Originally designed as a high-altitude interceptor, the P-38 proved very versatile and went on to become one of the most famous aircraft of all time.
The Air Corps was so impressed with the XP-38 in its early trials that on February I1, 1939, even though the prototype had less than five hours of flight time, lst Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey tried to break the transcontinental speed record; but he crashed on approach to Mitchel Field, N. Y. Despite this setback, ground speeds of 420 mph and an elapsed time of only seven hours convinced the Air Corps to order the type into production.
Britain ordered 667 P.38s, which it nicknamed “Lightning,” but only three P-38s were delivered. The rest (and the nickname) were absorbed by the US.
After some developmental troubles, the P-38 entered US service in 1941 and served in every theater of the war. 2nd Lt. Elza Shahan, flying a P-38F, recorded the first American victory in the European theater of operations when he and a P-40 pilot downed a Focke-Wulf FW-200 near lceland on August 14, 1942.
The P-38 saw extensive service in North Africa, where the Germans called the aircraft the “Fork-Tailed Devil.” On April 18, 1943, P-38 pilots from the 339th Fighter Squadron, using external tanks, flew from Guadalcanal to Bougainville and shot down Japanese Adm. lsoroku Yamamoto.
The top two American aces of all time, Maj. Richard I. Bong (40 Confirmed victories) and Maj. Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. (38), both flew P-38s in the southwest Pacific. P-38s also were used for photoreconnaissance (these dedicated aircraft were designated F-4 and F-5), bomber, and night fighter. Consolidated-Vultee built 113 P-38Ls in Nashville, Tenn., to meet. wartime needs.
The last P-38 was delivered in September 1945, and the type was phased out of service in 1949.