. I preferred this inconvenience to removing the armor plate! Despite the location of twin engines on each side, visibility around them was good. Ground visibility on takeoff and landing was excellent as there was no engine in front and the tricycle landing gear lowered the nose. For takeoff you would apply the brakes to a full stop and advance the throttles until the turbo kicked in. The entire plane would shake and vibrate and the nose strut would compress until the brakes were released. Then the Lightning would bound down the runway with the two counter-rotating props causing no torque. The controls were well located for use and convenience. The Lightning had a wheel in- stead of a stick. They were less tiring to use over long flights than some other fighters with between the leg sticks. Once trimmed for straight and level flight the Lightning was a hands-off fighter. The aircraft had good stall characteristics and could be readily eased out of a stall after a little practical experience but the first stalls could be a scary experience. As heavy as the plane was it should have had power assist on the wheel. This was added on the L models that were heavier and clumsier than the lighter models D to F. The J seemed most balanced to me, however the L’s had more power. Maneuverability in early models was inadequate but was improved in later models by the addition of dive and maneuvering flaps. Our high speed climbs and shallow dives gave us the distinct advantage of being able to engage or disengage from the Jap at our discretion. The communications system was fair and we had quite a bit of trouble keeping them operating. Since the engines were mounted in the twin nacelles there was no engine heat as in a single engine fighter which was an advantage during taxiing in the jungle heat.

Even though they had a reputation for unreliability and maintenance problems, I liked the two Allison V-1710’s. They were powerful and I never had a dependability issue with them. As I recall I only came back from a mission twice due to engine problems which was great considering the operating and maintenance conditions in the Pacific. With two engines it was more likely that one would be shot out, however the other was enough to come home on. I should know I did it eight times! Being a twin-engine fighter the P-38 had no problems with torque whereas a single-engine fighter at high speeds was constantly battling it and could only turn fast in one direction. In early missions we had to worry about fuel conservation. Eight hundred mile missions with 15 minutes of combat were a stretch and the last half an hour were used watching the fuel gauge. Col. Charles Lindbergh put out some figures on slowing the engines down and raising the manifold pressure that could double our mileage. Capt. Joe Grunder of the 18th Fighter Group did some studies on operating engines at different RPMs and fuel mixture set- tings and we were able to lengthen our range to as much as 2300 miles nonstop in ten hours. We usually used two 165-gallon fuel tanks but sometimes switched to one 330-gallon fuel tank and a 2000-pound bomb on anti-shipping sorties or two 330-gallon napalm tanks on short-range ground support missions. The long range of the P-38 became one of its premier combat characteristics over the vast stretches of ocean we had to fly over in the Pacific.

We could climb at over 4000 fpm, reaching combat altitude in seven to eight minutes. We had a 400+ mph maximum speed at war emergency power at 25,000 feet. Cruising speed was 230 mph. The Lightning was still a fighting aircraft at 35,000 feet and had a service ceiling of 44,000 feet. I ran the engines at full war emergency power for 20 minutes one time it was really necessary or else. The specs said five minutes was tops but I never had an engine falter under war emergency power. At low altitude a Jap Zero could out turn the P-38 and at low speeds it could out climb it. But at high speeds and high altitude it couldn’t out turn or out climb the Lightning.

The P-38 fuselage nose nacelle mounted a 20 mm cannon with 150 rounds and four .50 cal. machine guns with 300 to 500 rpg. There was no fighter that could compare to the bullet pattern fired from a P-38. All the fire power was concentrated directly ahead. In combat my guns only jammed once and failed to fire. The gun cam- era was poor probably due to the damp weather that ruined the film. In three years of combat I only got one picture of a shoot down.

The P-38 could sustain a lot of damage and still keep on flying. Squadron member, Rex Barber, had 104 holes in his plane after the Yamamoto mission. I had a hole in my wing over 18 inches in diameter and didn’t even realize it until the flight was over. An- other time I lost over one quarter of my horizontal stabilizer and the outboard hinge while strafing a destroyer and flew the damaged fighter back 700 miles safely home. In other words the P-38 was a mighty tough airplane.

In retrospect, I think the P-38 was the best all around airplane in the Pacific once we learned to use it at its full capacity.

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