WI: NACA Modified P-38

Introduction & Background
  • WI: NACA Modified P-38 fighter

    Notice to Readers: This TL is still alive but only occasionally updated at this time (Summer 2019). Real life and the greatly expanded scope of detail required to continue advancing the TL at this point (including a fair share of original design and research) has kept me from more regular postings. But, Please, follow along and keep your eyes open for updates when they occur. I really value everyone's input and often the discussion around specific developments has been key to finalizing the next development.


    Jul. 2019

    (This was something I had planned to post after being on the board longer but a discussion in another thread prompted some discussion of P-38 development so I thought I would go ahead with this for the sake of discussion.)

    I know there have been several discussions over the years surrounding the Lockheed P-38 American Twin-Engine fighter/interceptor of WWII but one part of the equation that I have never heard discussed is the “What If…” the NACA recommended modifications to the airplane had been implemented, especially at or near the beginning of P-38 operations.

    OTL Background:

    Without re-hashing the origin and initial development history of the Lockheed Model 22 / P-38 (all of that information is readily available on numerous on-line sources) I will focus on what led to the NACA studies of the airframe, their proposed solution to the problems encountered, and why these solutions weren’t put in place.

    A record-breaking cross-country flight in early 1939 (which resulted in the loss of the only XP-38) garnered enough attention and excitement that the US Army Air Corp (USAAC) placed orders for pre-production (YP-38) and production (P-38) aircraft in numbers greater than Lockheed had anticipated for the entire Model 22 life. This necessitated a rushed production development and major reconfiguration to accommodate the unintended mass-production.

    Tests in early 1941 of the first pre-production YP-38’s quickly ran into issues when at high speed (around Mach 0.68), especially in dive, where the nose of the aircraft would drop--locking into an often un-recoverable dive accompanied by “buffeting.” The problems getting the production line up and fully operational prevented Lockheed from directing any engineering resources to these problems until November 1941, but they were unable to identify the cause or provide any solutions until Gen. Hap Arnold, head of the by then renamed Army Air Forces (USAAF), ordered the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA—predecessor of NASA) to analyze the YP-38 in their full-scale wind-tunnel in December 1941 – January 1942 which resulted in the report “Full-Scale Wind-Tunnel Investigation of Buffeting and Diving Tendencies of the YP-38 Airplane.”

    This report was finally able to identify that the control lock and diving difficulties were the result of a high-speed pressure wake developing over the wing and fuselage resulting is loss of lift to the central wing and buffeting of the tail as the turbulent wake passes over it, a phenomenon just recently discovered at the time which led the idea of the “sound barrier.” This is often referred to a “Compressibility” problem as it related the change of aerodynamics at high speed from a traditional non-compressible fluid to a compressible one. The specific behavior of the P-38 is now better known as “Mach Tuck.”

    NACA tested several solutions to the problem including wing filleting, partial flap deployment, three different inboard (between the engine booms and the center gondola) wing designs, two revised canopy designs, and an extension to the trailing edge of the gondola. They found the best performance gain (delay of up to 64 mph in the formation of the shock-wave) resulted from a simple 0.2c (20% of chord) leading edge extension to the center wing section and using their second canopy revision. They also noted that although the gondola extension did not increase the Critical Mach number, it did reduce the turbulence of the wake re-joining the airstream and smoothed out the air flow over the tail surfaces.

    One aspect which I find very interesting with these design modifications was that the extended leading edge moved the center of lift forward causing the plane to become unbalanced. They recommended moving the coolant radiators from the mid-boom into the extended leading edge of the wing to rebalance the aircraft with the added benefit of reducing drag and further streamlining the aircraft. I will address this again in the ATL discussion to follow.

    The problem is that the report wasn’t completed until March 31, 1942, by which time the US was at war and Lockheed was ramping up to start production on the combat-ready P-38F (beginning in April 1942) at war-time production rates. With the P-38 the most capable fighter then in inventory there simply was not the opportunity to re-design and re-tool for the modifications NACA recommended and the P-38 was sent into combat while still suffering numerous problems, not least of which was the issues with compressibility.

    The results are well known and documented: the P-38 in the ETO struggled the first 18 months of combat prompting 8th Fighter Command to pre-emptively phase them out in favor of the new P-51 as they became available at the end of 1943 and through the first half of 1944 which prevented Lockheed and the USAAF from implementing a number of fixes for the problems and delayed others until it was too late to have much impact in the reputation of the P-38 in Europe. It was not until the P-38J-25-LO and P-38L-5-LO/VN the airplane really came into its own and that was realized almost entirely in the Pacific.

    ATL Discussion:

    For this examination of a “What If…” I have decided to place the POD with the NACA study. Specifically, that Gen. Arnold did not wait for Lockheed to tackle the dive issues first and instead ordered the NACA study to take place in June-July of 1941 with the final report completed September 30, 1941 (six months earlier than OTL). This updated timeline would allow Lockheed engineers to immediately go to work implementing the NACA design changes in fall 1941 prior to US entry into the War and the corresponding production pressures which prevented it from happening in OTL. The first production P-38’s with the NACA modifications would then roll out either as late block P-38E’s in early ’42 or, more likely, as the finalized P-38F in April 1942.

    OTL, the P-38F/G/H continued to use the enclosed intercooler in the leading edge of the outboard wings, which provided adequate cooling for the early model engines and low-boost ratings but which, by the P-38G and even more so the P-38H, limited engine power to lower settings due to in-adequate cooling. This was a problem that was not anticipated so it wasn’t until the P-38J in August 1943 that the intercoolers were switched to the core-type, chin-mounted position—squeezed between and behind the oil radiators. However, in my ATL, with the oil radiators moved adjacent the coolant radiators in the leading edge extension the space in the chin of the nacelles is completely freed up which allows the core-type intercoolers to be installed in the space previously occupied by the oil radiators as soon as it becomes apparent it is needed without re-designing the nacelles themselves. This means that the engine power limitations of the G either never occurs (because the intercoolers have already been moved) or are quickly overcome by sending field modification kits in early 1943 with full integration on the assembly line taking place with the P-38H in the spring of 1943.

    Additionally, moving the intercoolers in these earlier models (G or H) would allow a matching earlier installation of the leading edge fuel tanks in the outer wings, increasing the range and combat radius in 1943 sufficient to provide full escort coverage to 8th AF Bombers even to deep penetration targets.

    Another advantage of moving the Prestone (engine coolant) radiators to the inboard position in the extended leading edge is that the heated coolant can be run through a heater core close to the cockpit cupola, increasing available cockpit heat as soon as it becomes apparent the existing heat is insufficient for high-altitude or cold weather operations. Again, this is something I expect would be utilized no later than early-mid 1943.

    One final advantage of this layout is that frees up a large amount of space in the tail booms which could be utilized in later production models. With engine weight increases in the F/G and again in the H/J models the Center of Gravity could potentially have been moved forward enough to justify installation of either additional small fuel tanks in the booms where the radiators used to be, or—perhaps a better option—small water/alcohol tanks which would permit the use the Water Injection under War Emergency Power, further increasing performances and reducing the risks of detonation under high manifold pressure (> 60 in/Hg).

    The estimated (conservative according to NACA documents) dive performance gains of this P-38 redesign are impressive:


    To put this in perspective, the P-51D had an absolute Critical Mach of around 0.80, depending on the source, but was normally limited to less than 0.73 because of extreme vibrations beyond those speeds. Even if pushing the ’51 to Mach 0.8 or beyond is considered acceptable these NACA estimates for the modified ’38 show a similar diving capability considering a margin for error of the conservative estimate, especially if using Dive Recovery Flaps in addition to the NACA modifications. In these cases the P-38 would be favorable because it can accelerate to max speed faster than the P-51 allowing to either pull-away faster or to gain faster on a diving E/A. Combine that with the faster climb of the P-38, higher peak turning rate, and—in later airplanes—faster roll, there would be nothing that the P-51 could do that the P-38 couldn’t do better. All while bringing a heavier weight of fire on target (128 oz/sec vs 111 oz/sec).

    Here are some roughly done drawings of how these modifications would appear (done in MS Paint):

    All told, these NACA modifications solve three of the biggest issues with the early combat performance of the P-38 with the 8th Air Force: Limited Dive, Engine Cooling/Reliability, and Cockpit heating. In addition, the lack of the radiator ducts in the booms reduces drag and would likely result in a better level-flight top-speed (I would expect a gain of 10-20 mph from this) and improved/decreased fuel consumption. This leaves only two big problems to solve with later models.

    The first of these remaining problems was that the Fuel Mixture, Propeller RPM, and Throttle controls were independent and never had an implemented solution in OTL. For those not familiar with what those are, it means that to change from a “Cruising” condition to a “Combat” condition, the pilot needed to adjust three different levers for each engine (a total of six adjustments): Move Fuel Mixture from Auto-Lean to Auto-Rich; Increase Propeller RPMs; Increase manifold pressure (throttle). I have read some anecdotal evidence* that Lockheed had developed an “automatic manifold pressure regulator” which automated all of these adjustments into a single lever per engine but that the Air Force deemed it “unnecessary” and never authorized its implementation (Allison, the engine manufacturer, implemented this system on the post-war “G” series V-1710 engines). Supposing, with the “big three” problems solved due to the NACA redesign early in the combat life of the airplane the 8th AF decided to keep the P-38’s in primary service longer it is reasonable, I think, to assume this modification would become “necessary” and it could be implemented by late 1943/early 1944 models of the airplane (OTL P-38J, but in ATL, probably be considered second or third block P-38H).

    The second remaining issue was that the ailerons became heavy at high speeds and the so the airplane’s roll rate was quite slow, limiting its use as a dog-fighter. In OTL this was fixed in June 1944 with the P-38J-25-LO which introduced hydraulically boosted ailerons. These exponentially increased the force on the ailerons when turning the yoke and allowed the P-38 to flick-roll faster than most other fighters of the time. I am not certain how much more quickly these would be introduced in ATL vs. OTL as the slow-roll performance wouldn’t be altered by the NACA modifications nor was its solution delayed or prevented by AF brass. So, let’s say that this modification is introduced as it was in OTL, i.e. June 1944.

    Finally, with the 8th AF decision to keep the P-38 as the primary long-range escort fighter I believe it is reasonable to presume that they would have dedicated more time and resources to addressing the basic and tactical training for the pilots that was largely ignored in OTL, possibly even to the extant to sharing information with the P-38 FGs in the PTO—although that is uncertain.

    The result is, that when the 55th FG is transferred to the 8th AF with P-38H’s in September 1943 they have an aircraft capable of escorting bombers, at high-altitude, comfortably, reliably, and with significantly improved performance over most Axis fighters. This would reduce the demand for P-51’s and while I still expect them to come in theatre I would expect the P-38 Fighter Groups to keep the P-38’s rather than switching to P-47’s and P-51’s resulting in a near even three-way split between the fighter types by war’s end.

    I don’t know that this would have any significant impact on the eventual course or outcome of the war but improved long-range escort earlier in the war could have had a large positive impact on bomber-loss rates and morale. The reduction in bomber-losses in turn could mean a faster buildup of US Bomber forces and an earlier launch of major 1000+ raids perhaps even increasing the time-table for the Normandy Invasion, although other logistical problems likely lock that in no earlier than May ’44.

    The biggest difference would be in the reception and memory of the P-38 and its potential for a continued career post-war, similar to the P-51. The possibility of keeping them in service longer could also lead to the late-war approval for the adoption of the P-38K-1 with the F15 (Allison V-1710-75/77) engines and Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic high-activity propellers. In OTL only one of these was made using the large P-38J style chin and retaining the high-drag boom radiators. Even with all that drag it was able to achieve 432mph in level flight using Military Power and was expected to make 450mph with War Emergency Power with matching improvements in range and fuel consumption (about 10%). It also had a ceiling of 46,000 feet, a max climb of 4,800 ft/minute and could make it to 20,000 feet in only five minutes. Without the full coat of pain and with the reduced drag of the NACA design modification I can only image what its performance could be. In this case the P-38K would likely replace the F/P-82 Twin-Mustang of OTL and see continued service into the early 1950’s including limited combat in Korea as bomber-escorts and Close Air Support.

    So, any thoughts on this, its feasibility, and any effects I may have missed?

    * http://www.ausairpower.net/P-38-Analysis.html (Pertinent section about 45% down in the italicized letter from Col. Harold J. Rau to “Commanding General, VIII Fighter Command, APO 637, U.S. Army”)
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    Ch.1 - The NACA Report & First Test (Sep-Nov 1941)
  • 7 October 1941
    Burbank, California, USA

    A light knock on the side of the open door roused Kelly Johnson from his reverie. He looked up to see Hall Hibbard waiting for him. Putting aside the latest report from the manufacturing engineers—they were still having issues getting the dies to properly align on the P-38 line—he acknowledged the boss and could only hope he was not bringing more bad news.

    “NACA finished their report on the P-38.” Hall came into the room and dropped a manila envelope on Kelly’s desk. “It’s not tail flutter causing the issue.”

    “I told the Air Corps repeatedly that the Atalanta’s tail is too stiff for flutter!” It had been an on-going argument with the Air Corps and their pilots who seemed to be convinced that the diving problems with his beloved P-38 were from the tail flexing around. After their Lieutenant Putnam had been killed in the crash of number 699 in June, the Air Corps brass was convinced the twin-tail design was too unstable. Kelly had tried explaining to them that between the solid aluminum skin of the airplane and the internal structures of the booms the tail was too rigid to suffer flutter. They had even tried to force him to add external weights to the elevator even though the elevators were already internally balanced. Indeed, once of his engineers was working that exact thing just to prove to the Air Corps it makes no difference. Now, hopefully, they will not have to have to waste any more time on it. He was pleased to hear from Hall that NACA had vindicated him. “So, were they able to figure it out?”

    “Take a look.”

    Kelly opened the envelope and began scanning the document. The first few pages were standard introduction and description of the study and its methods—nothing too critical for detailed review at that moment. When he reached the third page, however, he stopped, re-reading it several times.

    “…the local speed of sound will be reached in the wing-fuselage fillet at speed of 404 miles per hour…the entire region between the booms will…be subject to the accompanying compressibility separation.

    “When the critical speed of a wing is reached and shock occurs on the upper wing surface, the flow separation which results is accompanied by a decrease in wing lift, a sharp increase in wing drag, and a strong diving tendency…The diving tendency is contributed to both by the increase in negative moment of the wing and decrease in lift…”

    “Compressibility?” Kelly wondered. He had attended Theodore von Kármán’s--of the California Institute of Technology--lecture at the Aerodynamics session the previous January about aerodynamic compressibility at trans-sonic speeds but it was theoretical and thought to apply mostly to propeller limits. The idea of the whole airplane flying fast enough to run into compressibility was entirely new.

    He continued reading on into the fourth page.

    “The joint occurrence of tail buffeting and the diving tendency on the P-38 airplane appears to be satisfactorily explained…as an effect produced by attainment of critical speed over the entire section of the airplane between the booms…”

    He repeated the last part aloud, “’…attainment of critical speed over the entire section of the airplane between the booms.’”

    Hall smiled, “It looks like your Atalanta is faster than we thought and NACA has a way to get more than the fifteen knots the Air Corps wants.”

    Kelly continued scanning the NACA report. “From their wind-tunnel testing it looks like they are estimating an additional sixty-four miles per hour with this point-two cee leading edge extension.”

    “I’ll leave you to it. Review it a few times and grab your design team tomorrow to run the numbers. I want your recommendations by Friday. This is high priority but don’t let it stop the assembly tooling work. That’s still number one.”

    4 November 1941
    Burbank, California, USA

    Johnson’s design team had been hard at work re-engineering the center section of YP-38 #689 to incorporate some of the NACA recommendations. After the initial review of the NACA report they elected to stage the improvements in various phases so as to limit the production line impact until the line was fully operational.

    First they had implemented the wing filleting along the gondola and the nacelles. Early test flights, with strict profiles and hard limits on the dive speeds, seemed to bare out the NACA estimation on reduced vibration. With the help of the manufacturing engineering team they were able to get these added into the current production line a week earlier so the new P-38E’s that would soon start rolling off the factory floor would already have this improvement and the others would have them added in the field.

    The next hurdle was the big one: the wing re-design and moving the radiators. Working with fabricators on the ground and a representative from Allison they were able to cobble together a hasty modification useful for proof-of-concept. Through Allison, they were able to acquire several low profile coolant radiators intended for P-39 production as well as oil radiators from the same. These were then mounted on hand made braces extending forward from the main spar of the inner-wing section of 689. Once the radiators were installed, the engine mechanics had the work to re-route all of the coolant and oil lines appropriately while the fabricators cut off the old radiator housings on the booms and hastily riveted some sheet aluminum over the resulting gaps and adding some faring over the old oil cooler inlets in the forward nacelles. Meanwhile, the designers were figuring out the best form for the leading edge extension and producing the drawing needed for the bracing and skin forms as well as updated filleting to accommodate the new wing.

    With the news that the productions issues were nearly all cured, Johnson’s team now had more resources—and more pressure—to get the NACA modifications completed and tested. With the new wings and radiators installed on 689 now, Lockheed had ordered flight tests as soon as possible.

    * * *

    Lockheed test pilot Ralph Virden walked around the airplane on the tarmac at the Lockheed Air Terminal. The bright aluminum of the streamlined fighter was broken only by the red-white-and-blue stripes on the tail surfaces, the black anti-glare of the upper nose and inner-nacelles, and the blue and red roundels with their large white stars of the U.S. Army Air Corps adorning the wings.

    He had already flown the airplane a dozen times but only in its original configuration. Now, looking at it without the radiator bulges on the booms and with the narrow radiator slots in the new leading edge he could not help but marvel at how sleek the airplane was as it sat hunched in front of him, nose pointing up as though it were anxious to be in the sky.

    After his pre-flight walk-around checking the control surfaces and pitot tube, Ralph ducked under the left boom and came up to the small ladder extending from beneath the rear of the gondola. He always felt this was a poor way to get into an airplane. He needed to clamber up the couple narrow rungs, reach over the rear of the fuselage to the handle rising above it, then contort himself to get his right leg up over the trailing edge of the central wing. Using just the one leg, with his knee nearly in his chest, and the little handle he then hoisted himself up onto the wing—this time scraping his left knee as he raised it. Cursing from the pain, he lifted the handle and turned it down to raise the ladder then ensured it was fully stowed and locked in place—he made the mistake once of not doing so and had the ladder drop during his roll-out.

    Once he stepped down into the cockpit and sat himself in the high backed seat the beauty of the arrangement became apparent. The seat was high in the cockpit with the wings and fuselage well below shoulder height the visibility was phenomenal, broken only by the canopy frames. He noticed that the extended leading edges blocked more than a few degrees of downward visibility compared to the previous wing, hoping it would not prove to be a problem during taxi.

    The instruments and cockpit controls were unchanged from his previous rides which made his checks easier. After adjusting his seat and the pedals he started on the checklist the engineers had provided, methodically double checking each setting. He did not live to be a forty-three year old test pilot of high-performance military aircraft by cutting corners.

    The airplane was connected to a remote battery cart for start-up so there was no risk of draining the internal battery while sitting on the apron so he ensured the battery was OFF. Then it was checking the fuel selectors, testing the fuel booster pumps and the low fuel warning lamps, and checking the pressure in the oxygen system. Then he had to set all the engine and propeller controls as indicated, turn the generator ON, and set fuel to use RESERVE. After getting all the miscellaneous items set appropriately it was time to get the engines started.

    Ralph closed the cockpit hood and cranked up the right-side window. He called the ground crew out the open left window, “Turn them over.”

    Two of the men assisting on the ground manhandled the Curtis Electric propellers through a few rotations each. While they were doing this, Ralph took the opportunity to double check the booster pumps and fuel pressure in the tanks. When the men backed away he selected the left engine on the hand primer and gave it a few pumps.

    His eyes met those of the man to the left and he raised one finger, “Ready number one.”

    The two ground crew stood by, one with a fire extinguisher at the ready and the other further forward. Once he indicated to Ralph that it was clear, Ralph set the ignition master switch ON and moved the left ignition switch to BOTH. With his left hand reaching past the yoke he pushed the starter toggle to LH with his middle finger and hovered over the engage toggle with his index finger. His right hand was on the engine primer pump ready to work.

    The engine gave an electrical whine as the inertia starter began turning it over. The pitch of the sound climbed higher and higher as the starter revolutions built until it was a steady hum. Then, Ralph mashed his index finger forward to engage the left engine.

