Lockheed P-38 Lightning – A Most Elegant Killing Machine

By Dexter Ward – Reproduced with permission from Peninsula Magazine

The 2018 Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance will feature a rare, beautiful, and brutally effective World War II military airplane, the Lockheed P-38J Lightning, flying in from its home at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino. Though it has been overshadowed in the popular consciousness by the single-engined P-51 Mustang, the twin-engine P-38 was a huge step forward in aviation design in the late 1930s. The airplane you will see on the tarmac at Zamperini Field, a later model P-38J called 23 Skidoo, is shown in its late-World War II livery, with flat olive-drab camouflage paint and the full wartime complement of four menacing 50-caliber machine guns and one even more terrifying 20mm cannon clustered in its streamlined nose. The original prototype P-38, the XP-38 first flown in 1939, was so aching beautiful, in its radically streamlined form and polished-aluminum finish, that it captured the imagination of the public, and influenced the thinking of automotive designers for decades into the future.

The World War II P-38J 23 Skidoo will fly into Zamperini Airport for the Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance on Sunday, September 30.

The World War II P-38J 23 Skidoo will fly into Zamperini Airport for the Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance on Sunday, September 30.

An icon of american design

Like the Douglas DC-3/C-47, one of which will also appear at the Palos Verdes Concours this year, the P-38 is regarded by many as one of the all-time pinnacles of mid-century American design. The Streamline Moderne school of design and architecture, at once a development of and a reaction to the earlier and more superficial Art Deco style, draws heavily from the sky-shattering aircraft designs of the 1930s, when the ungainly tube-and-fabric biplanes of the 1910s and 1920s were overtaken by the sleek, speed-oriented, all-aluminum designs that came with the end of the Great Depression. 

From tail spins to tail fins

When it came time to design the 1948 Cadillacs, General Motors’ legendary chief designer, Harley Earl, dictated that his design staff evaluate the early YP-38 for inspiration. The resulting tail-fin design, though far less successful than the sleek P-38 from which it sprung, influenced American auto and industrial design for many years to come.

2,850 angry horses

Some of the more powerful modern production cars on display in the Concours have engines producing 500, 600, even 700 horsepower.  The P-38J, with its twin turbo-charged Allison V-1710 V-12 engines, produces an argument-ending 2,850 horsepower, enough to push the 10-ton fighter through the air at speeds up to 420 miles per hour. Its cruising speed is a still-amazing 290 mph, and its service ceiling — the highest altitude it can practically attain — is over 44,000 feet, 4,000 feet higher than most jet airliners fly.

Record-setting records

Early in its career, the P-38 became the first-ever military aircraft, from any nation, to achieve 400 miles per hour in level flight. It was also the American fighter that achieved the most air-to-air victories in the Pacific Theater. The leading American fighter ace of World War II, Richard Bong, shot down 38 of his 40 total victories flying the P-38. With all of its guns clustered in the nose, rather than mounted in the wings as in most single-engine fighters, the P-38 directed a lethal stream of bullets all traveling in a tight, parallel formation, increasing the range and accuracy of its weapons. Against the lighter, more lightly armored Japanese fighters and bombers, the P-38 proved especially lethal when flown by experienced pilots.

Lucky Lindy

The P-38 was flown by many distinguished pilots, but none were nearly as accomplished, nor as famous, as one of its “civilian” pilots, a certain Charles A. Lindbergh. After his world-shaking solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, Lindbergh served as a consultant to the U.S. armed forces during the war. As perhaps the world’s most prominent expert on flying long distances with limited fuel, he worked with U.S. Army Air Corps pilots to extend the range of fighters, including the P-38. With the long distances involved in fighting over the Pacific, range was crucial to accomplishing missions successfully, and returning to base safely afterward. By disregarding the P-38’s pilot’s handbook, and doing extensive flight tests himself, he managed to extend the P-38’s flight endurance from six hours to over nine, enabling far longer missions and giving pilots an extra edge of confidence on their long, lonely flights back to their bases. Lindbergh, though much older and less experienced at combat than his squadron mates, even managed to score an air-to-air victory on a Japanese plane while flying as an “observer”.

Made in California

The P-38 was designed to be a brutal, merciless killing machine, created to do nothing less than save the world from the dictators of the Axis powers. But like other fighters of its era, it survives as an enduring thing of beauty and a testament to the innovation and ingenuity of the people — most of them from Southern California — who designed and built it. Almost all P-38s were built at the Lockheed factories in Burbank, including the P-38J, 23 Skidoo, you will see at Zamperini Field.

The P-38 was the only American fighter produced during the entire length of World War II. Other designs came and went, but the P-38 continued to evolve, and its pilots found new and better ways of using its capabilities effectively. Over 10,000 P-38s were produced. But now, 72 years after the end of the war, only 10 or so remain flyable.

23 Skidoo is just an airplane, and with its drab camouflage paint and relatively small size, compared to the DC-3 and other vintage aircraft at the Concours, it may seem to be less than awe-inspiring. But its place in history, both as an enduring milepost of American design and ingenuity, and its proud record of battling the forces of darkness and tyranny in the world’s biggest-ever conflict, make it a must-see exhibit in this extensive display of mechanical art and science.