One of the more unconventional aircraft designs of the Second World War was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, with a distinctive twin boom that gave it the purportedly German nickname "fork-tailed devil."
The P-38 was created for a 1937 proposal by the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) requesting a twin-engine, high-altitude interceptor that had "the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude." The word "interceptor" was used legalistically in order to ignore the USAAC requirement that a pursuit airplane carry no more than 500 lbs of armament with only one engine (pursuit being the typical designation of a USAAC fighter). The requirements also demanded that the aircraft be capable of climing to 20,000 feet within 6 minutes and have a maximum airspeed of 360 mph at altitude. When the proposal was created, it was the toughest set of specifications the USAAC had ever requested. The USAAC also specified the engine to be used (an Allison V-1710) and made a tricycle landing gear configuration a bonus.
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson (a genius who would also design America's first operational jet fighter, the first fighter capable of flying twice the speed of sound, and the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft) and Hall Hibbard dove into the project with gusto, considering many different designs before settling on a twin boom set-up for the tail assembly and engines with a central nacelle for the pilot and armament. Tricycle landing gear were implemented along with a bubble canopy, and the two in-line engines used counter-rotating propellers in order to negate the torque from the engines. The engine turbochargers, which helped maintain engine power at high altitudes, were mounted in the booms. The Lightning was also the first American fighter to heavily utilize stainless steel and smooth, flush-riveted aluminum panels and the first military airplane to go faster than 400 mph in level flight. Interestingly, the P-38 was remarkably quiet in flight due to the engine noise being muffled by the turbo-superchargers.
In the summer of 1937 Lockheed won the competition to build the new interceptor, and construction began in the summer of 1938. In January 1939 the first XP-38 flew (the X- designates an experimental design) and its performance made a significant impression USAAC leadership. This was fortunate, as Kelly Johnson and his team had made certain design decisions that went against USAAC desires. The USAAC at the time was not interested in long-range fighters, believing them to be impractical and competition for bomber resources. The Lockheed group purposefully designed the Lightning to be able to carry external fuel tanks to extend its range. This choice proved to be very useful in the early stages of WW2.
Despite everything the P-38 had going for it, test flights revealed unexpected problems. During dives, the P-38 would gain so much speed that the control surfaces would begin to lock up. As it approached Mach 0.68 (over half the speed of sound), the Lightning would begin to shake violently and the pilot would be forced to abandon the airplane or try their luck in regaining control. This problem would not be solved until 1943, when a specialized type of dive flaps was designed. Additionally, The counter-rotating propellers also came with their own set of difficulties: should one engine be lost, the resulting torque could cause fatal accidents. Proper pilot training helped mitigate this issue.
In 1940, the French and British air forces were interested in the P-38, but France fell to the Axis forces before they could receive any examples, and many British pilots did not like the aircraft, deeming it too dangerous to fly. When the U.S. finally entered the war, the British order was cancelled in order to supply the USAAF, though a few Lightnings were sent to the RAF for testing and use as training aircraft. Some good did come from this kerfuffle, however: The British had dubbed the P-38 the "Lightning" whereas Lockheed wanted to call it the "Atalanta," after the character in Greek Mythology. Evidently, the British moniker was the one that stuck.
The first USAAC unit to receive the P-38 was the 1st Fighter Group, which provided defense of the West Coast in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The first P-38s to see active service were photo-reconnaissance variants of the 8th Photographic Squadron in Australia. In May of 1942, P-38s arrived in the Aleutian Islands. The Lightning, with is two engines and very long range, was well suited to missions in Alaska and the Pacific.
While arguably better known for their use in the Pacific, P-38s saw service in North Africa and Europe. The early models of the Lightning were considered inferior to the German fighters in a one-on-one dogfight, but its range allowed it to escort Allied bombers more effectively than other U.K. and U.S. aircraft of the time. During the invasion of Normandy in 1944, Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle, Commander of the 8th Air Force (and famous for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942) flew a P-38 over Normandy in order to see firsthand what was happening, and claimed that it was "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky."
Despite its lackluster performance in the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operations, the P-38 was an exceptional performer in the Pacific and China-Burma-India Theaters of Operation. It was credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter. While it stood no chance of outmaneuvering Japanese aircraft, it was significantly faster, making hit-and-run tactics highly effective. Additionally, the two engines and long range meant that P-38 pilots were more likely to make it back to land after a mission than their single-engine counterparts.
Arguably the most significant mission in which P-38s participated was Operation Vengance, when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Navy, was shot down and killed. It's a fascinating story about the importance of intelligence and codebreaking in wartime.
Despite its mixed service record, the P-38 was flown by America's top two aces, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire. Its loss rate was roughly comparable with that of the P-51, and its range helped it fill an important niche for bomber escort and Pacific service until the long-range P-47N and P-51D entered service.
After WW2, the Lightning was made obsolete by the advent of jets. The USAF retired their last P-38s in 1949, but other countries, including China, Honduras, and Italy continued to use them until 1965. Notably, P-38s were used in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état.The 49th Fighter Group
During WW2, the 49th Fighter Group, now known as the 49th Operations Group, operated primarily in the Southwest Pacific under the Fifth Air Force (which is the USAF's oldest continuously serving Numbered Air Force). It was originally formed in Michigan in 1940, and was sent to Australia when America entered WW2. In late 1942 the 49th moved to New Guinea and flew a mixture of P-38s, P-40s, and P-47s against Japanese forces.
In September 1944, the 49th FG was outfitted completely with Lightnings and flew long-range escort and attack missions to (relatively) nearby islands. By the time the war ended, pilots from the "Fighting 49ers" had destroyed somewhere between 668 and 678 enemy aircraft, a record in the Pacific Theater. America's number one ace, Major Richard Bong, flew a P-38 with the 49th.
In August 1945, the 49th was stationed in Okinawa, and a month later, in Japan. They received P-51 Mustangs in 1946 and F-80 Shooting Stars in 1948. They were redesignated as the 49th Fighter-Bomber Group in 1950, and inactivated in 1957. In 1985 they were redesignated the 49th Tactical Fighter Group, while still being inactive. They were not reactivated until 1991, when redesignated as the 49th Operations Group.The Scale Model
This model is a Hasegawa 1:72 P-38J Lightning from the "South Pacific Aces Combo" kit, which is a 2013 reboxing of a 1977 kit. The kit included the necessary parts for two separate models and came with decal options for both Major Richard Bong's and Major Thomas McGuire's P-38s. The particular livery chosen was that of the Lightning flown by Major Richard Bong in late 1944. An imgur album of the scale model and reference photo is available here.
Lockheed P-38J Lightning of the 49th FG