    The electrical whine dropped as the starter engaged the crank, meeting sudden resistance in the mass of the 1,710 cubic inch V-12. The propeller started to spin and the cylinders sparked. Giving a few slow pumps to the primer the fuel flowed into the carburetor and the engine exploded into life with a muffled roar. Ralph quickly released the starter switches and pushed the fuel mixture lever all the way forward to AUTO RICH. A cloud of brown-black smoke spewed up from the exhaust outlet on top of the boom as the oil that had been sitting in the cylinders quickly burned away before turning into the familiar blue-grey of a clean gasoline burn.

    Feeling the engine smooth out, he glanced at the oil pressure gauge and watched the needle turn until it was steady just above 60 pounds per square inch and made sure his voltmeter was registering current from the generator before priming the right engine. He held two fingers up to the ground crew and they hurried over to the other side of the airplane. Once they indicated they were set, Ralph turned the ignition on the right engine and started the engine.

    After both engines were running smooth and they were up to operating temperatures he switched the battery ON and gave the hand signal to disconnect the battery cart. Once the airplane was clear, he completed all of the pre-flight checks and ran the engines up. With the engines back at idle he motioned out the window for the ground crew to remove the chocks before fully sealing the cockpit.

    Taxiing was pretty similar to his previous experience, the reduced visibility from the new wing having little impact on his ability to follow the apron and taxi-way to the end of the runway. He wrote a brief line on the notepad strapped to thigh, “TAXI – GOOD.”

    With the all clear from ground control and aligned straight on the runway he rolled his feet forward on the brakes, pushing them as far forward as he could. He moved the propeller controls to 3000 RRM and pushed his throttles to MILITARY. He watched the manifold pressures climb on each engine as they revved up. 35 inches…37 inches…39 inches... At 40 inches of mercury he released the brakes.

    Old 689 leaped forward, slamming Ralph deep into his seat padded only by his parachute. The airplane sped down the runway, its airspeed quickly increasing. It only took about half of the 3600 foot runway before Ralph eased back the yoke, rotated the plane up, and left the ground.

    With the gear up and altitude and speed increasing, Ralph slowly turned the airplane back over the airport, circling as he climbed. After five minutes he switched the tanks from RESERVE to MAIN and began preparing the tests the engineers back in Burbank had planned for him.

    * * *

    The first tests were pretty standard stability and flight dynamic evaluations at various altitudes and engine settings. Those were mostly just to confirm the 689, with its new wing, still behaved like the rest of the P-38’s in normal flight. The engine tests were a little more delicate as Ralph discovered the engine coolant was running a little hot with the new radiators. His note read “RAD. INSUF. ENG. 240+” Radiators insufficient, engines hotter than 240 degrees Fahrenheit. He was able to lower it a little by switching back from AUTO LEAN to AUTO RICH and opening the manual radiator flaps all the way but it was still making him a little a nervous.

    Once the coolant temperatures came down, though, at 25,000 feet he was ready for the test that everyone was waiting for: the dive.

    Increasing to max RPM and full MILITARY power, he said a quick prayer and nosed the airplane over.

    At a sixty degree down angle his altimeter spun rapidly in the direction pilots never like to see as his Indicated Air Speed turned the other way. Ralph Virden was not an ordinary pilot though.

    He stayed with the dive as his IAS climbed. He was indicating 260 at 25,000 feet when he started the dive which is right around 400 miles per hour. At 22,000 feet his instruments indicated his speed as 325—480 miles per hour. This was it, the moment they were all anticipating. Here was where they had always locked up before; but, 689 kept carrying Ralph faster and lower. As the altimeter passed 20,000 feet and the IAS climbed past 350, Ralph tested the controls and was relieved to find his dive shallowing up a few degrees as applied back pressure on the yoke. He slowly pulled out of the diving, leveling off at just below 17,000 feet and indicating 380 and dropping.

    Once comfortable with the stability, he opened the radiator flaps again to cool off the engines and started a slow circling climb back up to 25,000 feet as he scribbled on his notepad: “D 1: A:250-200, IAS:260-350. GOOD”

    Then, he dove again.

    Over the next fifteen minutes he made a series of four dives. On the last dive he finally started to feel the nose drop and the controls lock up at 13,000 feet and an indicated speed of nearly 435 miles per hour. As soon as he felt the nose tuck he throttled back. His air speed continued to slowly climb and the nose dipped a few degrees farther while his windscreen started to fog over.

    Ralph then saw the airplane as though he were watching from the airport below. He saw the streak of silver shudder and roll, locking into the dive. He could picture the tail arch before giving way completely, the remainder of the airplane spiraling out of control to become nothing more than fiery wreck as it slammed into the ground.

    He shook the vision from his mind and took a breath remembering Major Gilkey’s recovery last spring. The altimeter dropped to 10,000 feet and he started turning the elevator trim tab. The thicker air was working and the airplane started to slow and the nose started to come up. Finally, after a breathless eternity he was able to regain full elevator control at 5,000 feet. His biceps strained as he began pulling back on the yoke with all his strength and 689 started to level off. At 3,500 feet he decided to call it a day—one close call was enough.

    Back safely on the ground 10 minutes later he did a quick calculation: he peaked at nearly 550 miles per hour before the airplane tucked under him. Kelly Johnson would be thrilled. His wife, on the other hand, would not need to know about this!
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    Ch.2 - Design Meeting (Nov 1941)
  • Just a short update in the Narrative this time around. We are coming up on the U.S. entry to the war and I want to make sure I handle it properly. Until then, I give you some progress on the P-38 Improvement Program in a discussion between Lockheed Chief Engineer Hall Hibbard and the Chief Research Engineer, Kelly Johnson.

    24 November 1941
    Burbank, California, USA

    Sometimes, bad news can be good news.

    Hall Hibbard had just met with a representative from Curtiss-Wright who informed him that their experimental R-2160 “Tornado” engine was cancelled two days earlier. The R-2160 was the second engine intended for use with XP-58 after the Pratt & Whitney XH-2600 was cancelled the previous year. Without this engine the XP-58 project would be completely stalled pending yet another new engine selection.

    The good news in all of this was that it freed up most of the XP-58 project teams for the short term—teams which could be re-directed to Kelly Johnson’s P-38 development group without impacting the Air Force’s demand for progress on the YP-49.

    Hall Hibbard was pleased with the progress Kelly Johnson’s teams had made on the P-38. They had the full production line up and running and the new P-38E’s were being delivered to the Air. In addition, the reports of the early flight tests of the NACA modifications on YP-38 689 were more than promising. After reading the latest newspapers he only hoped they still had enough time to get everything squared away.

    From Washington, the on-going negotiations with Japan sounded to be dissolving ever closer to war. The latest reports included a summary of the last proposal from the Japanese which would require the U.S. to practically abandon all of their South Pacific allies and holdings and no one thought the U.S. Government would agree to those terms.

    There was even worse news coming from Europe where the German army had re-launched their offensive against Moscow and were even now closing around the Russian capitol. If the Soviet Union fell, then Britain would be left entirely alone and the entire might of the Third Reich would turn west toward the lonely island.

    After dealing with TWA and Mr. Hughes—not the best way to start the Monday after Thanksgiving—Hall wanted a return to some sanity and Johnson was just the ticket. Hall had never seen anything quite like the way Kelly Johnson managed his teams and kept them organized. They all knew exactly what they needed to do and when to do it and when The Boss spoke up they listened and executed. In the past few years Lockheed had undergone a transformation from a small civilian design firm producing limited numbers of niche aircraft—such as the Electra—to a growing and military contractor producing the “Hudson” bomber and the P-38, one of the most advanced airplanes in the world, with numerous other projects in development. Hall had little illusion that Kelly Johnson was one of the main reasons and he had every intention of keeping Johnson on at Lockheed for as long as possible.

    “Well, Kelsey is on board with us testing the NACA modifications on a combat ready airplane with armor, armament, and the new F2 engines; so, he is letting us keep 41-2009 as another development plane. We’ve already started altering the center fuselage and the engineers are developing the tooling to standardize the new wings which should be installed on oh-oh-nine in the next two weeks. Allison has our specifications for the new radiators, which should solve the coolant over-heat issues six-eight-nine has been having and has sent them on to their sub-contractor.” When he got going Kelly was all business, ticking through every item that needed to be discussed. “The oil radiators are another matter. The Bell units from the P-39 work fine but it seems there may be a bit of sourcing issue. Instead, we’re looking at the possibility of using the same ‘can’ radiators we already have but mounting them in the wing as NACA recommended.”

    He continued down his list, “DuPont has had some men on-site working on the canopy revisions but we’ve been having problems with lensing on the quarter-shields. They apparently have some resources with I.C.I. who have been working on the newer British Perspex hoods so we’re hoping we can get something back soon. In the meantime we are putting the best Lucite DuPont has been able to give us on oh-oh-nine so we can at least start testing before Christmas.”

    Hall nodded along before interjecting, “What about the XP-49?”

    “The 522 prototype is still on schedule from our end. We are applying some of the NACA revelations into the new design but there is some question whether or not the new radiator set up will be able to accommodate the cooling requirements of the ‘X’ engine. If we ever get functioning engines from Continental we can test them but right now that’s in doubt. In the meantime, we are keeping the model 222 boom radiators and using the NACA 61-115 wing they tested instead of the leading edge extension.”

    Kelly had been passionate about the XP-49, believing it to be able to live up to the full potential of his original Model 22 design, but he had become increasingly frustrated with the project as the engine requirements continued to change. First it was going to be designed around the Pratt & Whitney X-1800 “H-block” engine but when that project was cancelled last year they had to find another engine. Eventually they settled on the inverted-V Continental “Hyper Engine” which promised more than one horsepower per cubic inch. Now that engine, the XI-1430, had been caught in a development black hole with constant problems and the entire Model 522 project had been held back because of it.

    “Hall,” Kelly continued, “with the new F5’s from Allison on their way I would like your permission to shift some of our resources from the XP-49 to the P-38 improvement projects.”

    This was a surprising request to Hall. The P-49 was supposed to take to be a large performance improvement and that was estimated to depend largely on the engines, re-directing more resources back the P-38 could only be done if it can close that estimated performance gap. “Do you think the Allisons will be powerful enough to make up the difference?”

    “They won’t be as powerful as the Continentals are supposed to be, but the F5’s are supposed to be rated to over fifty inches manifold pressure. We’re already planning on using them in the next P-38’s and I think with the other modifications we could render the 522 redundant.”

    “Kelly, the Air Corps…” Damn! “…Air Force has commissioned the XP-49 and they expect delivery at some point. I can’t just pull the project.” Hall Hibbard did not follow the inner-politicking of the Military honchos but they seemed pretty adamant that there is difference between the old Army Air Corps and new Army Air Forces created a few months earlier. All the procurements were still signed by the Air Corps but apparently it was now a division of the new Army Air Forces which only added to Hall’s confusion. He was never sure which group he was dealing with or what name to use.

    Hall continued, “I cannot give you any more from the P-49, Kelly.” His subordinate opened his mouth to protest but Hall cut him off, “But, I can give you some from the P-58.” Hall went on to explain the engine problems with that program and successfully mollified his young Chief Research Engineer with assurances that the P-38 Improvement Program would receive the resources it needed to succeed.
    Ch.3 - War! & Second Test (Dec 1941)
  • Well, I decided not to belabor the US entrance into the war and the reaction to Pearl Harbor. I was going to make it more of a personal scene but I realized it really had no bearing on the P-38 and only served to slow the important parts of the ATL. So...without further ado...

    8 December 1941
    Throughout the Nation, USA

    The President’s voice buzzed through the radio speakers.

    “As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

    “But always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

    “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

    “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

    “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph- so help us God.

    “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

    Burbank, California, USA

    Executive of the Board, Courtlandt S. Gross, switched off the radio. The hissing applause clicked off and the room fell into complete silence. Gathered today were all of Lockheed’s chief officers. The news from the previous day of the sudden Japanese attack on the Navy and Army installations in Hawai’i had stopped everyone cold and there was no return to “business as normal” on this Monday morning as everyone tuned in to listen to the President’s response in his speech to Congress.

    As a military contractor they fully expected to receive new demands and updates from the War Department now that the nation would soon be starting full mobilization. The executives needed to ensure that everything was proceeding as it should and ordered each bureau and project team provide complete updates on the status of research, development, design, and production. The board had to have their priorities in order for the Army.

    Most of the company efforts had of late been in building Hudsons—Super-Electras modified as maritime patrol craft and bombers—for the RAF and RCAF and in getting the first production P-38’s delivered for the USAAF. In addition there was still the trouble with the Model 322, the P-38’s built for the British which they named the “Lightning,” a name which had taken hold in popular parlance for the entire Model 22 family. The British had wanted the Lightning to use the same engines as the P-40’s they received and so the aircraft was effectively neutered. Between the poor performance and the issues the past summer with supposed tail-flutter, the British had canceled the order before the P-38 Improvement Program had started causing no end of consternation for the Board and the lawyers who fought to get the contract fulfilled. Then the RAF had changed the majority of the order, over 500 aircraft, to be standard production P-38’s as “Lightning II’s” but whether or not they were going to honor the contract was in doubt.

    Then there were the development projects. The P-38 Improvement Project as well as the related XP-49 and the stalled XP-58 would need to be prioritized by the military now that the US was entering the war. The future of Lockheed, though, was in the TWA airliner model 049. The prototype mock-up was sitting in the hanger and 80 airplanes had already been ordered and authorized to be built. The entire board and the chief designers, including both Hall Hibbard and Kelly Johnson, had hoped the US could stay out of the war long enough the Constellation to be delivered and guarantee a strong future for the Lockheed Corporation.

    Chairman of the Board, Robert E. Gross, Courtlandt’s brother, broke the silence after a moment, “Gentlemen, it appears we are out of time.”

    18 December 1941
    Burbank, California, USA

    Reorganization and re prioritization for the war effort had progressed quickly at Lockheed following the US entrance into the War. The fear of a Japanese attack on the west coast prompted the USAAF to immediately lay claim to the British Lightning I’s waiting in Burbank. Forty of these Lightnings were already patrolling up and down the Pacific coast ready for any sign of a Japanese invasion.

    The Air Corps, responsible for logistics for the Army Air Forces, had also already stepped in to take over the rest of the British order, thereby ending the on-going legal struggle between RAF procurement and Lockheed. As soon as each batch of aircraft became ready they were to be delivered directly to the Air Forces for modification and readiness assessment. Army test pilot Major Ben Kelsey—who, contrary to Air Corps doctrine, had pushed for Lockheed to add provisions for external fuel tanks on the P-38--was also advocating a modification to the P-38 for its use as a photo-reconnaissance aircraft in preference to the British built Mosquito which General Hap Arnold was backing.

    With the desire to build up the Air Forces as quickly as possible the War Department was considering using aircraft currently available in favor of newly or as-yet undeveloped aircraft, which meant that Kelly Johnson’s P-38 Improvement Program was getting preference over the XP-49.

    P-38E-1-LO #41-2009 (serial number 222-5227) had been extensively modified after it came off the production line. Being fully armored but with without guns, it was being operated by Lockheed as a registered AAF aircraft. Aircraft 009 was the first to have the NACA wing extensions installed using pre-production dies with the new custom built Prestone radiators from Allison and dual can-type oil radiators in the leading edge. The fabrication team had just completed the three foot fuselage extension and had fitted a more gradually curved, less extremely peaked, canopy from DuPont. Although the designers had considered redesigning the lower engine nacelles, where the oil radiators used to be installed, to tighten the engine fitment and possibly improve the aerodynamics, they had instead smoothly faired them over to keep their original aerodynamic profile for simplicity’s sake. The modification team was hoping to test it with the new Allison V-1710-F5 engines but they had not yet arrived at the factory so the initial flight testing would take place using the current production F2 engines.

    Once again, it was left to Lockheed’s best test pilot, Ralph Virden, to give the newly modified aircraft a workout.

    At first glance, 009 was of similar shape to YP-38 689 he had tested six weeks earlier except it was in full olive drab over grey paint with the yellow tail number “12009” and the bold black letters reading “ARMY” under the wings. The most obvious difference in form was the rear of the central nacelle, which was now extended beyond the trailing edge of the inner-wing assembly.

    Ralph found this made mounting the aircraft far easier since it meant he no longer had to contort himself around the wing and instead needed simply to step up onto the wing from ladder. Getting into the airplane was also easier with the new larger canopy opening—which had the added benefit of the top hood now being hinged at the rear rather than on a bar to the right. It was still a little clumsy having the three different pieces to close in order to completely seal the cockpit, but it was at least some sign of progress.

    From the seat he noted that the forward windscreen sloped farther away and he was slightly dismayed at the curved lensing effect the forward quarters had on his view in front of the broad inner-wings. Kelly Johnson had warned him of this problem and assured him they were hard at work developing a solution. Nevertheless, he made a note of it in the spirit of thoroughness.

    Pre-flight and engine start was the same as before but without the benefit of the battery cart. He found the on-board battery had no challenge spinning up the inertial starters and engaging the engines.

    Taxiing was made difficult with the skewed perspective through the new windscreen. He ended up having to crank the left window down and unbuckle so he could navigate the turns by peeking his head outside. This was definitely a problem that needed to be fixed.

    Roll out and take were otherwise uneventful. Once he had climbed to the testing altitude and double checked that he was back on the main tanks he started the series of preliminary handling tests, just as he had done in 689. His overall impression was that the airplane was an absolute marvel to fly, even more sore than the roughly modified 689 had been.

    The rearward extension of the central nacelle was mostly balanced by the slightly larger coolant radiators which had been installed. In all, the net shift in the center of gravity was only a few percent of the mean aerodynamic chord to the rear so the general behavior in flight was unchanged.

    The new bespoke Prestone radiators were wonderful at maintaining the coolant temperatures and Ralph noted that he never had any unexpected coolant temperatures throughout the first portion of the flight. The issues 689 had with the hastily adapted radiators from a P-39 were completely absent with the larger radiators how sitting in the wings.

    Once again he took the aircraft through a series of dives, once again beginning from 25,000 feet.

    More confident that he had been in 689 he pushed the aircraft down to 15,000 feet on his first attempt, reaching a final indicated speed of 418 miles per hour at just above 18,000 before starting his slow pull out. The control surfaces were a little heavy but there was no indication of shudder or tail flutter.

    The second dive followed nearly the same profile but with full throttle he carried it past an IAS of 440 mph at 16,000 feet. It was a feat he repeated with the third and fourth dives, each progressively lower and faster: indicating 450 at 15,000 feet and 455 at 14,500 respectively. With each dive the airplane was stable and steady displaying no tendency to tuck under but Ralph noted that the ailerons became extremely heavy and stopped responding altogether at just above the old dive limit speeds of the unmodified aircraft.

    He left the throttles open as he climbed for his fifth power dive, circling back to his starting altitude as the turbos spun past 20,000 revolutions to maintain 40.6 inches of intake manifold pressure. As it passed 24,800 feet, oh-oh-nine caught a turbulent updraft under the left wing which Ralph perceived as little more than small bump and slight roll to the right, easily corrected with the ailerons. Unknown to Ralph, the torsion of the outer left wing strained the hot-side intercooler ducting seal on that side. A rush of hot air pressurized to more than twice the ambient air pressure burst the seal and leaked into the wing.

    The automatic manifold pressure regulator on the Allison V-1710-F2L engine registered the resulting drop in carburetor air pressure and the vacuum system immediately fully closed the exhaust waste-gate. The resulting increase in exhaust pressure spun the B-2 turbo-supercharger past its 24,000 rpm limit but all of the additional pressure was lost through the leaking duct seal preventing the manifold pressure from increasing.

    For Ralph, everything seemed to happen at once. The airplane start to yaw as the left engine lost several hundred horsepower. He kicked the rudder to the right to even the yaw as a small glow lamp on the instrument panel flickered, warning him that the left turbo-supercharger had passed 25,600 rpm overspeed. He had just registered the light before it glowed steady as the turbo reached its peak 26,400 rpm. Ralph lifted his left hand off the yoke and was reaching for the throttle when a series of metallic pops almost sounding like gunfire made him flinch.

    The flinch delayed his reaction enough that the turbo spun out of control. The bearings disintegrated, causing the turbine to explosively come apart. It burst in its housing like an artillery shell and peppered the entire left side of the aircraft with shrapnel and debris, tearing through the sheet aluminum like it was paper. Ralph heard the pieces impacting around and passing through the cockpit with whistles and zips. One of the impeller blades flew forward, severing one of the oil lines for the left engine before burying itself in the the number 2R cylinder head. More debris sped aft through both oxygen cylinders but mercifully sparing the battery.

