Lockheed P-38 Lightning
With its distinctive twin booms on either side of a central pod containing the cockpit and armaments, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning is one of the most recognizable airplanes of WWII. It was also the only successful twin-engine fighter of the war, with over 10,000 produced during the conflict.
The Lightning’s prototype was the world’s fastest airplane when it was first introduced in 1939, and it remained one of the fastest climbers until the war’s end. Operationally deployed in 1941, the P-38 saw service in both the European and Pacific theaters but excelled more in the Pacific, where its long-range capabilities were well suited to the vast distances characteristic of that theater.
The placement of the Lightning’s machine guns on the plane’s nose was unusual among American fighters of WWII, which relied on wing-mounted machine guns instead. While wing-mounted guns were calibrated to shoot at crisscrossing trajectories of between 100 to 250 yards, the Lightning’s straight-ahead gun arrangement gave it a significantly longer useful range: P-38s were able to reliably deliver effectively and aimed concentrated machine-gun fire at a range of up to 1000 yards. America’s top two aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew P-38s.
The P-38’s most famous mission was Operation Vengeance, which highlighted its excellence as a long-range fighter, and resulted in the death of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers intercepted and deciphered Japanese signals that he was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to the island of Bougainville on April 18, 1943, a flight of 16 Lightnings was dispatched from Guadalcanal on a 600-mile roundabout trip to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s airplane, followed by a 400-mile straight-line return flight to Guadalcanal. At the time, only P-38s were capable of making such a 1000 mile round trip.
Skimming the ocean at less than 50 feet above the waves in order to avoid detection, the operation worked like precision clockwork. The P-38s arrived at Bougainville and climbed to altitude just as Yamamoto’s plane and its escorts arrived over the island, reaching the planned interception point within one minute of the admiral. The Lightning fell upon the Japanese, and Yamamoto’s plane was shot down, along with another transport plane plus two escorting Zeroes, for the loss of one P-38.
Lightnings remained America’s primary long-range fighter until the arrival of the P-51 Mustang. Versatile, the P-38 was used not only in the long-range fighter role but also served effectively in reconnaissance, dive-bombing and level bombing, as well as ground attack.