“23 Skidoo” P-38 at the 475th Fighter Group Historical Foundation Museum

"23 Skidoo" P-38 at the 475th Fighter Group Historical Foundation Museum

Photo from Air-and-Space.com

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.


1. Lockheed Aircraft Co.
2. Consolidated.Vultee Aircraft Corp.

Locations built

1. Burbank, Calif.
2. Nashville, Tenn.

Number built

10,038 (10,035 for the USAF)

First Flight

January 27, 1939. FFM: XP-38. FFL: March Field, Calif. FFP: lst Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey.


P-38, P-38D, E, F, G, H, J, L, M, F-4, F-4A. F-5A, B, C, E, F, G.


One Allison V.1710-111 and one Allison V-171o-113 (the different engine submodels turned the P-38’s propellers in opposite directions) liquid-cooled V-12s of 1,600 hp each.


52 ft 0 in. Length: 37 ft 10 in. Height: 9 ft 10 in (wheels to tip of fin); 12 ft 10 in (wheels to tip of propeller).


21,600 lb gross


Four .50-cal. machine guns and one 20.mm cannon, plus two 2,000.lb bombs or ten 5 in. High-Velocity Aerial Rockets (HVARS) on underwing hardpoints.


Pilot only on most models (crew of pilot and bombardier on some P.38J/Ls; pilot and radar operator on P-38M)


Approx. $125,000

Max, speed

414 mph. Range; 500 mi (up to 2,000 mi with external tanks)


44,000 ft.