    The force of the bursting turbo caused the left wing to drop even as it yawed further against the rudder. Ralph counter-rolled with ailerons and nosed the airplane over seeking denser air as he kept up a hard right rudder. He made it three minutes and down to 19,300 feet before the left engine started to cough and wheeze as it spewed brown smoke from the hole where the turbo used to be. He knew it would not make it much longer.

    He pulled the left throttle back to IDLE CUT-OFF and moved the propeller feathering switch to feather the propeller. As soon as the engine was dead his voltmeter and ammeter dropped to zero as the only electrical generator was on that engine. He moved the right propeller lever to FIXED PITCH and reduced throttle and RPMs before switching the battery OFF to save what little electrical power he had left.

    Once he was sure he was still flying and in control of the airplane he took the time to close off the fuel to the left side, turn on the left fuel booster pumps, and ensure the radiator and oil flaps were completely closed. Ralph trimmed the rudder and aileron tabs to ease up the load of having to manhandle the airplane quite so roughly. Comfortable that the immediate emergency was under control he checked the rest of the instruments and made a visual inspection of the airplane.

    The first thing Ralph noticed was the burning sensation in his right leg. He reached down to inspect it with his fingers and felt a twisted piece of still hot metal protruding from the inside of his calf. He gingerly tried to move it to get a feel for how deep it may be but an electrical jolt of pain shot through his entire leg and he decided it was deep enough. He felt around it some more before lifting his gloved hand back up to see there was surprisingly little blood. He decided to leave the shrapnel for the doctors on the ground to take care of.

    His oxygen pressure was low, but holding. He could only assume he lost both bottles out of the left boom and was now flying only on the reserve bottle in the right boom. He was continuing to descend at a few thousand feet per minute. He was aiming to get down below 10,000 feet so the low O2 would not be a problem. At the current rate he should be there in just four minutes.

    Ralph was relieved to see that the Hydraulic system was unscathed, registering at just under 1200 psi--well within the normal range. He had no inclination to pump the hydraulics by hand to lower the flaps or landing gear when the time came.

    The right engine seemed to be running fine and strong at 2600 RPM and about 33 inches of mercury manifold pressure. Oil and fuel pressures were good. Carburetor air temperature was adequate as was both oil and coolant temperatures. It was holding more that enough speed considering his continued down-ward slope so at the moment he had no worries of stalling out.

    Looking to the left past the dead and still smoking engine he noticed that one of the outer wing panels was slightly bulged and part of it had come lose, the rivets had popped and it now shuddered in the airflow. Ralph mused, that must have been the source of the "popping" sound he heard before the turbo blew.

    The plexiglas was peppered with a half-dozen or so holes from the exploding debris. One piece had planted itself in the rear of engine control box just above the landing gear lever and another was jammed in the canopy frame where the upper hood meets the right window. That piece, Ralph realized, must have missed his head by inches at most.

    Now below 10,000 feet, he removed his oxygen mask and closed off the regulator but continued down albeit at a slower rate of decent.

    He took a few minutes to orient himself and get his bearings from some of the landmarks below. He was able to recognize the Santa Clara River and figured that the mountains to his left must be the San Gabriels. Looking south past the hills he could two distant airstrips with the growing sprawl of Los Angeles beyond them. The more distant and southerly airstrip would be Glendale's Grand Central Airport. The closer one would be the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank and his destination.

    Continuing his descent past the mountains he switched his battery back on for a moment so he could radio the tower to declare his emergency and get the current altimeter reading. After confirming the information he switched it back off and dialed in the new air pressure at the airport.

    At 500 feet above the airport and only a mile out he turned the batter on again, this time for good. The Curtiss propellers relied on electrical power for their automated pitch control and when coming in on one engine it was always Ralph's policy to make engine control as easy as possible. He moved the right propeller control out of the FIXED PITCH position and back to AUTO CONSTANT SPEED.

    At 140 mph indicated, he dropped the Fowler Flaps. Shortly after, now certain he was lined up and steady, he lowered the landing gear. The airplane shimmied as the right tire dropped into the propeller wash but Ralph held 009 true, steadily reducing his airspeed.

    At a mere 85 miles per hour the beating and brused duo of pilot and airplane settled onto the runway and rolled to smooth and gradual stop.

    Ralph was sure this plane was trying to kill him.
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    Ch.4 - New Requirements (Jan 1942)
  • 3 January 1942
    Wright Field
    Dayton, Ohio, USA

    Major Ben Kelsey, chief of the Pursuit Branch of the Army Air Forces’ Production Engineering Section, the P-38’s original test pilot and biggest proponent, completed reviewing the latest performance test memorandum reports from Lockheed. The three reports were delivered the previous week and with the Army building up to Maximum Effort for the newly joined war the 34 year old aviator was wasting no time digesting the data.

    The first report was a supplement to the preliminary report he had received in early November regarding the Performance Acceptance Tests carried out by Lockheed using a production block P-38E (#41-1983). The tests were cut short after the left engine ingested some debris from somewhere in the ducts, forcing a shut down. The data which was obtained prior to the failure, however, was acceptable if underwhelming.

    The current production airplane—while still faster than anything else in the current Air Corps inventory—had been unable to meet the specified airspeed of 400 miles per hour at any altitude and the climb to 20,000 feet was over a minute slower than expected. The problem stemmed from the increased weight of armor and armament and limited power production from the F2 engines. Of particular note was that the climbing test had to be abandoned at 26,000 when the Carburetor Air Temperature exceeded 60 degrees Celsius and that Louis H. Siblisky, who prepared the report, indicated the inter-cooling was insufficient even in level flight at 20,000 when under Military and Rated Power settings.

    The other two reports were the results of the modified P-38E #41-2009 test flight; one was the test flight data and pilot notes, the other was the report from the investigation of the turbo failure which ended the flight.

    The flight did not follow the full acceptance test profile but instead focused on general handling characteristics with the new wing, radiator installations, and center nacelle changes including the temporary canopy. The pilot--Kelsey assumed it was probably Virden--noted all the aircraft handling to be positive and equal to the standard P-38E in most respects but that full performance and stall tests would need to be completed to make a direct comparison.

    The results of the dive tests were fantastic. In a series of four powered dives the airplane achieved progressively faster maximum speeds and according to the test pilot never experienced any indication of the diving tendency and tail flutter of the standard airplanes. The maximum speeds, when corrected for atmospheric conditions and compressibility errors were calculated for each dive as follows:

    1) 532 mph (0.745 Mach)
    2) 546 mph (0.760 Mach)
    3) 549 mph (0.760 Mach)
    4) 551 mph (0.761 Mach)

    The pilot noted that at around approximately 0.64 Mach the ailerons responded poorly and that prior to 0.7 Mach lost their effectiveness. This was neither a surprise nor a real problem as the 4412 outer wings had a lower critical speed than the new inner wing section and the P-38 already had a “No Spins” restriction in place so pilots were ordered to avoid large aileron deflection during dives anyway.

    Although Lockheed had intended the tests to continue until the final dive speed limit was attained the flight was cut short after the left turbo-supercharger catastrophically failed in flight. The pilot made a successful recovery and landed #009 on a single engine but the airplane was badly damaged and needed extensive repairs.

    The accident report revealed that one of the ducting seals in the left leading edge inter-cooler channels failed. They exact reason for the failure was unknown but the post-accident examination led the investigators to suspect that poor initial fitment was exacerbated by High-G pullouts after the dives which further weakened the seal. A sudden change in load due to turbulence during a climb finally caused the seal to fail which resulted in a sudden drop in manifold pressure. The automatic pressure regulator attempted to compensate by increasing the exhaust pressure to the turbine, which in turn caused an over-speed condition and subsequent turbo failure and explosion.

    Pieces of the exploded turbo were found throughout a large portion of the aircraft. There was indication that several pieces had ricocheted off the armored plate behind the pilot. If the armor had not been installed it is likely that the pilot would have been killed and the aircraft lost.

    The investigation concluded with several recommendations:

    1) New inter-cooler installations be investigated; and/or
    2) Better duct joining methods be developed and used
    3) An automatic turbo-supercharger over-speed regulator be installed which will automatically open the waste-gate in the event of turbine run-away.
    4) That the turbo-supercharger wells in each boom be integrally armored to protect the pilot and aircraft in the event of catastrophic failure.
    5) Installation of a backup electrical generator, preferably on the right side engine, to ensure continued power in the event of left-engine failure.

    In light of both the 009 accident and the inadequate charge air cooling noted in the reports on 983, Maj. Kelsey drafted an order to the effect that examination of alternate inter-cooler installations be immediately added to the scope of the P-38 Improvement Program under High Priority with provision that it only be included in the P-38F development so long as it does not delay the scheduled production start date. The other recommendations from the accident report he included on the order under Normal Priority—that they be investigated if practicable in current production timelines without impacting High and Urgent items.

    With the order drafted and signed, he sent it on to his superiors for Approval and dissemination.
    Ch.4a - Summary of Dives from 12/18/1941
  • Could you please state the altitude where the listed dive speeds were achieved?
    Dive Tests of A/C #41-2009

    Dive#. Altitude | Pressure Altitude | Indicated Airspeed | Equivalent Airspeed | True Airspeed | Mach
    1. 18175' | 17478' | 418 mph | 405 mph | 532 mph | 0.745
    2. 16250' | 15597' | 442 mph | 429 mph | 546 mph | 0.76
    3. 15000' | 14372' | 452 mph | 440 mph | 549 mph | 0.76
    4. 14500' | 13881' | 457 mph | 445 mph | 551 mph | 0.761
    *NOTE: Equivalent Airspeed would likely not appear on the report as it wasn't really used at the time. Also, I used an online aviation calculator to get these numbers which uses 1973 standard altitude pressures so the exact numbers may be slightly off what a contemporary report would read ITTL. I also realized that I brought the dives too low if they had actually started at 30,000 feet. I will go back and change the narrative to start at a lower altitude. Future tests will likely take place at higher altitudes and end above 20,000 feet.
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    Ch.5 - Model 422 / P-38F Finalized (Feb 1942)
  • 10 February 1942
    Burbank, California, USA

    In the weeks since the accident with 009, Kelly Johnson’s team had made significant progress on the P-38 Improvement Program. The updated airplane, now known internally as Model 422 but which the Air Corps had already designated P-38F, had several successful test flights since its repair in late December. Milo Burcham had taken over primary testing duties while Ralph Virden recovered from his injuries, but since Virden’s return the two pilots had traded duties on the aircraft.

    Kelly’s canopy engineers had worked closely with process designers from DuPont and had solved the windshield mold issues and were able to re-design it with integral armored glass in a single piece. A representative from Imperial Chemical Industries—who was already stateside on behalf of the British Government—provided invaluable input from work they had done with Supermarine. The team applied this experience and was able to prototype a new single piece center sliding canopy. The first design had disappointed Kelly because of the off-set required for the sliding portion to clear the rear frame so he had worked directly with them to develop a new off-set locking mechanism. The device works by using a locking-lever in the cockpit to the pilot’s left which, when lifted (to the UNLOCK position), raises the rear corner of sliding canopy by about ¾ of an inch in its track. This provides ample clearance for the canopy to then back and over the rear glass. By raising the lever past the UNLOCK stop it pulls spring-pins clear of the track and disconnects the entire central canopy which can then be jettisoned for emergencies.

    The sliding center canopy prevented the radio aerials from connecting to their previous position at the forward frame of the rear glass so they added a small post at the rear of the canopy assembly to which they could connect.

    Kelly was pleased with the end result and both pilots praised the nearly unobstructed visibility it offered.


    After the early December test flights, including the accident flight, the Army had sent over new priorities for the project and with the Air Corps now directly managing the manufacturing facilities those initiatives had received maximum effort.

    The first priority was getting the manufacturing tooling and jigs completed for Model 422 production, which had been scheduled to start in April. With the Model 222 P-38E nearing the end of its production cycle in a few weeks, Kelly needed to be sure that the factory was ready for a quick and smooth transition to production of the new airplane.

    Similar to the new canopy, the center-section leading edge alterations were being tooled up as sub-assemblies complete with the glycol and oil radiators installed. Also included in the assembly were the reserve fuel tanks, both Right and Left, which would fill the space between the radiator exit ducts and the main structural spar. The rest of the center wing assembly—everything from the main spar to the inboard Fowler Flaps--was unchanged from the previous model airplanes.

    The current engineering challenge was from a memo from Ben Kelsey, whom Kelly learned had recently been given a temporary promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. The message was in direct response to both 009’s turbine failure and poor charge cooling identified in other performance tests of current block airplanes and contained the High Priority order that alternate inter-cooler installations be examined.

    Kelly’s team had met several times to discuss the issue before they finally settled on halting work on the cowling design and instead open up the existing lower nacelle to airflow so they could install a core-type inter-cooler in the place previously occupied by the oil radiators. Although there was some concern over the space required for the air ducts a few quick measurements and test fittings settled those fears.

    Over the past several weeks the design teams had come up with a suitable installation which required only a minor alteration to the intake on the nacelle. After getting the specific measurements and determining how best to run the ductwork, just a week earlier Kelly had sent the specification off to Garrett AiResearch so they could build the inter-coolers and they were now waiting for the first pair to test. Meanwhile the team was hard at work designing the installation specifications and were prepping 009 for fitment once the inter-coolers arrived.


    With the plan to remove the embedded inter-coolers from the leading edge of the outer wings yet another group of Kelly’s designers were drafting the new empty sub-assemblies which will replace them. They will be able to use most of the existing jigs for these, which should ease production, with only a few of the leading edge stringers being truly re-engineered.

    The aspect of all this engineering that Kelly was proud of was just how easy it has been to replace components of the airplane. The only part of the model 422 which could not be easily fit onto a model 222 was the extended gondola and canopy, everything else from the altered radiator installation and leading edge extension to the work on the inter-coolers, was completed as full sub-assemblies that can be bolted directly onto any of the existing model 222 airplanes.

    At the end of the day, Kelly was happy to forward his Model 422 engineering and production status report on the Air Corps. This was shaping up to the air-plane he always knew it could be.
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    Ch.6 - Final Dive Tests (Feb 1942)
  • 26 February 1942

    Burbank, California, USA

    Being Lockheed's best test pilot for powered dives, Ralph Virden was once again tasked with putting the completely modified 009 through its paces. In the pre-flight planning he had gone over the airplane with the engineers in detail, reviewing and examining all of the changes. The last time he flew it, three weeks earlier, it had only recently been giving the new sliding canopy but was otherwise much the same as it had been in his earlier flights. Now, they had completed the final round of modifications to it which made it essentially identical to what would soon be manufactured as the P-38F.

    The biggest change was in the engines. Allison had finally gotten their supply of new F5 engines figured out and Lockheed had completed fitting them to 009 over the past few weeks. The new engines promised to be more powerful with a Military Power rating of at least 1325 horsepower compared to the F2 engines 1150 horsepower. The increased power was largely thanks to higher boost settings permitting up to 47 in/Hg in Military Power. The engine was still “Normal Rated” at 1000 hp and 38 in/Hg manifold pressure, same as the old engines.

    The exact upper power limit and the amount of boost was an unknown as the other big change with the airplane should enable even more than the 47” of boost that Allison and the Army estimated. That change was the new AiResearch core-type inter-coolers mounted under the engines. These should improve the charge air cooling and allow higher boost with less fear of detonation from high Carburetor Air Temperature.

    The full power tests and boost ratings would be performed on behalf of the Army in April after the first few production P-38F's rolled off the factory floor. For now, Ralph was taking the airplane to do what what he did best: diving.

    Ever since the NACA recommendation were developed they had not yet reached their true limit. First was the partially modified YP-38 which tested the wing adequately but didn't have the gondola and canopy modifications. Then was came the flight when the left turbo exploded which prevented Ralph from completing the dives. Since then they had been more focused on general testing and trying out individual systems. This would be the first full dive test designed to discover the absolute Mach limit of the airplane.

    Due to the previous problems, the flight test engineers and Ralph agreed that all of the dives would begin at 30,000 feet and proceed until the airplane ran into compressibility with an altitude floor of 15,000 feet. The thought was that by starting in the thinner air above 26,000 feet the airplane should be able accelerate to its maximum more quickly and in the event of a control lock Ralph would still have enough altitude to recover.

    Ralph took 009 through the first two dives at a shallow angle and with the throttle only at 42 inches and 2600 RPM just to get a feel for the new engines. The B-2 turbos could only maintain 42” up to about 25,000 feet after which the manifold pressures began to drop with altitude so that at 30,000 feet the plane was only pulling 36.5 inches, or about 22% more than sea-level pressure. This suited Ralph just fine as it avoided over-taxing both the engines and the turbos and the steady increase in the rated power as the dive descended ensured a smooth acceleration throughout the maneuver.

    The next series of dives were performed under full power at 3000 RPM. Again, due to the limits of the turbochargers he kept the throttle in the 42” position (partway between Normal and Military power settings) until he was below 25,000 feet at which time he pressed the throttle controls fully forward. The airplane underwent a dramatic acceleration as the boost pressure increased until about 22,500 feet when the pressures held steady at 47”, 57% more than the normal air pressure at sea level.

    With each dive he reached progressively greater speeds. The on the sixth dive, the airplane's acceleration dropped at 21,000 feet and Indicating just over 415 mph. Carrying the dive lower as the airspeed crawled up, Ralph felt the first signs of shudder a few hundred feet lower at nearly 421 mph. Pulling back on the throttles, Ralph slowly brought the plane out of the dive, the indicated airspeed continued to rise as he dropped into the thicker air but the shudder went away and the plane pulled level smoothly and without drama.

    He decided to push harder in at a deeper angle to try to reach the limit sooner with the next several dives. During a slow climb back up to altitude under cruising power he ran a few quick estimates on his notepad. If he could reach an indicated speed above 400 at 22000 feet he would have the airplane at around the same True Airspeed. That should give him enough altitude to push the Mach limits all the way.

    Dive seven started as the others except he was nosed over to negative 45 degrees. He watched the Airspeed Indicator closely as it spiraled up. Again he could feel a momentary pause in the acceleration followed by the start of a shudder in the elevators. The airspeed read 407 mph and the altimeter was at 21,800 feet and dropping. He rode it out.

    At 19,600 feet and IAS of 432 mph the shudder started to become more violent and the nose began to tuck, just like it did with the old airplane. Not wanting to risk it becoming unrecoverable, he retarded the throttles back to 30 inches and dropped the RPM to 2280. Using his elevator trim he slowly brought the nose up a few degrees as the airplane slowed until the shudder stopped and he pulled the yoke back to level the airplane at 15,700 feet.

    His eighth and final dive of the day repeated the seventh but he reached the start of the nose over at 20,200 feet while indicating 427 mph. Recovery was the same and Ralph felt confident that he was finally able to hit the dive limits of 009 after the last three dives.

    * * *

    Later, Ralph wrote up his report and took the time to compile the data from all eight dives, typing them up in a table. He was sure the Army, and Kelly Johnson, would be please with his results (although he suspected it might be time to request a new typewriter from the boss).

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    Ch.7 - Acceptance Performance Tests P-38F (Apr 1942)

    Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio
    April 10, 1942


    Pursuit Twin-Engine P-38F Airplane, A.C No. 41-2293​

    Subject: Performance Tests
    Section: Flying Section

    A. Purpose
    1. Report on acceptance performance of P-38F-1 conducted at the manufacturer’s plant. Airplane equipped with Allison V-1710-49 and V-1710-53 engines and three-bladed constant speed propellers, blade design No. 88996-18 and 89303-18, normal blade angle range 22.7° to 57.7° at 42” radius. Gross weight as tested 14,180 pounds, c.g. 29.85 percent m.a.c. with wheels up; landing gear retracted; wing flaps neutral; cockpit cabin and ventilator closed; prestone and oil cooler shutters in faired position in level flight, wide open in climb; radio antenna (three-wire) in place; inter-cooler shutters faired except when C.A.T. exceeds 50° C. Flush cover plates over gun openings. Mixture control auto-rich for high speeds and climb. Brake horsepower figures in this report were obtained from power curves.
    B. Test Results
    1. Level flight speeds.
    2. Power calibration at 5,000 feet.
    3. Power calibration at 21,300 feet.
    4. Climb data at 3000 RPM.
    5. Stalling speeds, gross weight 13,610 pounds.
    6. Determination of airspeed indicator and altimeter installation errors. Airspeed mounted on a mast with static opening 15 inches below wing, 96 inches from wing tip, 24-3/4 inches back of leading edge. Wheels and flaps up.
    7. Results of take-off and landing tests obtained by the photographic method will be reported by the Aircraft Laboratory.

