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In Airplanes, what is a P38?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Lockheed P-38 Lightning or P38 was a versatile fighter plane which saw service throughout the Second World War. Some American aviators credited the P38 with America's success in the war, arguing that this plane revolutionized the United States Air Force. The p38 was in continuous production and use throughout American involvement in the Second World War, with almost 10,000 planes rolling out of Lockheed plants from 1942 to 1945.

This plane was built in response to specifications made by the United States government, and it had a very distinctive appearance, with twin booms housing the plane's engines and an isolated nacelle in the middle of the aircraft which held the cockpit. The introduction of two engines was one of the things which made the P38 such a great performance aircraft, as pilots could continue flying if one of the engines failed, coming in for a safe landing when single engine aircraft would have crashed.

These planes were designed as fighters, and they had the armament to back them up, with a single cannon and four machine guns mounted on the nose of the aircraft. P38s were also used for ground strafing, bombing, reconnaissance, and escort duty, however, demonstrating their flexibility. After the war, when the planes were retired in the United States, they continued to do service in Europe, where pilots were fond of the P38 because of its extended visibility. The plane had a reputation for being difficult to handle, although in point of fact, these planes were extremely reliable and capable of enduring considerable adversity.

The “flyboys” of the Second World War took P38s all over the Pacific Theater, and these planes were also present at D-Day and many other major events in Europe. The top P38 ace was Richard Bong, with 40 confirmed kills in his aircraft. While the P38 did yeomanly service in the Second World War, the aircraft quickly became obsolete because of its prop engines; with the arrival of the jet age, such planes were quickly shunted to the back of the airfield.

Several P38s and P38 replicas are in service today. The vintage aircraft are demonstrated at major airshows, and they are usually maintained by pilot's associations which are interested in preserving the history of the Second World War. The “Pathfinder,” or “Fork-Tailed Devil” as the P38 was sometimes known, was a critical part of the history of military aviation for the United States, and the planes were fondly remembered by many of the men who flew them in action.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Jun 24, 2014

@Logicfest -- the P-38 might have been big and a bit clumsy when it came to chasing smaller fighters, but the plane had two advantages that were exploited well by pilots. They could climb extremely fast and could take an absolute beating compared to smaller, flimsier planes.

But wasn't that always the case with World War II pilots? The best ones learned their advantages of their aircraft and how to use them against whatever the enemy threw at them. The P-38 was a fast brawler that could take a beating and still have the ability to blow opponents out of the sky. It was a very effective plane, but it was reliable and that larger frame meant more guns and more powerful ones could be jammed into the craft.

By Logicfest — On Jun 23, 2014

Major Richard Bong wasn't just the top P38 ace in World War II. He was the top American ace in the war, period. The second ranked American ace? Major Thomas McGuire who also flew a P38. For whatever reason, those airplanes were darned effective fighters even though they were larger than other fighters and harder to maneuver.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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