    8. It will be noted that the same speeds were obtained at 2800 RPM at 5000 feet and 21,300 feet that were obtained at 3000 RPM and with less b.h.p. Torque meters are not available for the Allison engines and it is therefore not possible to determine how much of this is due to loss of propeller efficiency or if the engine power charts are inaccurate.

    9. Of specific interest in these tests were the carburetor air intercooling and Prestone cooling as in previous models of the P-38 both were found to be insufficient to meet Air Corps cooling requirements. During these tests the test A/C did not experience any c.a.t or e.c.t. outside of the Air Corps requirements for “hot day” operation under any of the conditions listed in this report.​
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    Ch.8 - P-38F Delivery to Wright Field (Apr 1942)
  • Ok, it is a little long but I had some fun with it. For those hoping for quick action, I'm sorry, this is mostly devoid of drama--but it is important to lay the ground work for a couple essential modifications that need to happen soon. Read carefully and you'll figure it out ;)

    14 April 1942
    Burbank, California, USA

    For the past year Lockheed pilot Tony LeVier had been flying Hudson bombers. First, he was ferrying them up to Canada for the Royal Air Force and more recently as a pilot instructor on the type. The Hudson was a fine airplane but for the former Air-Racer it provided little excitement. Being one of the younger and less tenured test pilots at Lockheed he was not afforded the opportunity to take part in their high-performance programs even though his former experience spoke highly of his ability.

    That all changed when Ralph Virden had been grounded for a few weeks the previous December. Milo Burcham, the chief engineering test pilot, had tapped Tony to back fill flying duties as everything was shuffled around to fill the gap Virden’s temporary absence left near the top. He had not yet earned his place in the testing and development team but he was at least flying P-38’s now and in his role as “delivery boy” Tony had proved himself a suitable liaison between the Army test pilots in Ohio and the Lockheed pilots in California.

    Today his job was to ferry the first production P-38F, Army Aircraft Number 41-2293, across the continent to the Army Air Forces’ testing ground at Wright Airfield in Ohio and it would be his first ride in the newly updated Interceptor.

    The airplane was freshly maintained, having just undergone Acceptance Tests a few days prior, and clean as anything fresh off the floor. Its log book showed five flights to-date for a total of 12 hours in the air. Tony was impressed with how much cleaner the airplane looked without the bulging radiator scoops on the booms and with its newly streamlined canopy and central nacelle.

    Slung beneath the center wings were two 165 gallon fuel tanks which more than doubled the airplane’s fuel capacity. With them filled the flight engineers and Tony worked together to calculate the best route and engine settings for the flight. The Army was concerned that the increased weight of the new airplane would cost some range so Lockheed was determined to put the fears to rest.

    Based on the performance data the team gathered a few days prior they calculated that at a Maximum Cruise setting of 2300 RPM with the throttle at 35 inches at 20,000 feet Tony should be able to keep fuel consumption down to just over 60 gallons per hour, per engine. That would give 293 enough range to make Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas in about four hours with a plenty of reserve. From there, he can refuel and grease over to Wright Field in Ohio in just an hour and half at full Rated Power.

    The idea of covering two-thirds of the continent in five and half hours was certainly tempting to Tony but he reigned in his excitement knowing that he had a better flight plan in mind. He had met Lt.Col. Ben Kelsey a few weeks ago when he was on-site discussing the P-38 and its possible range issues. After the informal meeting with several of the Lockheed engineers and pilots, Kelsey and Tony and joined each other for a beer to share their stories of speed and daring. When Tony was making a name for himself as in the Air Racing circuit—winning the Greve Trophy in 1938 and narrowly missing the prestigious Thompson Trophy in 1939—Ben Kelsey was working with Lockheed to develop what would become the P-38. It was Kelsey who came up with the specifications that would inspire Kelly Johnson to build his Model 22 and it was Kelsey who raced the XP-38 prototype to a new Cross-Continental record in 1939.

    Together they devised a plan: if the engine power calibration from the performance tests bared out the Allison estimates and was similar to the power and specific consumption of the previous model, then Tony would deliver the P-38F directly to Wright Field, non-stop.

    Tony liked the idea but was nervous about running a “stunt” flight without Burcham’s and Johnson’s permission. They were both understandably gun-shy about such flights after Kelsey destroyed the XP-38 on his record flight. Kelsey, however, knew a way to convince them it would be more than a stunt.

    In their talks, Kelsey had posed the idea of ferrying aircraft directly to Europe under their own power, something he was trying to convince the War Department was not only feasible but essential to quickly build up the Air Force’s presence without having the run the gauntlet of shipping through the North Atlantic. Bringing B-17’s was one thing, but the War Department was doubtful of bringing any fighters over the long trans-Atlantic route. If Tony could deliver the P-38 directly to Ohio from California, a distance of nearly 2000 miles, then Lt.Col. Kelsey’s job of convincing the Army would be that much easier.

    With this new directive in mind, Tony stopped Milo Burcham after the flight-planning meeting. “Milo, a moment?”

    Sending the others on their way, Milo turned back to Tony, “What do you need, Tony?”

    “I was talking with Ben Kelsey a few weeks back and he wants to convince the Army to fly Lightnings to England with the bombers but they aren’t convinced a fighter can make the trip.”

    Suspicious that he knew where his subordinate was going with this, Milo responded, “What do you have in mind?”

    “He wants us to try to fly direct to Wright Field.” Seeing that Milo was about to voice an objection, Tony continued, “Look, I’ve crunched the numbers and we can make it.” He handed Milo his notes and as Milo reviewed them he summarized, “I can set the throttles at thirty inches and the props at 2000 RPM, from your test data that will give me over five-hundred horsepower per engine at twenty-thousand feet. If Allison and the test data is correct, that should drop consumption to less than fifty gallons per hour per engine and I should be able to make Wright in less than seven hours with fuel to spare.”

    “Why didn’t you discuss this during the flight planning?”

    “Kelsey doesn’t want to risk bad press so he thought it best we organize it so only a few of us know it is happening.”

    “Okay, let’s see what The Boss says.”

    Kelly Johnson was less receptive.

    “You want to fly another damn stunt with my airplane?”

    “It’s not a stunt, Mister Johnson,” Tony clarified, “it’s a proof-of-performance request from Lieutenant-Colonel Kelsey.”

    Kelly steamed, “If Ben Kelsey wants a new performance test he can send the order himself.”

    “Look, Kelly,” Milo jumped in, attempting to soothe Kelly’s ruffled feathers, “don’t look at it as a ‘stunt’ but as an opportunity to show the Army we have a war-winner. Plus, you know the Navy has been sniffing around for long-range fighters—we could use this to sell them on the idea of using P-38’s.”

    “Kelsey cost us our XP with his and Arnold’s damn stunt, why should we risk the 422 on more of the same?”

    “We have dozens of 422’s ready for delivery with hundreds more on the way. Plus, remember it was that ‘damn stunt’ that prompted the Army to order the P-38 in the first place. We’d probably be building P-40’s for Curtiss if that didn’t happen.”

    Johnson fumed at Milo but knew he was right. “Alright. I’ll go along with this scheme on two conditions.” He turned to address Tony LeVier, “One, that you over-fly Topeka and if your fuel is below two-thirds you land the damn plane and refuel!”


    “And, two,” Kelly turned back to Milo Burcham, “you get Ben Kelsey on the phone so I can have a few words with him.”

    * * *

    The Allisons were warm and runway 26 was clear of traffic.

    At 10:08 AM, Tony LeVier turned the airplane’s power up to 3000 RPM and full Military Power at 47 inches of manifold pressure. Once all four needles were at their desired place, he released the brakes and it felt like someone hit him with a shovel as he was thrown back into his seat. Over 2,600 total horsepower from the two engines propelled all eight-tons of the fuel laden 293 down the runway. After less than a quarter mile ground run he was indicating more than 100 miles per hour and he rotated the airplane, pulling back on the yoke to lift it into the air.

    Once clear and with his gear and flaps up, he rolled into a slow climbing circle to the left until his heading was 57 degrees. He brought the throttles back to 44 inches and dropped the RPM to 2800 to gain 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that he could clear the San Gabriel Mountains to the east then brought them back further to save fuel as he continued a slow climb. He was well clear of the mountains and still climbing—now breathing low-pressure oxygen on AUTO-MIX which should give him at least seven hours—when he reached his target altitude of 20,000 feet. He leveled the airplane off and waited for his airspeed to indicate 240 miles per hour then throttled back to his cruise settings of 30 inches pressure and 2000 RPM, moving his mixture back to AUTO-LEAN.

    After fine-tuning the airplane—trimming it up, adjusting the throttles and his altitude to accommodate for the airspeed and altimeter installation errors, and adjusting his course to compensate for compass correction—he checked his watch again to see it was 10:25 AM. He reached his left hand back to turn the stiff fuel-selector valves off of RESERVE. He set the left engine to draw from the left external tank, and turned the right engine selector to CROSS SUCTION so it would also draw from the left external tank.

    The external tanks had no fuel level indicators so he had to rely on timing and math to get the most out of them. He figured with 165 gallons at an overestimated consumption of 42 gallons per hour per engine he should be able to get 1 hours 50 minutes from each tank, with a 5 minute per tank cushion. This meant that he would need to switch to the right external tank at 12:15 PM and to his MAIN tanks at 2:05 PM, not adjusting for time zones.

    The 93 gallon main tanks each supply their own engine and he should get about 2 hour 10 minutes from them, getting him to 4:15 PM. If he can maintain an indicated speed of 240 mph at this altitude that corrects to about 231 mph which works out to a True Airspeed at 20,000 feet of 311 mph, that will allow him to cover the 1,900 miles remaining to Wright Field in just over six hours, putting him there seventeen minutes after his MAINs run dry.

    A glance at his Fuel Quantity gauge for the Reserve Tanks Tony saw that he had used about 30 gallons from each during his warm-up, take-off, and climb. He calculated that he could run on them for an additional forty-two minutes. Less the seventeen he needed to get to Wright Field meant he really only had a twenty-five minute reserve in the tanks plus about two minutes of fuel in the lines and around 10 minutes left over in the sump of the external tanks.

    He will certainly be cutting it close the airplane should make it. The goal was to cross Forbes Field in Topeka between 2:05 PM and 2:10 PM. If he is any later than 2:15 PM, Milo recommended he reduce RPM to 1700 to conserve fuel at the cost of some speed. Kelly Johnson had put a hard limit of 2:25 PM on his time to Topeka, if he does not make it past Topeka before then Tony is ordered to land at Forbes Field and re-fuel then “sprint” to Wright Field, as originally planned.

    At 11:07 AM, Tony and 293 passed over the Colorado River just north of Bullhead City. It was the first major landmark he had passed that could give him an idea of his progress and it looked promising. He was running about 11 miles per hour faster than indicated and about 15 miles north. He figured he must have a tail wind hitting him from about five o’clock and pushing him along.

    Fifteen minutes later and he was passing one of the broad southern diversions of the Grand Canyon. The river was buried in the shadows of the deep gorge, just barely discernable through the ever-present blue haze of the air below him. When he passed over a second southward bend of the canyon a few minutes later, he adjusted his course a few degrees east so 293 was now heading 60 degrees.

    He continued flying over the rugged desert of the southwest, watching his instruments and keeping an eye on his stopwatch. When the time came, he swapped his fuel so that the right engine drew from the right drop-tank and the left was now on CROSS SUCTION.

    One trick he learned on his long flights ferrying Hudsons was to keep a vacuum flask of broth or soup in the cockpit. Having a warm meal helped to keep him alert and comfortable—made even more necessary on this flight at such an altitude. As he approached a southern spur of the Rocky Mountains the air grew colder than it had been in the desert sun and Tony took this time to pour a cup of the chicken soup he had brought along to warm his belly. After ten minutes off of oxygen he could feel the first hint of hypoxic fogginess so he polished off his cup and pulled his mask so it was once more tightly around his face.

    At 1:09 PM he had left the mountain spur behind him and was passing near the Army Air Field in La Junta, Colorado. He was still tracking a few minutes ahead of schedule and needed a 10 degree course change to ensure he would cross Topeka, still about 430 miles away at 70 degrees. If his reckoning were correct, 16 minutes after passing La Junta he should be half-way to Wright Field.

    The cockpit temperature continued to drop as he few farther into the mid-western prairies. With the airplane fully trimmed it practically flew itself so Tony was able take breaks to stomp his feet and rub his hands on his thighs to keep circulation flowing and coax a little warmth back into his extremities. The mixed oxygen from the low-pressure system helped a little as it at least allowed warm air into his lungs. Still, he grew more uncomfortable with each hour.

    The soup broth and the cold brought on a new problem: the urgent need to empty his bladder. This forced him to go through the awkward procedure of opening his flying suit and using the “Pilot Relief Tube” secured at the front of his seat. It worked, for the most part, but trying to adjust himself in such a way as to get the funnel around the several layers of insulation he was wearing made the task more difficult than it otherwise would be. When he was done he breathed a sigh of relief that at least he would not have frozen urine soaked into his suit.

    His more easterly heading over Kansas flew him into a humid crosswind coming up from the south. The air was too cold to build much power but the ground was lost under a gray carpet of low clouds and the Gulf air condensed in the chill air over the southern prairie. A minor adjustment of his rudder trim skid the plane enough to maintain his course but he knew it would cost him more fuel.

    He switched his radio to receive on the pre-set channel for Forbes Field, listening in to catch the signal of unique dashes and dots which identified the airfield. What he did not realize, was that he had pre-set the radio on the wrong frequency.

    * * *

    Burbank, California, USA
    2:30 PM Pacific Time

    Hall Hibbard might have a problem on his hands. He had just been forwarded an emergency phone call from Forbes Field outside Topeka, Kansas, that Tony LeVier and the P-38F was over forty minutes late for his scheduled refueling stop and that they had been unable to raise him on radio.

    He sent a runner to find Milo Burcham and in the meantime had his assistants get a copy of the flight plan from the filing office. The flight plan revealed that LeVier was to fly direct to Forbes Fields, via La Junta Army Airfield in Colorado.

    He called La Junta first and they confirmed that an airplane identifying as “Army Two-Nine-Three” had checked in at 14:10 Mountain Time. Referencing the flight plan, Hall noted that at the planned speed, LeVier should have cleared La Junta twenty minutes before that. He could only hope Milo would have the answers.

    A few minutes later, at 2:50 PM, Milo Burcham came to Hall’s office accompanied by Kelly Johnson. As soon as Hall saw them together, he knew they had pulled the wool over his eyes.

    “What the hell is going on!?”

    In answer, Kelly handed Hall the Western Union telegram he had been holding.





    * * *

    Above Indiana, USA
    5:55 PM Central Time

    Tony LeVier never did get a hold of Forbes Field so he settled on simple dead reckoning to keep his course. As the cloud floor broke up east of the Mississippi he was able to get a better idea of where he was when sighted Springfield a few miles to the north. A slight easterly turn and he was pointed toward Dayton, Ohio and wright field.

    Now, with his clock reading 3:55 PM California time he was passing Indianapolis. His Fuel Quantity gauge for the main tanks read less than 10 gallons remaining in each, or about 12 minutes flight time. Indianapolis was still 120 miles from Wright Field. Although he was still indicating over 235 mph the wind had shifted to his two-o’clock so he was sure his ground speed was a bit less than 300 mph. That should put him at Wright in 25 minutes.

    He should make it.

    Comfortable with his fuel load and drawing closer to his destination he decided he could spare a little extra burn to get down to some warmer air. Nosing down a few degrees he brought 293 all the way down to 9,000 feet where he could turn off his oxygen and try to thaw the ice blocks that were his toes.

    Once down he switched his tank selectors back to RESERVE for both engines—his last fuel switch of the long flight—and set is radio to the Wright Airfield frequency. This time, he had it correct and almost immediately started to hear sporadic chatter from the busy airfield.

    When Tony saw Wright Airfield materialize out of the horizonal haze his lips curled into a smile. A glance at his RESERVE tank levels told him he still had about 30 minutes of fuel and only five minutes of flight. His smirk broadened to a full grin, “Then again, that should be just enough…

    “Wright Tower, Army Two-Nine-Three. Request pressure altitude.”

    The modulated voice crackled through his earpiece, “Army Two-Nine-Three, Wright Tower. Altimeter three-zero-point-zero-eight.”

    “Three-zero-zero-eight, roger.”

    After adjusting his altimeter to the proper setting and getting clearance to land, Tony did something he had not originally planned to do but that his excitement and relief demanded.

    Moving his mixture controls up to AUTO-RICH, he increased RPM to 3000 and pushed his throttles up to 47 inches while nosing over. His altimeter dropped as he approached the field and his speed climbed, the Allisons sucking down the fuel at almost four times the rate they were on his cruise. He screamed over the airfield doing 350 mph at 500 feet and turned the airplane in a graceful celebratory roll as he passed the tower.

    At 7:28 PM Eastern Time as the sun sank toward the western horizon, Tony and 41-2293 came to a stop on the bitumen at Wright Field. Tony was greeted by a smiling Ben Kelsey and '293 had less than 5 minutes of fuel in her.
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    Ch.9 - Operation Bolero (Jun - Aug 1942)
  • 23 June 1942
    Presque Isle, Maine, USA

    Lieutenant Colonel Ben Kelsey, now an acting Colonel assigned to the recently formed 14th Fighter Group, looked on as the eight Wright Cyclones sputtered to life. The single row radials were attached, four to a ship, to the wings of new B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the 97th Bombardment Group scheduled to depart Maine for Goose Bay, Labrador today with an ultimate destination of Prestwick, Scotland in a few days. The Fortresses were part of an on-going U.S. Army Air Forces build up in England which had started in March. Eighteen other Forts’ and twenty C-47 “Skytrains” were also scheduled to leave this day, but these two B-17’s would be flying with some special company: seven P-38’s from the 1st Fighter Group.

    For the first time, fighter aircraft would fly to England under their own power, piloted by their assigned pilots.

    Getting here had not been easy and the past several weeks had been trying for Kelsey. After Tony LeVier’s successful non-stop flight from Burbank to Wright Field in April, Kelsey rode a few weeks of excitement. Between validation that the P-38 could make the trip to England under its own power and the news of his old mentor, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, mounting a successful raid on Tokyo, followed shortly with the news that Austrlia was having success flying their newly delivered F-4 Photo Recce P-38E’s, Kelsey finished April with nothing but good news. He had then partnered with General Arnold to develop the plan for P-38 delivery with the bombers and transports over the North Atlantic under Operation Bolero.

    The various stops and airfields had been in development for some time and many had been operational first under the control of the joint British-Canadian Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO) and later under the RAF Ferry Command. Over the last half of 1941 the US Army Air Corps Ferry Command had started to take over duties on the route under the auspices of Lend-Lease, beginning by replacing the British garrison in Iceland with US Marines supported by Navy PBY’s and a squadron of Air Corps P-40’s (delivered by the USS Wasp) for air cover. By this past March, as part of the buildup of the newly designated Eighth Bomber Command, the first flights of American Heavy Bombers, B-17’s and B-24’s, started flying the route to Scotland.

    The plan to bring the P-38’s over relied on use of the 165 gallon drop tanks to give them enough range to travel with the Forts’—who would act as navigational pathfinders for the fighters. Each B-17 would lead between four and eight P-38’s in small flights along each leg of the journey. There were bases scattered throughout the North Atlantic. The flights would skip their way up to Goose Bay, Labrador and from there make their way to one of the three Greenland bases, depending on weather; Bluie West One on the southern tip of Greenland, Bluie West Eight up the west coast, and Bluie East One on the east coast. After refueling they would then head to Reykjavik, Iceland before making the final long flight over to Scotland. No single leg would be longer than 850 statute air miles, so that if the destination was closed the P-38’s would have enough fuel to return to their departure base.

    With the plan in place, 80 P-38’s of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups flew up the U.S. East Coast to Dow Field in Maine in May. The first flights were cancelled though in the first few days of June when all the Groups (fighter, bomber, and transport) were ordered to West Coast to backfill gaps left from a reshuffling of resources in support of the Battle of Midway. Those orders were reversed a few days later after the news of the massive victory in the Pacific made their presence redundant and the whole gaggle turned around and headed back east.

    Now, after all the delays the first P-38’s were about start the long trip.

    The big Boeings were surprisingly graceful as they lifted off from the strip, their Cyclones muffled by the turbo-superchargers. Once clear of the airbase with their gear up, first one than the other less than two minutes later, banked to the left and started their circling climb where they would wait for the fighters to join them.

    Only a few minutes after the second Fortress left the ground, the first of seven Lightnings sped into the air laden with fuel. Unlike LeVier’s cross-country flight, these planes were fully loaded with all of the military gear they would need once they reached England—less some ammunition—and the pilot’s personal effects in the right boom storage compartment. Even so, the Allison V-1710-49’s and 53’s had more than enough power to get the planes airborne in just over a quarter mile.

    Kelsey watched one after the other leave the field and rendezvous with the Fortresses circling in the distance knowing that in just a few days he would be making the same trip.

    2 July 1942
    Bluie West One, Greenland

    Kelsey had spent the last three and half hours putzing along at around 200 miles per hour with the bombers but was not entirely relieved to see the rising mountains of southern Greenland on the horizon. He loved flying the P-38 and was never quite ready to put it down at the end of a flight.

    In the time between the first flight of ‘38’s had left Maine and Kelsey himself started the flight Operation Bolero had lost two B-17’s when a flight of ten had ran into bad weather 400 miles out from Labrador. Seven had come back and one had pressed on alone to Bluie West Eight up Greenland’s west coast. The other two had been forced to ditch in the cold North Atlantic and were lost. Luckily they had gotten out their position and all the crewmembers were picked up safe and sound, if a little chilled.

    The loss had prompted the Air Force brass to convene a hasty discussion as to whether or not to stop the Operation Bolero flights. Kelsey and his 1st F.G. counterpart had successfully argued to continue the flights and even now the first flights of P-38’s, including the seven he had watched leave Presque Isle on the 23rd, were in Iceland waiting for their opportunity to cross to Scotland.

    Now Kelsey and the Colonel from the 1st F.G. were accompanying several other P-38’s from both the 1st and 14th and more 97th B.G. Fortresses into Greenland. There were three fjords emptying into the North Atlantic in this part of Greenland, one of which is Eriksfjord the medieval home of the Viking settlement of Erik the Red. The small flight of US Army Air Force aircraft dropped to below 1000 feet and turned up the fjord, zigging and zagging with the serpentine breaks in the rocky cliffs which defined the fjord’s boundaries.

    Near the end of Eriksfjord was Bluie West One, a rough and tumble remote base which was their destination. The approach to the 4500 steel-mat runway was restricted on two sides by coastal highlands and on a third by the glacier up river. Buildings were of the hastily built steel Quonset variety and were scattered about with sturdy canvas tents filling space haphazardly between.

    Kelsey watched the other airplanes land, one-by-one, before he dropped his flaps and gear for his own approach. With more than half a load of fuel still remaining the tanks the P-38 hit the undulating surface hard but the sturdy gear held true and he came to a rumbling stop on the rocks off the side of the strip where he was directed to park.

    He was halfway to England.

    7 July 1942
    Burbank, California, USA

    Kelly Johnson had mostly left the P-38 programs in other hands by now. He was still involved as the Chief Research Engineer and Project Manager but the daily grind of the manufacturing and incremental improvements needed by the Army were left in other capable hands. Much of his time now was being occupied by the L-049 Constellation, now set to be sold to the Army Air Forces as the C-69, and in anxious anticipation of the Air Force’s response to the L-133 jet fighter he, Hall Hibbard, and Willis Hawkins had designed.

    In the meantime, some updates and details of P-38 development continued across his desk even as the War Department was placing more and more orders to build up fighter strength.

    The current block of P-38F-15’s have already been improved by the addition of a “Combat Maneuver” setting on the Flaps, which extends them only eight degrees and grants the big fighter a significant improvement to its turning radius. Full comparison to other types have yet to be completed, but a new program has been ordered to begin in August which will do just that. Provisional tests have shown that the Lockheed fighter is already superior to its major American competitors currently in production in most areas and more improvements were on the way.

    Allison was already scheduling delivery of their next V-1710, the F-10, which promised better specific fuel consumption than the slightly thirstier F-5 currently being fitted to the P-38’s rolling out of the B-1 assembly plant. Most importantly, however, was that General Electric had an improved turbo-supercharger, the B-13, which could achieve higher boost pressures and maintain them to higher critical altitudes. In initial tests on an engine stand Allison claimed they could hold over 54 inches of manifold pressure for at least fifteen minutes without challenges.

    Reports from the field as new pilots were being trained in the airplane have been mixed. The performance has been lauded but the young pilots seem to have some difficulties with it. The biggest issues have been related to improper handling of engine failures, especially on takeoff, which has led to several accidents resulting is writing off the airplane and even a few resulting in the loss of the pilot. Turbine failures have also continued, especially during high altitude training if the pilots fail to reduce throttle above Critical Altitude leading to over-speeds. Luckily few of those have been fatal thanks to the armor now lining the turbine wells in the booms. Just so, the Army has been pushing Lockheed pretty hard to get a Turbo-Supercharger Governor installed to relieve the issue, similar to the one recently installed in the P-47.

    Another problem which has cropped up a few times is loss of propeller pitch control in the event of a left engine—and thus electrical—failure. As with the turbo over-speed issue, this was a problem already known and on the list to be fixed but unlike the other—which requires the development of new machinery—the loss of electrical generation could be easily solved by installing a secondary generator on the right engine something which the Army has now increased in priority and will be included in the upcoming model with the F-10 engines.

    The majority of the accidents were considered pilot error and the accident rates for the type were only slightly higher than for other high-performance fighters such as Republic’s new P-47 undergoing operational tests on Long Island. Still, they were concerning to both the USAAF and to Lockheed who were working together to find better training methods and areas for possible simplification.

    The final problem with the training of new pilots has been complaints over the fuel management system. At least two incidents had occurred where aircraft and pilots were lost due to fuel starvation even though the MAIN tanks were still full. In both cases, the pilots—each with fewer than 10 hours in the P-38—had failed to switch off the RESERVE tanks. In yet a third case the pilot had remembered to switch tanks but had failed to turn the valve all the way to MAIN for the left engine, leaving it partway between RESERVE and MAIN which caused the engine to quit and subsequently led to electrical failure which in turn made the right propeller loose automatic pitch control causing it to ran away and come apart. The pilot was able to evacuate the airplane and bail out—thanks largely to the emergency release on the new canopy—and was rescued from where the plane disappeared into Lake Michigan.

    The fuel management looked like it would be further complicated by the addition of additional tanks in the airplane. In an effort to further increase the range for ferrying and operational sorties Lockheed was building slight modifications to the outer wing panel leading-edge assemblies to fill the space that used to house the inter-cooler piping with 55 gallons of fuel cells per wing. The extra 110 gallons, together with some minor redesigns to the RESERVE tanks—increasing their usable fuel from 60 gallons each to 62 ½ gallons—will increase the usable internal fuel from 306 gallons to 424 gallons. The additional usable fuel will increase the airplane’s ferry range with external tanks by about 300 Statue Air Miles (Kelly always wondered why they could not just call it “Nautical Mile” like everyone else), or over 350 land miles. Instead of adding yet another setting to the tank selection valves in the cockpit, the use of the new Leading Edge tanks would be controlled by separate switches directly behind the valves.

    Simplification of the fuel management system, however, was being looked into and it was possible that they would have a solution in a later production block but for now they needed to move forward with getting the next model ready for production.

    Yet another improvement being looked into for range extension was the modification of the under-wing ranks to accommodate new 300 gallon fuel tanks. Kelsey had worked with Gen. Arnold on testing this on a single P-38F prior to his departure from Wright Field and found that even with the extra weight the airplane could get nearly 2200 nautical miles total ferry range, including a 20 minute reserve. The problem is that the existing pylons simply were not strong enough to safely handle the weight and needed to be redesigned which was also slated to appear on an upcoming block of the updated airplane. If the needed modifications could be carried out then, with the addition of the LE tanks, the new airplane should be able to cover 2500 miles in a single flight which would enable it to make the flight from Gander, Newfoundland directly to Prestwick, Scotland with plenty of reserve remaining to divert to any available airstrip in Britain if needed.

    It was Air Corps policy, and has carried over into the Army Air Forces, to give airplanes a new model designation when the engine changes so with the F-10 engines, or the V-1710-51, -55 as the Army called it, and the other improvements the USAAF is designating the forthcoming block as the P-38G.

    25 July 1942
    RAF Heathfield, Prestwick, Scotland

    Kelsey had been delayed for a few weeks in Iceland. The largest delay came on the 15th when a storm had led to the loss of six P-38’s from the 94th Fighter Squadron of the 1st Fighter Group and their two B-17 companions, prompting a week long search and rescue mission. The rescue teams were finally able to reach the downed airmen by dogsled a few days later and were happy to find all the men were alive and well.

    After that Kelsey had found himself caught up in coordinating the incoming and outgoing flights form Iceland for his 14th F.G. but now, finally, everything looked set for the last few to leave over the next several days, save a few P-38’s that would remain behind to provide additional long-range fighter patrols to supplement the short-legged P-40’s. Kelsey finally felt he was able to head to RAF Heathfield outside Prestwick, Scotland.

    Arriving over the airfield Kelsey was impressed by the sheer concentration of American air power represented. The entire air base seemed filled to capacity with B-17’s, B-24’s, C-46’s & 47’s, and several score P-38’s all of which had yet to make their final legs to their assigned operational airbases.

    Soon, though, he knew the groups would be consolidated and Fortress Europe would begin to feel the sting of the United States Army Air Forces.

    17 August 1942
    South of Iceland

    Second Lieutenant Elza Shahan of the 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, had been left behind in Iceland to help the 33rd Fighter Squadron’s P-40’s provide some cover for the dozens of aircraft moving through the area as part of Operation Bolero. He had been with the unit for quite some time, flying P-38E’s out of San Diego earlier in the spring on anti-submarine patrols, and now saddled in his new P-38F #41-7580 he felt to be untouchable.

    The drop tanks were all reserved for the ferry flights, so his Lightning was patrolling with only its internal fuel. Still, with his throttles set at 30 inches and engines at 2000 RPM he could scour the skies around Iceland at over 250 miles per hour for three hours, even though standard procedure was to limit patrols to two hours, leaving plenty of fuel for combat if needed.

    He loved this airplane. Between his anti-submarine patrols off southern California, the long hikes to get from San Diego to Iceland, and now his almost daily two hour patrols, he could not find any real complaints with flying the P-38. In fact, once he was trimmed up, he barely felt like he was flying it at all, rather the airplane was so stable and steady it practically flew itself with only minor adjustments and course corrections needed from Shahan.

    He had been out for about 40 minutes at 8,000 feet when he spotted a dark blot at his two-o’clock. Shahan had not heard about any expected bombers coming in today but every now and then a lone ship or two might make the trip unexpectedly after mechanical or weather delays at earlier legs of the North Atlantic route, so he angled his Lighting over and started a shallow climb to join up with the bomber.

    When he was about seven miles out, he noticed a smaller, faster, shape closing in on the larger aircraft. Fearing that it was indeed an American bomber under attack he switched on his gunsight, pushed his fuel controls up to AUTO-RICH, brought his RPMs up to 3000, increased throttle to 47 inches, and raised his nose to gain some altitude over the enemy. Even as he wondered at the presence of an enemy fighter this far out. Do the huns have a new fighter? Or worse, a base hidden somewhere in the North Atlantic?

    Number 580 accelerated as he climbed, passing 300 miles per hour at about the same time he passed 10,000 feet and pulled his oxygen mask on. When he had closed to about four miles, with the two aircraft several thousand feet below him he adjusted his angle so he could line up the small fighter in the space between his left engine nacelle and his nose, watching the angle increase as the two shapes grew larger. He saw the smaller aircraft, come up behind the larger, which appeared at first to be a B-17. A twisted trail of grey smoke erupted from the nose and wings of the little fighter and Shahan watched the white tracers scatter around the four-engine bomber. Moments later the left out-board engine of the larger plane erupted, billowing a cloud of black smoke and shooting flames over the horizontal tail plane.

    Desperate to save the bomber and with his heart pounding a rapid cadence in his ears, Shahan rolled slightly to the left and with a kick of left rudder, slid 580 into a shallow dive toward the struggle of life-death happening below him. He was about to line up on the little fighter when it pitched up, rolling away from its attack as it spend past the bomber, and he saw the clean white star on the blue roundel painted on its wing. Seconds later he was close enough to recognize it as a P-40.

    Confused, he looked again at the larger airplane, now close enough to positively identify—it was not a B-17 as he had thought from a distance, but a large four-engine airplane proudly wearing the broken cross of the German Luftwaffe and a Swastika on its tail. Remembering his identification silhouettes, he realized it was a Focke-Wulf 200 “Condor.”

    Now making over 380 miles per hour in he realized he was closing far too fast to make an effective attack on the slow moving Condor. He cut his throttle back to 42” and pulled his RPMs down to 2600 with his left hand while he kicked his rudder over to skid the plane and slow it down, first right than left. His speed dropped but not fast enough to line up properly. He looked for the P-40 and it clear to his 10-o’clock high, rolling over for another attack, so he pulled his yoke back bringing the P-38 up to bleed off more speed as the Condor disappeared under his left wing.

    With both hands on the wheel, he forced his fast moving Lighting to slowly roll to the left until the Condor reappeared and the plane was all but standing on the wingtip. A hard kick of left rudder brought his nose down and the Condor slid from off his wingtip to become a shimmering form seen through the shadow of his left propeller. He slowed his engines even more, hoping to give himself enough time to make a good pass on the enemy aircraft. Even so, the shallow dive saw his speed begin to climb back up to 350 mph.

    At 800 yards out, with the Condor sliding ever closer to 580’s nose, Shahan fired off a short burst of .50 calibers. The angle was about sixty degrees and his tracers arced down and in front of the German airplane. Pulling up a few degrees with a small roll to the right the angle narrowed to 45 degrees. At 500 yards, he gave a little right rudder to increase his lead at 30 degrees deflection and opened a long burst from his fifties.

    The tracers closed in on the Condor as Shahan’s P-38 vibrated from the power of four AN/M2 .50 Caliber heavy machine guns. When he saw the little sparks and arcs of his tracers ricocheting off the big Focke-Wulf, he pressed down on his cannon trigger. The A/N-M2 20mm cannon blared to life with a thunder that was distinct from the roaring crash of the fifties. He skid his airplane farther behind and still slightly above the Condor and continued his sustained fire. He could see the impact of his concentrated fire walk up the right wing of the enemy and impact the right inboard engine before continuing over the cockpit before he released the triggers.

    He pushed his engines hot again and pulled up, never dropping below the FW.200. A roll to the right and he circled above the stricken patrol plane. Its number one engine was still smoldering from the P-40’s earlier attack and now Shahan could observe the damage he dealt in detail. The entire right wing was holed, peppered with scores of small shiny tears in the aluminum many of which were leaking the translucent haze of fuel. The holes continued over the wing root and up into the cockpit area—Shahan would be surprised if the pilots were unharmed. The number three engine was smoking and Shahan should see the entire mount vibrating as the Condor pulled up and rolled right, in seeming mimicry of Shahan’s own movements.

    Just as it began its uncontrolled climb, the number three propeller shook itself apart, spinning crazily into the forward fuselage of the airplane. At the same time the engine burst into flame, sending fire back into the fuel leaking from the wing. In seconds the entire wing was fully engulfed in fire and the Condor bellied over and down.

    Slowing his airplane, Shahan followed in slow circles as the F.W. 200 spiraled as a mass of fire and smoking debris into the cold North Atlantic below. He saw no parachutes from the stricken plane. Once it was gone, he waggled his wings at the P-40 and together they flew back to Iceland.

    The Lightning had its first taste of blood*.

    *Editor: Technically, the P-38’s first kill was a few days earlier, on August 9th, 1942 when two P-38E’s downed a Kawanishi H6K “Mavis” in the Aleutian Islands. However, as this tale is focused on the ATL P-38 I thought it best to start with the first P-38F kill.
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    Ch.10 - Operation Torch (Nov - Dec 1942)
  • 27 November 1942
    49th FS, 14th FG, 5th BW, 12th AF
    Algeria – Tunisia Border

    Even though he had not yet engaged the enemy in the air, Second Lieutenant Robert F. Elliott was already having an eventful war. When the 14th Fighter Group had been re-assigned to the nascent 8th Air Force in England there were more pilots than planes so Lt. Elliott had the good fortune—or misfortune, depending on one’s point of view—of being shipped to England with a few other 14 FG air crew and personnel aboard the USS West Point rather than flying his own plane in Operation Bolero. He arrived in Liverpool on August 18 then had to take a train to Shrewsbury and from there hopped in the back of a truck to join the rest of the 14th at Atcham Field.

    While still short on P-38’s the 49th Fighter Squadron and the rest of the 14th Fighter Group took part in fighter sweeps along the Denmark and Belgian coasts in between rotations to various training centers set up with support from the RAF. These sweeps, called “Wildflower,” were largely uneventful with no enemy contact apart from some Luftwaffe patrols which kept a respectful distance from the largely unknown American plane.

    After that disappointment, Lt. Elliott was sent on a training rotation to Wales where, on September 27th, he promptly crashed the target tow P-38F #41-7677 just off the beach when he forgot to switch off his RESERVE tanks and ran out of fuel before he could get back to the airstrip. The investigation chastised him for his incompetence and demoted him back down to Second Lieutenant for failing to follow proper procedure.

    By the time he regained flying status after the accident word had come down that the entire P-38 force in England—the 1st & 14th Fighter Groups as well as the recently arrived 82nd Fighter Group—was to be re-assigned to Brigadier General James H. Doolittle’s recently formed 12th Air Force (jokingly called the “8th Air Force Junior”) as part of the Fifth Bomber Wing and moved to Algeria to aid the North African campaign under Operation Torch.

    On November 15th the 49th arrived at Tafaraoui, Algeria after flying direct from England. They only stayed there until the 18th when they moved farther east to Maison Blanche. On the 19th, a few of the Squadron were able to go out and escort some B-17s on a bombing run to Tunisia but Elliott was not among them. Then on the 22nd they moved to their current base in eastern Algeria, Youks-les-Baine, where Elliott hoped they would stay for a while.

    Or, at least long enough for me to get back to them.

    Lt. Elliott looked over to the dust-covered Lt. Art Cole of the 48th Fighter Squadron where he was preparing to torch his P-38. Elliott could not take full credit for the latest screw up that put them both in the middle of the desert, though. They had joined up and were sent to go hunting for an armored column that had been reported in the area. Not finding the column, and with plenty of fuel and full magazines, they both decided to at least do something to aid the effort and headed out to the Kassarine Pass hoping to find some German transports or A/A installations to strafe.

    Snaking their way at low altitude and as fast as they felt safe going in their slow-rolling P-38’s through the pass they certainly found plenty of Ack-Ack. So much, in fact, that it seemed like they were flying down a bowling alley while every bowler tried to throw a strike at them. Lt. Cole’s plane made it through with little more than a few small pinpricks but Elliott’s P-38 took a beating, his entire right boom was tore up, his turbo threatened to over-speed, the right-hand engine started to sputter and misfire apparently having lost a cylinder or two.

    They made it out of the gauntlet of fire but it quickly became clear that Elliott’s Lightning—by then running on the lone left engine—was not going to make the trip back to Youks before dark. While both pilots had some night-time flying experience and both were Instrument Certified, the Army Air Force had not yet been able to set up any radio beacons or other navigational aids in eastern Algeria and Youks-les-Baine had an unlit strip—making the prospect of even finding the field in the dark unlikely and landing a near impossibility. After a brief discussion over the radio, they decided the best course of action would be to find a nice level spot to put down for the night and then both hop in Cole’s plane to fly out the next morning.

    It was a good plan, too, and could have worked. The problem was that when Cole put his plane down the nose gear collapsed and buried itself into the dirt and rubble of the desert. Elliott put down, wheels-up, and skid to a stop not far from Cole.

    This left them both in a bit of a predicament—two pilots and no plane. After spending the cold night in the dessert huddled up in their airplanes they decided to grab their escape packs, destroy the airplanes, and try to make their way back to Youks on foot.

    Elliott watched Cole dip the torn strip of parachute silk into the main tank of his P-38 before bringing his Ronson De-Light Lighter to the material. The silk smoldered for a second than caught, the fire rapidly consuming the thin cloth while Elliott slid off the wing and ran from the crashed plane. In moments the fire reached the fuel soaked silk and dripped into the still half-full main tank. Elliott saw a quick flash followed by a slight whomp as the vapor ignited. Within two minutes the entire left side and fuselage of Cole’s plane was fully engulfed in violent flames, sending billowing clouds of black smoke into the Tunisian air.

    By the time Elliott repeated the process on his own plane, Cole’s entire aircraft was a conflagration of burning aluminum and fuel accompanied by the irregular pop-pop of the ammunition left in the nose cooking off and exploding.

    Within ten minutes of Cole starting his fire, both planes were burning and both grounded pilots were making their way west toward a small village they had spotted the previous evening before crashing.

    They had made it a few miles, by Elliott’s estimation, when half-a-dozen figures appeared on a small rise to their south. Elliott and Cole scrambled for whatever boulders they could find for cover and watched as the figures shambled down the slope with an odd gait, only then realizing the figures were on horseback.

    As they drew closer, Elliott could make out the loose billowing robes he had seen the local Bedouin nomads wearing. The men—he could see now that is what they were—were armed with an odd mix of bolt-action rifles, muskets, swords, and knives and they were riding directly toward where he and Cole were hiding. When they were 30 yards away or so, the six men spread out into an irregular semi-circle and stopped. Two of the Bedouins, one with a musket and one with an older style straight-bolt rifle, raised their weapons in the Americans’ direction while another, apparently the leader of this troop, called out in their lilting Arabic.

    Cole and Elliott exchanged a glance and it was obvious to both that they were caught. With a mutual shrug, they raised their hands up and rose from behind their rocks. Elliott did not know much about the tribesmen and could only assume they did not understand English, but calling out “Don’t shoot!” still gave him some comfort.

    The leader made a motion toward the Americans and after a short exchange in Arabic the three men not-otherwise-occupied came forward, dismounted, and approached the airmen. Neither Elliott nor Cole put forth any resistance as they were searched and the tribesmen took their pistols—tucking them in their belt sashes—and survival packs. Once that was done, the leader rode closer, always staying clear of the muzzles of the two guarding with their rifles. One of the searchers handed Cole’s survival pack up to the leader and the two exchanged quick words. The leader then motioned to the other two and they lowered their rifles but Elliott noted they did not re-shoulder them, instead resting them across the front of their saddles, right hands still near the triggers.

    The leader dismounted and came closer to examine and address the two hapless Americans, “Hal ‘ant anklyzy?”

    Elliott shared a look with Cole before speaking, “I’m sorry, I don’t…”

    “Anklyzy?” The leader paused, plainly trying to find the word, “Anklaize?”

    Anklaize? Elliott wondered, what does he mean? Cole looked on, wide-eyed and nervous, giving a small shake of his head clearly hoping to indicate to their captors that he did not understand. Elliott considered more what the Bedouin was saying, “anklaize,” then remembered they were in—or near—French Algeria. “Anglaise?”

    The leader looked to him and nodded enthusiastically, “nem fielaan! Hal ‘ant anklyzy?”

    Elliott was never more thankful for the little French he had studied in school. “Non, nous sommes Americans.”


    “Yes, ‘amriki.”

    There followed the most surreal few moments of Elliott’s young life. The Bedouins all visibly relaxed and after a flurry of hurried speech among themselves they started to try to communicate with the downed airmen. After some time they made it clear—at least from what Elliott and Cole gathered—that they had seen the smoke from the burning airplanes and set out to investigate, having tracked the Americans from the crash site. After further gesticulating and broken sentences on both parties’ parts Elliott was able to impart to the Bedouins that they needed to get back to Youks-Les-Bains who then agreed to guide them to the nearest town.

    Fortunately, the nearest town turned out to be only about four miles away. It was a small cross roads called Tebessa where the Bedouins returned Elliott’s and Cole’s side arms and other possessions before pointing them up the road leading North-West out of town.

    Elliott noticed some white faces among the onlookers who had come out to watch the unusual exchange and pointed them out to Cole. After bidding a thankful farewell to their rescuers, Cole and Elliott made their way over to the Europeans.

    “Have a bit of a rough spot, ehn?” One of the men looked the two airmen over, noting their sweat and grime covered faces and dusty flying suits. The man’s accent had that nasal quality of The King’s English, so often aped and exaggerated in American film.

    Cole spoke first, “Oh, thank God! You’re English!”

    “Yanks, I presume?”

    “Yeah, Lieutenant Arthur Cole,” Cole offered the man his hand, “this is Second Lieutenant Robert Elliott.”

    “A pleasure. I’m Henry Punter and this here,” he motioned to the man at his side, “is my photographer Albert Fry. We’re here with the Associated Press.” After the four men were done with their introductions, Mr. Punter pulled a small silver flask from his waistcoat, offering it to Lt. Cole, “a little brandy to clear the dust?”

    Cole had a pull before passing it over to Elliott. The brandy was good and burned his throat on the way down but it did a fine job of wetting his mouth and relaxing his mood. Elliott passed it back to Mr. Punter, who also took a pull before handing it over to his photographer.

    “In the interest of thoroughness, would you gentlemen be able to tell me anything about what brought you here?”

    Elliott and Cole did their best to evade the reporter’s questions, not entirely certain how much they were allowed to disclose. After some back-and-forth Mr. Punter seems satisfied that he had gotten as much out of the airmen as he could and let the question drop. A short while later, after some idle chit-chat, the AP reporters mentioned they had a car nearby and offered to bring the American the five miles up the road to Youks-Les-Bains.

    5 December 1942
    49th FS, 14th FG, 5th BW, 12th AF
    Over Tunisia

    Elliott was back in the air again. Another sortie—another airplane. The 14th Fighter Group was already running short on P-38’s so they had taken to “borrowing” planes from the 1st, which was farther to the rear and not suffering as many hits as the 14th had been over the past two weeks. Elliott’s current plane was one such, wearing the markings of the 94th Fighter Squadron, #41-7582. He had flown the plane on a sweep over northern Tunisia two days prior where he finally encountered some German fighters and even managed to get a piece of a Me.109, but he could only claim it Damaged.

    The mission of the day was bomber escort over Sicily. 6 P-38’s of the 49th Fighter Squadrons were accompanying nine A-20’s to bomb the German aerodrome at Bizerte on the northern shores of Tunisia. Elliott was flying on the wing of Lt. John Stief, in the second element. Leading the squadron was Capt. Harold Lewis with Lt. Charles Earnhart on his wing as Lt’s Robert Carlton and Russel Gustke completed the line of six.

    The flight in to the target required some evasive maneuvers from the fighters as the sky was peppered with the violent black cotton balls of German 88mm Flak. All of the flight and the nine bombers made it through largely unscathed and with the ordnance away the fifteen American aircraft came around and headed back to friendly lines as quick as they could.

    At 1320 hours, about ten minutes out from the target, Elliott’s radio chattered to life, “Bandits, ten o’clock!”

    Elliott swiveled his neck over to the left and saw a dozen or so small black specks coming at a slight angle to intercept the American attack force. Capt. Lewis ordered a turn into the attackers and all six P-38’s opened up their throttles and climbed to meet them. Elliott turned on his gun sight and charged his guns, pulling at the stiff handle and met the reassuring break in resistance that told him his full weight firepower was at the ready.

    At 1000 yards, closing head on at well over 650 miles per hour, he could positively identify the on-coming aircraft as German Messerschmitt Bf 109s’. He lined up, nose-on, on one of the approaching enemy aircraft and squeezed off a short burst from his machine guns as they passed each other, bobbing and weaving through their respective flights. It all happened so quickly Elliott could not see if he had made any strikes but nor did he hear impacts on his own plane as the little fighter’s nose flickered to life.

    Clear through the enemy group, Elliott pulled his yoke and kicked his rudder, trying roll the big plane into a left-hand chandelle to come around on the enemy. The ailerons resisted his roll and he cranked as hard as he could on the yoke as the Lightning bled off speed. He saw Stief’s plane at his 11 o’clock tightening his turn and did his best to stay with him, but his older block-one P-38F did not have combat flaps and simply could not hold the turn as tightly as Stief’s newer block-five Lightning.

    Glancing back over his right shoulder, Elliott saw the swarm of 109’s breaking and turning every-which-way, trying to gain position on the American defenders as they circled around. One E/A was sending a stream of tracers past a lone P-38 while another was closing in on the same at a sharper angle. Elliott watched the Lighting break the other way and nose over, trying to throw off his attackers with speed.

    He lost interest in his struggling squadron-mate when he saw the flash of tracers streaming by his own canopy.

    Elliott jerked his head around and noted two 109’s coming on his 7 o’clock, one lit up as its guns unloaded toward Elliott’s P-38. He pulled harder, desperate to tighten his turn but it was no use. Both little Germans continued to turn inside him. Instead he reversed his roll and pulled back as hard he could, lifting his plane toward the vertical to gain some altitude and, he hoped, distance. The seconds it took for his plane to roll back stretched into eternity as he willed the heavy fighter to respond. He heard the tin-can sound of his plane being hit—a sound he was all too aware of after his A/A fiasco the previous week.

    Now climbing away from the pursuing Jerries, he watched as they tried to follow. His plane opened the gap farther and farther on the single-engine fighters as he approached near-vertical. Elliott’s airspeed dropped but he had already gained several thousand feet of altitude, conserving his energy for a counter attack. The Messerschmitts could not keep with him and he saw first one, then the other, stall out and nose over to the left.

    He kicked his right rudder as hard as could at the top of his climb, executing a hard wingover into a roller-coaster ride straight down. The two E/A were now below him at his 2 o’clock, turning hard into a defensive spiral to their left. Elliott pulled back the yoke of #582, shallowing his dive, and lined up for a high-angle deflection against the lead aircraft. Closing rapidly to less than 800 yards, he depressed the trigger. His airplane shook to life with the rattle of the four machine guns and the cockpit filled with the smell of burning nitrates as his tracers passed between the two 109’s.

    The rear 109 saw the attack and rolled out, breaking back to his right, even as the lead aircraft continued the left turn. Elliott knew he had a decision to make: bank right to follow the second airplane, or slide left to continue his attack on the first. Either way it would leave the other free to come around on him.

    With only seconds to spare, he pressed his left rudder and slid the Lightning to increase lead on the first E/A. At less than 300 yards he opened his machine guns again this time seeing the tracers pass just before the cowl and spinner of the Jerry’s plane. The German rolled over, nose down, trying to Splint-S away from Elliott’s Lightning but in the process he stopped his turn for a moment, just long enough for Elliott to add cannon fire to his machine guns. Now at less than 200 yards, Elliott saw impacts along the entire nose of the Messerschmitt, his tracers going straight through the black spade painted on the plane’s nose as pieces of the cowling came off with smoke and glycol streaming behind it.

    Elliott stopped firing and passed directly over the enemy, leveling his P-38 out and pulling the throttles back as he muscled it into a slight right roll so he could watch the Jerry continue straight down with flames licking back at the completely smoke obscured cockpit.

    He did not get to watch it impact directly into the dessert below because right then another P-38 passed no more than 500 yards in front of his nose, smoke trailing from its left-engine, chased by three more Messerschmitts. He cranked his airplane back to the left and pulled back into a pursuit position behind the E/A. His plane shuddered as it slowed in his tight turn and he sank back into seat from the heavy G’s. He was just drawing a bead on the trailing E/A and squeezed off a burst when two of his guns jammed rendering his fire weak and ineffective. He attempted to clear the jams by re-charging the guns, but the charging handle would not budge under the force of the turn.

    Cursing, he shallowed his turn and leveled his wings, once more pushing his throttles forward. He watched the other P-38 set upon by all three pursuers, taking a prodigious volume of fire into the center wing area and cockpit before the left main tank erupted in great spouts of orange conflagration. The burning Lightning rolled to the left and spiraled down, flattening into a pinwheel of flame. Whichever one of his squadron mates that was, he never had the chance the escape.

    Remembering the second aircraft he was initially engaged with, he scanned the sky to his right hoping to pick up the airplane. Sure enough, there was a lone a Me.109 turning into him at two o’clock high. He re-charged his guns, finally clearing the jams, and turned back into a climbing right-hand circle to come head on at the attacking Jerry.

    He opened up at 750 yards, streaming 50-cals and lobbing a few 20mm cannon shells at the speeding Messerschmitt. He saw a few strike around the propeller and at the left wing root but in return caught some .30 caliber rounds in his left boom, just aft of his turbo. Closing quickly he pulled harder, aiming to pass over top of the enemy. Luckily the German had the opposite idea, and nosed over to pass no more than a few plane-heights under Elliott’s P-38.

    Elliott forced another hard right roll and swung his neck to find the enemy below him. Instead of turning to re-engage though the enemy continued in its shallow dive straight away from Elliott. Elliott considered following but a quick scan around him and he discovered the other E/A were joining up a mile or two behind him and he was alone. He pulled back his throttles a few inches, leveled his wings, and continued his climb away from the battle zone.

    The entire fight was no more than six or seven minutes.

    Climbing up, he looked for any other friendly aircraft. He spotted another lone P-38 heading away from him at his 11 o’clock low and turned down to join it. Drawing close he identified it as Gustke’s plane and he was nursing it along with his right propeller feathered. He pulled alongside and indicated he would cover Gustke from above before climbing up 1500 feet above and behind his squadron mate.

    He did not find any other P-38’s but did spot the distant flecks of the retreating A-20’s, five or six miles away. As they crossed the Algerian border Gustke came on the radio to let Elliott know he was losing his other engine and would need to put down. Elliott flew a head and directed Gustke to a level spot and provided some cover from above as he watch the his fellow young Lieutenant bring his plane down in the rough dessert. He circled a bit to make sure the area was clear before waggling his wings in farewell and turning back to base, himself now getting low on fuel.

    Arriving back over Youks-Les-Baines he was relieved to see Lt. Carlton’s P-38 already lining up to land. Elliott slid in behind him, pulled back his throttles and prepared to follow him onto the strip. Lowing his flaps and gear he aimed the P-38 at the steel mat strip. He carefully managed speed and altitude as he approached and had a perfect set down on the uneven runway.

    Or, it would have been perfect if his left wheel had not been shot up.

    As soon as the plane touched down it yawed violently to the left as the tire shredded into pieces. The wheel screeched on the steel mat, showering the plane with a fountain of sparks. Elliott rolled the yoke to the right, trying to bring the left side up, but he was already too slow and the left wing dipped further as the wheel disintegrated. Immediately, the plane ground-looped, skidding sideways and throwing Elliott hard against the right bulkhead of the cockpit. The plane hopped on the right wheel, all of its weight forced outward. The nose wheel collapsed from the force and the sudden drop drove the propellers into the strip with the ear shattering clamor of rending metal. Then the right strut failed and the plane slammed hard onto the matting, spiraling away from the center line before falling off the steel and bouncing over the stony dessert apron. The engines seized from the impact and resistance, surrendering to physics with rapid backfires before falling silent as the plane settled to a stop.

    Trying to catch his breath and slow his racing heart, Elliott’s only understandable thought was, well…there goes another plane.

    [Editors Note: 2Lt.Elliott's stories of the crashed P-38 in Wales and his night in the desert on Nov. 27th, 1942 with Lt. Cole actually happened, more or less as described. However, IOTL he failed to return from the mission on 12/5/42. You can read more here.]
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    Ch.11 - Lightning Strikes the Pacific (Dec 1942)
  • 27 December 1942
    39th FS, 35th FG, 5th AF
    14 Mile Drome (Schwimmer Drome), Lolaki, New Guinea

    The freshly broken in V-1710-55 engine sitting a few feet to Captain Thomas “Tom” Lynch’s left thundered to life. Attached to the engine was the new P-38G-1-LO #42-12715 that had recently been assembled and fitted out in Australia then flown up to Port Moresby a few weeks prior, where it was assigned to the only fully active P-38 Fighter Squadron in the South West Pacific Area, Lynch’s own 39th Fighter Squadron in the 35th Fighter Group. At 14 Mile Drome, so named because of its location 14 miles north of Port Moresby but more recently dubbed Schwimmer Drome in honor a 39th pilot who was lost there the previous spring, it joined 20 odd other P-38F-5-LO’s and a couple other recently arrived G-models. Painted with the squadron markings and radio identification letters, #42-12715 was given the squadron designation #113 (to differentiate it from the F’s numbered between 10 and 39) and Lynch claimed it as his own—the prerogative of the Squadron CO.

    He spun up the V-1710-51 to his right and ran a quick radio check to his wingman, a young man from the north woods of Wisconsin, 2Lt. Richard “Dick” Bong, who was on loan from the 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group to gain combat experience and bring that experience back to his unit as they made the transition from P-40’s to P-38’s.

    Lynch remembered his own transition the previous summer and fall. He had been with the 39th during their first tour at the front in New Guinea in spring, flying the P-39’s which gave the squadron its “Cobra in the Clouds” nickname and insignia. During two separate missions in May he had scored three aerial victories in his Airacobra even though he commented in his Encounter Report after the first two that he would have fared better in a truck because it would have been “more maneuverable and will go higher.” After being pulled back to Australia, they received the first shipment of P-38’s sent to the SWPA and the remaining pilots plus a few replacements trained stateside underwent about 80 hours of flight training in the new twin-engine fighter. For Lynch, the Lighting was a revelation. After his struggles in Bell’s mid-engine P-39, the P-38’s penchant to pull away from anything and everything in the air was a delight and being able to zoom up to their 18,000 foot patrol altitude in little more than six minutes with a full combat load was a breath of fresh—but thin—air.

    The one complaint Lynch had was that since they had arrived back in theatre a month earlier they had not yet been able to meet the enemy in the air. The closest they came was when the aggressive Capt. Bob Faurot saw a Zeke taking off and dropped a 500 pound bomb in front it, downing the Jap with the splash from the beach.

    Lt. Bong was in one of the P-38F’s, bearing squadron number “15” (#42-12644). As with the other P-38’s in the 39th FS, his engine nacelles were painted with the “shark’s teeth” which they had adopted from the 23rd Fighter Group’s P-40s and their AVG “Flying Tiger” predecessors. All of the planes in the squadron were also adorned with sky blue stripes on the upper tips of their vertical stabilizers, diagonally around the rear booms, and on the rear part of their propeller spinners. The rest of the plane was the standard Army Olive Drab over Gray camouflage but differentiated by the odd highlighting along all of the seams from where they had been taped to protect the airframes from salt-spray during shipping. Lynch watched the young pilot warm up the engines in his airplane then checked over his shoulder for the other two P-38’s in his element of four, 2Lt. John Mangus in #27 (#42-12653) and 2Lt. Kenneth Sparks in #30 (#42-12651). The four of them were on their way, with eight of their squadron mates in two more elements, to intercept a Jap attack on the American beachhead north of Dobodura called in by coastwatchers to the north.

    The previous day, Lynch and the 39th had to listen to the celebrations of the neighboring 9th FS who had intercepted an attack in their P-40’s, downing eight meatballs and driving off the rest while the P-38’s of the Cobras sat silently waiting on the ground. Today, though, the Japs would finally meet the Lightnings in the air and Lynch was set on making sure it would be a day they would long rue.

    Once Capt. Lynch received the all-clear from his flight, he pushed his throttles up to the full 54 inches of pressure his new plane allowed. The rush of air through the B-13 turbos was almost as loud as the engines themselves as they whined in the exhaust stream. He released the brakes and the airplane leapt forward rapidly opening the distance between him and Bong behind him. His fully armed plane—even with the extra weight of the fuel in the leading edge tanks—was airborne well before the others, causing him to pull even farther ahead during the climb. He slowed the plane and circled over Laloki at their designated rendezvous altitude of 1,500 feet so they could form up and await the other two elements.

    With all twelve ships in order, Lynch turned the squadron North East toward Dobodura and the beachhead of Buna beyond. They climbed rapidly, needing to clear the 13,000 foot Owen Stanley Range which cut across the center of this part of southern New Guinea. One of the planes from the second element had to turn back due to a turbo failure as they climbed to altitude and another of the third element had to return when one of his engines started running rough. Lynch ordered the two pilots who had lost their wingmen to join up then led the remaining 10 planes of the squadron up to their patrol altitude of 18,000 feet over Buna and they started a wide zig-zagging circle while scanning for the reported enemy aircraft.

    Capt. Lynch was one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron and several of the boys flying with him today, like 2Lt. Bong, had never met the enemy in the air. He had worked hard since the squadron moved up to 14 Mile Drome to teach them the essentials of air combat, especially combat against the Japanese. His approach was simple: take your time, plan your action, keep your cool, and work together. Some of his efforts were undermined by Capt. Faurot who had combat experience as an “observer” during the Battle of Britain flying Hurricanes and Spitfires with several of the Polish squadrons. Faurot approached fighting the Japanese as he had fought the Luftwaffe—give a shout of “Tally Ho’!” and charge in—relying on “seat of the pants” instinct and his own talent. Lynch’s dedication to minding his fellows and his seniority was why he was recommended to take over the 39th when Maj. Prentice was shunted over to the newly formed 475th Fighter Group instead of the charismatic and aggressive, Capt. Faurot.

    Below, American transport ships were unloading equipment for the American and Australian ground forces pressing out from Buna Village while above the 10 P-38’s of the 39th made their patrol in two full four plane elements flying echelon left with 400 yards and 100 vertical feet between them and a two plane element scanning even higher as “Tail-End-Charlie.” Five minutes later they were joined in the distance by a few elements of P-40’s from the 9th.

    “Aircraft, two-o’clock low!” Lynch recognized the voice of Lt.Gallop flying with the second element. He looked past his right engine nacelle and could see twenty to thirty shadows about six miles away and 3,000 feet lower than him in a flying square heading about 300 degrees in relation to his own flight path or about 160 true.

    He ordered the squadron to ready for action, prompting them to get their airplanes in fighting trim, turn on their sights (if they were not already on), and charge their guns. He continued, “Blue West Three,” referring to the lead of his two plane third element, “climb to twenty-thousand and provide top cover. Blue West Two, stay with lead element, maintain heading, and prepare to intercept.”

    2Lt. Denton, Blue West Three, came on the radio, “Zekes, three-o’clock high!” Lynch spotted them, twelve in two six plane elements line-abreast at about 24,000 feet and following the line of the lower aircraft. None of the enemy aircraft had responded to the presence of the American’s yet, so Lynch hoped they had not been spotted. He re-organized his squadron and issued new attack orders.

    “All elements, on Lead! Come right, three-twenty, climb to twenty-five thousand.” He turned his airplane 100 degrees to the right and pulled back on the yoke, checking his rear-view mirror at the top of his canopy and confirming with a glance over his shoulder that the rest of his squadron was turning with him. He reminded them, “set mixture to Auto-Rich and RPMs to three-thousand.”

    Once above and slightly behind the white fighters of the Japanese, he turned the squadron into a full pursuit position where the P-38’s had no problem gaining on the lithe little Mitsubishi A6M Zekes, or Zeroes as some called them. Looking beyond he saw that the first group of Japanese they had spotted were a mile farther ahead of the Zekes and appeared to a couple small elements of Aichi D3A “Vals” and a gaggle of Nakajima Ki.43 “Oscars”—maybe as many as thirty. With the Zekes they were pursuing that meant they were about to engage around fifty enemy aircraft. Luckily, the fifteen P-40’s of the 9th were already turning to engage the Vals, helping to even the odds.

    The Zeke’s saw the Kittyhawks coming in to attack the dive-bombers, and immediately dove to engage, thirsty for blood and not willing to let the Dainippon Teikoku Rikugun Kokubutai (Imperial Japanese Army Air Service, IJAAS) take all of the glory.

    “Remember, wingmen stay with your leads. Plan your attack, make your pass, and regroup. Do not, repeat DO NOT, let them draw you into their fight.” He took one last look at the squadron arrayed behind him, “let’s get ‘em, Cobras!”

    He throttled up to 47 inches, enough so his element of P-38F’s could stay with him, and nosed down toward the fray below. Bong, Mangas, and Sparks stayed with him the whole way arrayed in a perfect descending echelon left. He was pleased to see all of his drill and formation practice was paying off.

    They closed rapidly on the Zekes, their P-38’s accelerating well past 450 mph in even the shallow dive—100 mph faster than the Japanese planes were capable of in a similar dive. Seeing how quickly they were closing, Lynch thought to share one more bit of tactical planning with his squadron, “Don’t stop to fight the Zekes. Continue on to their main attack force before breaking. Hold your fire until within 400 yards.”

    In less than a minute, they had closed to 1000 yards and only a few seconds later they were at 500 yards. Lynch saw a stream of white tracers from somewhere off to his left as an anxious P-38 opened up. He did not bother chastising the pilot because by the time the first tracers were passing the enemy, three other P-38’s had also opened fire. Lynch drew a quick line on one Zeke, eyeballing the lead over the nose of his ’38 below the reticle limit of his gunsight. His short burst of machine guns passed harmlessly behind the right wing of the enemy but the following burst from Bong as they closed to less than 200 yards cut right through the left wing of the same plane. The wing folded over as though it had been deliberately cut with a buzz-saw and a gout of flame erupted from the gap as the Armor Piercing Incendiaries of Bong’s .50 cals torched the fuel.

    The Zeke snap rolled into the lost wing as the engine and propeller torque over powered the airplane’s lost stability. The right wing shot vertical, forcing Lynch and Bong both to skid their Lightnings to the side to avoid ramming it as it passed between them.

    A glance behind him and he saw two Zeros tumbling out of their line as the other ten scattered in surprise at the sudden American attack. His nine squadron mates had loosened their formation during the attack through the Zekes but were all still more-or-less together. He adjusted his angle, throttled back a little and dropped his combat flaps, calling the squadron to do the same, in preparation for the attack on the slower Japanese attack planes now in front of him.

    “Blue West elements, prioritize the Vals. Wingmen, cover your leaders.”

    Even though the P-40’s had moved to intercept the main Japanese attack force first, they were still climbing to altitude and closing from greater distance, so it was Lynch and the 39th which made the first engagement. Flying over the trailing Oscars, Lynch led his element above the Vals before sliding into a deeper dive to come across both lines of Vals from their eight o’clock high—he and Bong on the rear line, with Mangus and Sparks to their left passing the first line—too far forward for the rear gunners to mount an effective defense. The pass happened so quickly he was not sure if they had downed any of the Vals or even if they scored any good hits, but it did succeed in breaking up the formation with several of the Vals jettisoning their payloads over the bay in their panic.

    Pulling out of the dive and raising his flaps, he made a lazy right climbing turn to circle wide of the fray and judge how the enemy was maneuvering in response to the attack and check on his own forces. One Oscar was spiraling down in flames while the rest of the Japanese fighter force were turning and spiraling in general confusion and disorder as they tried to make sense of the multi-pronged American attack now that the P-40’s had joined the fray. Half of the Vals were devoid of their payloads and off course as the other six were trying to regroup and re-align for an attack on the transport ships. Bong was still hanging on his six, and he saw others pairs of Lightnings zooming out to set up fresh attacks. One, 2Lt. Bills in #111—the other P-38G in the air today—was a few hundred yards in front of his lead plane, Lt. Gallop in #18. Lynch made a mental note to have a talk with the young pilot later about guarding his airspeed.

    He led Bong back up to 18,000 feet and turned back into the melee.

    A pair Ki.43 Oscars were trailing a P-40, small spirals of smoke streaming forward toward the American fighter. He once more dropped his combat flaps then turned to drive the Oscars from the Kittyhawk’s tail. Lynch cut behind them, coming at about a 20 degree deflection and carefully lined up his target, the trailing Oscar. Taking a deep breath of warm Oxygen from his mask, he took his time and made certain his lead was sufficient before sending a half second burst of machine guns fire toward the Jap.

    His tracers passed just wide of the Oscar as it turned right to follow the maneuvering P-40. Lynch kicked right-rudder to skid the airplane more and opened up a long two second burst with both machine guns and cannon. This time he saw strikes walking the entire length of the fuselage, his 20mm opening massive holes along the right wing root. The Oscar rolled away with a shudder and as it did the right wing peeled off at its base and folded over the canopy sending the airplane tumbling from the sky.

    The attack did its job, though, as the lead Oscar broke away from Bong’s tracers and abandoned his attack on the P-40.

    Checking that his six was clear, Lynch once more led Bong out of the fray to circle for another assessment. Two Vals were still valiantly trying to line up on the ships and Lynch pitched over to intercept. He was just lining up, the rear gunner sending a few ineffective bursts of fire short of his plane, when Bong called out on the radio, “Captain, bandits, five o’clock high!”

    Lynch immediately broke off his attack, forcing the plane into a high speed right turn with a little rudder assistance. He saw tracers passing behind him in his rear-view mirror as he pulled up, his left hand jamming the throttles fully forward. Looking over his shoulder for Bong he was disconcerted to find only Oscars behind him, turning to follow his hurried climb. Wanting to pull away even farther, he focused in front of him and was about to raise his flaps once more when he caught movement directly off his right wing tip and was startled to discover that Bong had somehow turned inside of him and was now leading the pair.

    With no time to wonder at how his young wingman had managed that, he called out, “Bong, break right!”

    He had learned when flying against the Japs in May that because of how light their aircraft were and how much torque their engines produced they could roll left a lot faster than right. He hoped that now, in the P-38 which did not suffer from torque roll, they could even the imbalance in their respective maneuverability by forcing the enemy to try to turn against their torque rather than with it.

    Trusting his squadron leader, Bong did not hesitate, and forced his plane into a low right roll. Lynch followed, kicking his right rudder to tighten the turn. Now pointed down and rolling into a defensive spiral the pair of P-38’s were going too fast for the little Oscars to turn inside them and Lynch swiveled his head around to watch them overshoot. Looking ahead, he saw they were once more pointed at the Vals, 1200 yards away and closing. Another glance behind him and he saw the two Oscars coming around to chase the Lightnings. He and Bong were caught in between the four Japanese planes.

    With Bong still leading, he did the only thing he could think to do, “Bong, stay on the Vals.”

    Lynch pulled the yoke back, pitching #113 into a sudden climb with one hand while his left pulled the throttles back to just above IDLE-CUTOFF. He grunted and strained, flexing his stomach and neck, as he tried rolling and skidding right to cut directly across the path of two Oscars closing from four o’clock. They flashed behind him and he continued his rolling turn into a full barrel roll, finishing a few seconds later to discover one Oscar lining up on Bong as the other was banking left to lag roll around on Lynch.

    He mashed his throttles forward again and leveled his wings to line up on the Oscar behind Bong. Bong’s plane ducked below the defensive fire of the Vals and came up from their six o’clock low, opening a torrent of combined machine gun and cannon fire. Lynch saw the tracers passing below one of the Vals at the same time the Oscar opened fire on Bong. Without any time to waste, Lynch depressed his machine trigger to send rounds past the Oscar.

    The Oscar rolled out to the left, just as Lynch had anticipated, and with a kick of left rudder he sent a line of 20mm cannon fire into the engine of the slender plane. As the Jap fighter slid lower in its roll, Lynch’s machine guns spattered into the outer right wing of the plane, straight though the great red “meatball” of the Imperial marking. The wing tip collapsed and the plane jerked momentarily right before continuing its left roll.

    At the same time, Bong pitched up, spraying steel into belly of the dive bomber. He must have hit the bomb itself, dangling on it shackle, as the entire center of airplane disappeared into a brown cloud of fire and debris. The cowling, with the engine still spinning, back-flipped away from the blast as the wing tips and empennage spiraled apart. The blast sent a shockwave out, knocking the other Val sideways and causing it to yaw in an oscillating fish tail. The pilot had obviously had enough at that point and released the bomb as Bong’s P-38 sped past.

    Lynch looked back for the second Oscar but it had never completed its circle having instead nosed over to bug out. Rolling left to look down over his wing, he saw the first Oscar still smoking and wobbling sans wing-tip as the pilot aimed for the Japanese line west of Buna. He watched it for a few moments, debating whether to pursue and finish it off or to re-group with Bong. He had just decided to follow his own order of staying with his wingman when he saw the canopy fly off the Oscar and the pilot clambor out of the cockpit to slide off the left wing. A few seconds later he saw the small canopy of the parachute open and drift over the ocean.

    Rejoining Bong, he circled up to 18,000 feet one last time to survey the state of the battle. Lowering his RPMs and Throttles, he switched back to AUTO-LEAN so he could direct the closing minutes of the engagement from on high and take his time to ensure the sky of was clear of enemies. The remaining Japanese planes were all scattered and those not still engaged were heading in ones and two back to the north. He scanned the sky, counting P-38’s, and was happy to see nine including Bong. One, too far away to positively identify, was trailing smoke from the right boom and was being escorted by another at about 6,000 feet; both heading South West back to 14 Mile Drome. Another pair of Lightnings were passing low over the beachhead, giving a celebratory wag of the wings to the infantrymen below. The P-40’s were starting to re-group, even while a few chased down Japanese stragglers.

    After five minutes, the last of the P-40’s headed back to their base likely running low on fuel, and within ten minutes that last distant specs of the Japanese attack force disappeared into the distant atmospheric haze. The battle was won.

    It was only later, as he parked #113 on the packed dirt that served as a hardstand that he realized that, when the pilot bailed out of that last Oscar he attacked, Capt. Thomas Lynch had officially become an Ace.
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    Ch.11a - ADDENDUM regarding OTL Encounter of 12/27/42
  • I've been doing more research and discovered a more accurate account of the fighting over Buna on 12/27/42. I may go back and make some changes to it to better reflect what actually happened. Basically, the Artistic License I took in describing the order of battle for the 39th was based on vague and conflicting accounts but I have now found a reference with the official account from the daily log of the 39th which clarifies things. What actually happened was that Lynch and his flight of Bong, Sparks (I had misspelled the name), and Mangus were alone at the beginning of the fight and were "Red Flight" not blue. They accounted for a total of seven E/A destroyed between them (Lynch=2, Bong=2, Sparks=1, Mangus=2) then Eason showed up with White Flight and Gallup with Yellow Flight who between them got another six. Whether or not the P-40's actually showed up is still up in the air but I think it reasonable to assume they did.

    The 39th Combat Diary said:
    27 Dec. ’42 Our first patrol patrolled Buna beginning at 1145 hrs. At 1210 hrs Capt. Lynch and his Red Flight consisting of Lts. Bong, Sparks, and Mangas were warned of “Bandits” in the near vicinity. When locating the enemy planes (they were) 20 or 30 Zekes and Oscars with 7 or 8 Val Dive Bombers. Capt. Lynch led his flight of only 4 planes in to attack the enemy of approximately 35 airplanes. During the combat his flight claimed 7 victories. Capt. Lynch = 2 Oscars; Lt. Bong = 1 Zeke and 1 Val; Lt. Mangas = 1 Oscar; and Lt. Sparks = 1 Zeke and 1 Val.

    During all this ensuing combat White Flight, led by Lt. Eason, were on the way and got there in time to add more victories to the Squadron’s record. Lt. Eason, Andrews, Flood and Widman dived on the enemy and Lt. Eason bagged 2 Zekes; Lt. Andrews = 1 Zeke; Lts. Flood and Widman claim no victories.

    Yellow Flight was led by Lt. Gallup and with him were Lt. Bills, Planck and Denton. While at 20,000 ft Yellow Flight was preparing to attack the enemy below and was dived upon by two flights of Zekes – the first of 4 and the second of 6 planes. In the ensuing combat Lt. Gallup claimed 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Bills = 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Planck = 1 Zeke certain; Lt. Denton = 1 Zeke possible. All of these planes returned home except Lt. Sparks, who had to land at Dobadura. All pilots are safe and unharmed. 13 planes to our credit. Pretty good hunting.
    What I liked about the way I wrote it was that I was able to show Lynch's methodical and calm approach to air combat focusing on tactics and organizing his forces. Any opinions from the gallery on whether I re-write or keep it as-is and wave it off as butterflies?
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    Ch.11b - Encounter Report 1/8/1943

    A. Combat
    B. 8 January 1943
    C. 39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group
    D. 1810
    E. Near Lae
    F. 4/10 at 12,000 feet
    G. Green Zeke
    H. 1 Zeke damaged
    I. While flying in the sixth position of a six plane element as part of escort mission no. 3, my second mission of the day, we sighted approx. 20 Zekes and 10 Oscars making passes at the B-17 formation over the target area. We attacked from above and behind, scattering the E/A. I climbed around several times making passes at the Zekes. On the fourth pass I followed a Zeke with yellow chevrons on its fuselage. At around 14,000 feet I closed to 300 yards and about 5 degrees I fired a two-second burst, observing strikes on the cowling and fuselage. I was not able to continue the attack as at this time a second E/A came at me forcing me to dive through cloud cover to escape. The second E/A attempted to follow me in the dive was unable to keep up. I was indicating 480 mph at 9,000 feet. After this pass I rejoined my element leader. I did not engage any more enemies on this mission. I claim one (1) Zeke damaged.

    John H. Mangus
    2Lt. Air Corps

    [Ed.: OTL: On January 8th, 1942 2Lt. John H. Mangus failed to return from a bomber escort mission to Lae. He was last seen making diving attacks at the defending enemy aircraft near dusk and was declared MIA, later upgraded to KIA. This gave him the distinction of being the first P-38 pilot lost in combat in the SWPA. Here, ATL, the superior dive performance of the NACA Modified P-38 allowed him to escape and return home safely with the rest of the flight...butterflies at work.

    Incidentally, this is the same mission on which Bong scored #5 and earned Ace status.]
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    Ch.12 - Preparing for the Future (Jan 1943)
  • I was hoping to have more but the next one is taking longer to put together than expected. So, here's a little technical update:

    15 January 1943
    Burbank, California, USA

    As the Chief Research Engineer for a major Government contractor during a time of war, Kelly Johnson had been kept busy. He was continuing to head up the L-049 Constellation development as well as keeping up on the ongoing improvements with the P-38 and working the occasional new development idea.

    That is not to say the previous year had not brought some disappointments. The Air Corps had declined the proposal for the L-1000 axial-flow turbine engine and the revolutionary L-133 fighter it was to power while XP-58 continued to languish in development hell without a suitable engine and the XP-49 seemed to be heading in the same direction. Of course, it was beginning to look like the XP-49 would be redundant to the P-38 anyway, so that was not so much of a loss to Johnson anymore.

    The continued cycle of evolution that his beloved Model 22—Model 422 now—was undergoing astounded him.

    In the past year, since development of NACA recommendations, the P-38 had received a new central nacelle, new center wing section, new engines, new turbo-superchargers, new coolant radiators, new inter-coolers, additional fuel-cells, a second electrical generator, and a new canopy. In addition, the incremental improvements had included improved fuel mixture automation, a new flap setting, new “wet” under-wing racks for bombs and fuel, and whatever improvements to the fitted military equipment the Army had thrown in.

    Since Model 422 production started in late March of the previous year, they had produced around nine-hundred of them, including about one-hundred F-5 reconnaissance aircraft based on the P-38F (F-5A) and P-38G (F-5B). They had completed all of the orders from 1941—excluding the French and British order which the USAAF had taken over—in early July with the completion of the Block-5 P-38F’s and were now working to fulfil the over 3000 planes worth of orders from 1942.

    The line had been finishing about 100 P-38’s per month but they were working hard to get a second line up and increase that rate by more than double. Even so, word was coming from Ben Kelsey that both Doolittle in Algeria and Kenney in Australia were all but begging for more Lightnings. Soon, Kelly was certain, they would have to look at either building a second assembly plant or contracting another manufacturer to help fill the demand.

    Compounding the demand was continued difficulties with serviceability and readiness in the forward fields. The Air Corps was reporting that at any given time only about 60-65% of P-38’s were ready for combat sorties with the rest down for maintenance and repair. While some of the planes were grounded because of battle damage many more were grounded because of mechanical failures—almost all related to the power plant and turbo-supercharger—or due to accidents. Additionally, on average around 10-15% of planes sortied returned due to mechanical and systems failures. Certainly there had been the occasional quality issue with odd airframes here and there but overall the Lockheed systems were pretty reliable.

    Kelly thought the latest block, P-38G-15-LO which had started rolling out of the B-1 production facility a few weeks ago, would help alleviate some of the reliability issues. After working with General-Electric throughout the summer, his Engineers finally developed a suitable and simple solution to the issue of turbo over-speed conditions, the last item to be fixed from Kelsey’s recommendations a year earlier.

    G-E had designed the turbo-superchargers with an impulse-type tachometer integrated into the main bearing housing of the centrifugal compressor assembly. The original intent was to use this to provide the pilot with a pair of turbo-tachometers in the cockpit to monitor the RPMs but with the P-38 instrument panel already pretty crowded Lockheed had instead decided to use the voltage from the impulses to light small glow lamps which provided the pilot with a visual warning when the turbines were in an over-speed condition. The solution to the over-speeds that Kelly’s engineers came up with was to repurpose this impulse current to a high-frequency switch which actuates a secondary waste gate control. This allows the turbos to essentially govern themselves and removes additional load from the pilot as he no longer has to worry about monitoring turbo speed.

    An added feature to this new Turbo-Governor was that they also tied in a mercury switch coming off the turbo-supercharger oil-out line so that, even if the RPMs are below the acceptable limit, if the turbine machinery begins running too hot it will automatically begin to open the waste gate and reduce the speed of the hot turbo. The hope was that this temperature control will help increase turbine life and reliability when on long combat patrols and ferry flights.

    In testing the previous fall, Milo Burcham, Ralph Virden, and Tony LeVier all reported that the system worked as designed at all altitudes and throttle settings. A side effect was that above the Critical Altitude the new Turbo Governor takes over waste gate control from the throttles and the Manifold Air Pressure (MAP) Regulator, maintaining the maximum allowed Turbo RPM regardless of manifold pressure and removing the need for the pilot to constantly retard the throttles if they continue to climb, thereby removing one more thing from the pilot’s list of worries.

    The biggest question was where to set the limits for the turbo RPM. To that end, Ben Kelsey had been splitting his time between Muroc and Burbank to test the limits of the engines in a plane modified with all of the throttle blocks and governors removed. For the initial production run, and until Kelsey comes back with his findings, they were using the previously tested 24,000 RPM limit which gives the P-38G with and its F-10 engines a MAP of 54.2 in/Hg up to 19,600 feet using the B-13 turbos and can hold Rated Power of 44.5 in/Hg up to 26,000 feet. Even under those conditions, Carburetor Air Temperature (CAT) was held below 40°C (104°F) thanks to the AiResearch core-type inter-coolers.

    The first three P-38G-10’s which came off the line in early November were being kept on hand as development test mules for the next planned major upgrade of the product line, the P-38H. Two of these were being fitted with Allison’s new more efficient F-17 engines and one was being re-fitted using the more powerful experimental F-15 engines.

    The F-15 project was of particular interest because it was designed around a new propeller system from Hamilton-Standard, a hydraulic constant-speed paddle blade set up which H-S called “Hydromatic.” The new high-efficiency propellers needed to run at lower RPM so the F-15 engines used a 2.31:1 gear-reduction instead of the 2:1 gear-reduction used with the Curtiss-Electric propellers. The design and fabrication teams needed to broaden the cowling and build a slightly larger propeller spinner to accommodate the bulkier hydraulic set up so the plane was not yet ready to fly but it seemed promising.

    The two being fitted with the F-17 engines were keeping the Curtiss-Electric propellers and were much farther along in their development. They had already been upgraded to P-38G-15 standards and one already had the F-17 engines installed while Lockheed awaited delivery of two more F-17’s for the second plane.

    Apart from the engine upgrades, the P-38H test planes were going to field a few other enhancements based on input from the Air Corps test pilots and USAAF reports from combat. One of these was yet another system to reduce pilot work-load and involved developing fully automatic control of the Inter-Cooler, Oil Radiator, and Prestone Radiator shutters. The problem, as reported, was that in combat pilots were failing to properly manage the current manual shutters to control airflow through the various radiators and as a result engines were running variously too hot or too cold and failing.

    High CAT was a well-known issue from the Model 222 with its leading edge inter-coolers and was mostly alleviated with the installation of the chin mounted core-type inter-coolers in the Model 422 but under prolonged high-throttle settings with the inter-cooler exit shutters closed they were still running into problems with detonation and resultant engine failure which had proved to be deadly in the stresses of aerial warfare.

    Oil Temperature issues were somewhat less common and mostly happened on the other end of the scale—long flights at high altitude with the oil radiator exit flaps open were resulting in the oil congealing which causes a spike in oil pressure and has seized the oil pumps, burst lines, and starved the engines of lubrication which has led to a few instances of entire engines seizing and throwing rods or worse.

    Similar situations developed with the Prestone coolant temperatures. Pilots were forgetting to close the radiator exit flaps and with long flights at high altitude and low RPM the engines were becoming too cold. While not a problem in itself, issues arose when the pilots needed to suddenly increase RPMs and Throttles on contact with the enemy. The cold engines were unable to handle the sudden increase in exhaust pressures and temperatures and were blowing manifolds and even cracking heads. Again, this usually resulted in sudden power loss and even in engine failure—all at the most critical time for a combat pilot.

    The engineering teams were working on automatic shutters and exit flaps for all three systems which relied on pressure switches attached to the instrument gauge vacuum lines to progressively actuate the shutters with changes in the measured temperatures. The theory is that when the pressure in the gauge line increases it will push on the pressure switch sending a weak current to the hydraulic actuators and start to open the shutters. The more pressure, the more the switch is depressed, the more current flows to the actuators and the farther the shutters open. Conversely, as the temperatures drop, the pressure in the lines decreases and the opposite action occurs—decreasing the current and the actuators begin closing the shutters.

    To date, it was only a design theory and they had not yet built or installed any of the systems on the test mules. They still had a few problems to work out with the installation including the switch calibration, configuring the hydraulic stops to correlate to specific temperature ranges, and how to (or if they should) include a manual over-ride and by-pass which will still allow the pilot to manually control the shutters if needed.

    With the production facility booked out for a few months there was still time to continue refining the P-38H. Lockheed was anxiously awaiting the complete report from the USAAF Proving Grounds in Florida on the P-38F which they had been working on since August. The hope was that if this full report were completed in time they would be able to address any other deficiencies the Army Air Forces identified with the airplane before P-38H production was scheduled to start in May.
    Ch.13 - Tuning and Tactical Report on P-38F (Mar 1943)
  • Ok, this is an abbreviated and condensed version of what was originally going to be three separate posts. Since they were all related, I decided to try to shorten it up and make it an simple as possible without missing the key points. This is another technical progress update more than a true narrative update. Not much is really resolved with this but it is essential to lay the ground work the for some very important changes to come--although it is not all encompassing.

    10 March 1943
    Wright Field, Ohio, USA

    After his short skip to England to help organize the 14th, Lt.Col. Ben Kelsey had returned to the States in September to resume his primary role as Chief of the Army Air Corps Pursuit Branch where one of his duties was to coordinate development, testing, and procurement of fighter aircraft—or pursuit aircraft as they used to be called—for the Army Air Forces.

    He had spent the most of the autumn at Wright Field, going over fighter contracts, performance reports, and tactical reports on the various types of aircraft under his sphere of influence. Since the United States became involved in the war there has been a flurry of development and demand for new and improved fighter aircraft. Work had increased on improving early production models of several planes such as Republic’s troubled P-47 while others were being brought up to new standards without AAF intervention, such as NAA’s P-51 which Kelsey himself had made possible through some back channel maneuvering with NACA back in 1940 by ensuring they would have access to the new studies on laminar flow wings.

    Still, Kelsey was most pleased hearing of the successes of the P-38’s as they entered combat. With the onset of Operation Torch in November and the arrival of the P-38’s of the 1st, 14th, and 82 Fighter Groups to the 12th Air Force, the overall impression has been positive with the Lightning having an immediate impact which the Germans and Italians were struggling to counter-act. The stories from Papua New Guinea were a whole other matter—according to Gen. George Kenney, CO of the 5th Air Force and with whom Kelsey had worked closely during development of the P-38, within two weeks of the P-38’s from a single squadron joining the battle they had achieved near complete air supremacy over southern New Guinea. On their first combat alone, on December 27th, a mere 10 planes from the 39th squadron accounted for 13 claims of Japanese aircraft destroyed and one probable in the process of breaking up an attack on the American supply convoy. The squadron leader, Capt. Thomas Lynch—who together with his wingman had accounted for four of the victories—had since been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in the action that day.

    The P-38 was proving to be extremely versatile too. The F-4 and F-5 Photo Reconnaissance versions were being used to great effect in the SWPA in locating the enemy positions and providing bomb-assessment photographs with some similar uses in North Africa. Eighth Bomber Command in England was also beginning to use them for the same reasons and finding them well suited to low and mid-level reconnaissance.

    The 5th AF had also made great use of the P-38 as a ground attack airplane and glide bomber. The payload of the center wing pylons were sufficient in the F model to carry up to 1000 pound general purpose bombs--although 500 GPs were far more common--and the G model could handle up to 2000 pound GPs thanks to the strengthening done to accommodate 310 gallon drop tanks. There was even some talk of creating light bomber forces of P-38’s but in order for it to be successful they would need to find a way to properly aim the bombs preferably with the aid of the Norden Bomb Sight.

    Both the 12th and 5th Air Forces, as well as the 11th Air Force in Alaska and the 8th in England all reported some common complaints with the airplane—it was too complicated, had poor serviceability, and unreliable engines—plus some contradicting accounts of the cockpit being too cold or too hot. But, the biggest complaint of any of the Groups that had used the type in combat to date was simply that they did not have enough of them. The shortage was becoming so severe in the critical North African theater that yet another Fighter Group originally meant for the VIII Fighter Command in England, the 78th, had all of their P-38’s transferred over the three groups in Algeria, leaving them without any full P-38’s groups in England once more.

    Kelsey would leave the problems of production to the War Production Board and Lockheed, all he could influence was the number of planes on order and already the orders had already far surpassed production capacity. What he could help with was determine better practices to increase the sortie rate and smooth pilot transition to the type.

    To help Lockheed and the airmen in their respective theaters of operation, he had departed Ohio after Christmas to spend the last couple months going between Lockheed’s headquarters in Burbank and the Muroc Lake airfield complex out in the desert to run some experiments on the airplane to see just how much punishment it can actually take.

    Of chief concern were the turbos and the intake manifold pressures as Lockheed had finally developed an automatic turbo-governor and was anxious to calibrate them to the best possible settings for AAF use. Using a P-38G-5-LO modified to have the throttle stops removed Kelsey had been abusing the turbos and engines as much as he could trying to find their limits in boost, temperature, and duration before failing. The airplane was not fully representative of those that would be in combat as after each test flight the engines were completely over-hauled and all the ducting was re-fitted to ensure perfect seals but, after all, he was trying to find the absolute limits and needed it to be perfect to find them.

    The test engineers had installed crude turbo tachometers on the left windshield frame and turbo oil temperature gauges on the right frame. In six flights over the past two months Kelsey had beat the hell out of the turbos and the engines before finally experiencing a catastrophic failure a few days prior when running the turbos well beyond their design limits. The intercoolers had proved to be extremely efficient even at the high boost pressures in maintaining acceptable Carburetor Air Temperature but the turbos themselves were now overheating at the extremely high speeds. The failure on March 4th occurred after four minutes climbing from 12,000 feet to 22,000 feet with the turbos spinning at 27,000 RPM. He had observed Manifold Pressures as high as 70 in/Hg and could run over 64 in/Hg up to 22,000 feet with the engines running fine up to a C.A.T. of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 65 degrees Celsius, before the failure occurred. Even then the failure was not in the engine due to high C.A.T. but in the turbine itself as it overheated and seized before coming apart, sending a wave of back-pressure from the engine intake and bursting the inter-cooler. The turbo-supercharger oil temperature registered at over 230°F when the failure occurred and had been running past 205°F for the few minutes prior to.

    He recently heard that Colonel Cass Hough of the Technical Branch, Headquarters Division, VIII Bomber Command, had run related tests on a P-38F-1-LO he commandeered in England. Col. Hough, who was more focused on boost pressures than turbine governance, had ran 60 in/Hg manifold pressure up to about 25,000 and as much as 40 in/Hg at 40,000 feet. His airplane did not have a visible tachometer installed but Kelsey’s engineers estimated that the old B-2 turbo was likely over-speeding at well over 26,000 RPM to get those pressures and would likely fail after only a short duration at those speeds.

    Based on his own tests and with keeping Hough’s tests in mind, Kelsey had sent his recommendations on to Wright Field. The AAF, however, was more conservative and down-rated his and Hough’s finding in order to provide for imperfections in the field and a little more pilot safety. In the end they were sending Lockheed the specification to keep the governors at their 24,000 rpm limit for current production airplanes but to pursue development of new upgraded turbos for future airplanes capable of maintaining Rated Military Power above 25,000 feet for at least twenty minutes with provision for a short time at an over-speed War Emergency Power setting. Failing availability of upgraded turbos, the AAF is providing Lockheed the ability to add WEP at available manifold pressure from a turbo speed of 26,000 RPM.

    The secondary turbo-temperature governor was calibrated to take over when the turbo-supercharger oil temperature reached 200°F which the engineers estimated should allow enough tolerance for the turbine to slow and maintain safe temperatures without failure.

    With his engine testing more-or-less complete, Kelsey had just returned to Ohio from California to discover the Final Report on the Tactical Suitability of the P-38F Type Airplane waiting for him. The report had been compiled after nearly five months of testing at the Army Air Forces Proving Ground in Elgin, Florida and it contained some pretty decent assessments of the type, comparisons to other types assessed, and re-affirmed some of the failings reported from the field.

    The comparison tests were mostly favorable, concluding that the “combination of climb, range, endurance, speed, altitude, and fire power, the P-38F is the best production fighter tested to date…” with notes that the P-47C-1 was faster at most altitudes and the P-40F and new P-51 were faster below 15,000 feet but that the P-38F accelerated and climbed best of all types. Most interesting, to Kelsey, was that the P-38F could turn equal to or better than all other types above 15,000 feet but that its slow initial roll rate always put it at a disadvantage at the start of the turns against the P-40F and the P-51.

    The report did call out the maintenance difficulties with the aircraft and the difficulty expected in transition training when switching pilots from single-engine types to the twin-engine P-38. The other deficiencies noted were poor cockpit layout, poor cockpit heating, and the tendency for the guns to jam in maneuvers over 3.5G’s, a problem shared with the P-47 and related to the design and layout of the magazines.

    Section four of the report, which was the list of recommendations read:

    It is recommended that:

    a. Suitable means of maintaining cockpit heat at altitude be installed. (Cockpit heater on P-39NO is best seen to date).

    b. Continued efforts be made to increase rate of climb and level high speed.

    c. Automatic shutter control of carburetor air, coolant, and oil temperature be installed.

    d. One (1) gun switch be installed for all guns, eliminating the separate machine gun button and retaining only safety switch.

    e. The generators and battery switch be incorporated with the master switch and the booster pump’s switch incorporated with the individual engine switches.

    f. The rate of aileron roll be increased.

    g. The case ejection chute control be removed from the cockpit.

    h. Elevator trim be moved to rear nearer the pilot for more accessibility. (Ideal arrangement in P-51 airplane).

    i. The offset control be replaced by a straight control column in the middle of the cockpit, if possible. If not, the control column be reduced to a minimum safe size to increase visibility of the instrument panel and save space in the cockpit.

    j. Until the automatic turbo governor is installed, a turbo tachometer be added to the instrument panel.

    k. The energizing and starter switches be placed next to the main motor switches. Also all other switches that have to be used either for starting the engines or during take-offs be grouped together. These switches should be placed in a horizontal row, “off” when down and “on” when up. A drop bar should be placed below this so all switches could be turned on when the bar is lifted, after which the bar will drop back down.

    l. The toggle switch type of primer (Stromberg Electric Priming Valve-T.O.-03-10BA-25) be installed for ease and speed of interception work.

    m. The starters be of such a type that both engines may be started at the same time for interception work.

    n. Only one (1) landing light of a stationary type be installed on the leading edge of the left wing.

    o. The gun sight be of the type which will accommodate a 100 mil circle, permit bulb replacement in flight and reflection adjustment for low level bombing.

    p. Paddle blade propellers be incorporated in the P-38 design to improve climbing capabilities.

    q. A gun sight be installed that will allow the 161 mil view over the nose to be used in deflection shooting. (Current sight only allows 58 mil view down).
    Reviewing the recommendations, Kelsey noted that several were already being explored and developed by Lockheed including the automatic shutter control and the use of paddle-blade propellers. The rather vague recommendation of continuing efforts to “increase rate of climb and level high speed” was a bit of mystery because it seemed rather redundant with standard practice and those performance factors had already been improved with the P-38G which was not part of the test. In fact, based the companion report from the P-47C-1 testing and the unrelated Performance Acceptance Report from a P-38G-5-LO the previous month, Kelsey could see that already the new P-38 was faster than the P-47 above 20,000 feet and would imminently better suited to the long range, high-altitude patrol and escort if they can get the issues with pilot comfort worked out.

    The issue with the cockpit heat would need to be forwarded over to Lockheed and Kelsey could only hope they would be able to take a look at the P-39 and create a similar system for the P-38. The same applied to all of the other recommendations relating to the cockpit layout and functionality of specific controls. He could certainly get behind the recommendation to replace the manual engine primer with the automatic one as currently, starting the engines on the P-38 was a three-hand job for a two-hand pilot.

    The problems with the guns can be worked on by the AAF itself in Muroc where they can do field modifications and gunnery tests until they get it right and can then fly the modified plane back to Burbank so Lockheed can change make adjustments to the line.

    Similarly, the issues with the gunsight is one for the AAF, not for Lockheed and Kelsey would be sure to procure a few examples of current and development model gun-sights from the Air Corps, Navy, and anything he can beg from the RAF to try fitting in the Lightning until they find the best fit.

    In the meantime, he was left to write up his orders for Lockheed and prioritize the recommendations.
    Ch.14 - Operation Flax (5 Apr 1943)
  • 5 April 1943
    27th FS, 1st FG, 5th BW, NASAF
    Chateaudun-du-Rhumel Airfield, Algeria

    “Up and at’em, Lieutenants.” The Sergeant’s hooded light flashed over the sleeping face of Second Lieutenant John MacKay. “Mission today, breakfast oh-four-thirty, briefing at oh-five-fifteen.”

    MacKay stirred, raising a hand to block the glaring light from his eyes and acknowledging the Sergeant so he would move on to the next cot. Sitting up, he rubbed the crust from the corners of eyes—ever present from the dust of the northern Algerian coast—and blinked to adjust to the dark tent. The other pilots were slowly doing the same, each going through whatever little routine had become habit in their time at Chateaudun-du-Rhumel since they transferred there in February.

    2Lt. Sweet, groaned, “Did he say oh-four-thirty? What time is it?”

    Samuel Sweet had come over to the 27th Fighter Squadron with MacKay as replacements a few weeks ago and neither of them of were quite used to the random wake ups at any hour on mission days. The night before Sweet, MacKay, and a few others had stayed up quietly throwing dice until midnight and now both would be paying for it.

    “I don’t know. We need some light. Are the curtains down?” 2Lt. Donald Hilgert sounded more excited to be up than Sweet did. He had been with the unit since February, having been transferred down with his P-38 from the 78th Fighter Group and was a pretty good pilot with one Air Medal already to his name.

    MacKay heard someone fiddling around with a box of matches and knowing what was coming, shaded his eyes just as the match erupted. He glanced over to watch Hilgert light the kerosene lamp next to his bed and hang it on a loop from the peak of the four man tent. Now fully lit, the tent seemed even smaller than it did in the dark with its four officers, four cots, four footlockers, and all the miscellaneous clutter than goes with them. He felt for his watch which he kept safely under his pillow when we slept and glanced at it to answer Sweet, “It’s four-oh-eight.”

    The fourth man, 2Lt. Eldred Loder, was already pulling his flying suit on over his underwear and t-shirt. Like Hilgert, Loder had been with the 27th since February but he came through the normal replacement depot rather than being a transfer from the 78th Group. He hurried out of the tent without any of his other gear, apparently in a rush to attend to some need of the body.

    MacKay was not in as much of a rush and before dressing for the day he took the time to carefully shave over the bowl of water he kept next to his bed with the aid of a small hand mirror. He had a problem during one of his early high-altitude training flights when his oxygen mask was not fully sealed around his face and he passed out. He came to at 8000 feet to discover his plane nose-down aiming for the Mojave Desert and his flight leader screaming through the radio. He was able to recover about 2000 feet above the valley and ever since then he had been obsessive about keeping his mask as tight as it could be. It was pretty normal for him to come back from a mission with his face red and swollen from the mask pulling on it and he had developed a pretty distinct callus on his lower jaw because of it.

    With his face as smooth as he could make it, he slipped into his own flight suit and pulled on his heavy flying boots, the need to relieve himself becoming apparent. He emptied his pockets of any personal effects and left them in top bin of his locker before closing it. He grabbed his A-2 leather jacket from where it hung next to his cot, checked its pockets, then tucked his flying helmet into his suit before hurrying out with his normal pilot’s cap on his head.

    The latrine was little more than a trench over which a row of partially enclosed canvas out-houses had been built. It was not pretty, did not smell very good—especially in the heat of the day—and was not very private but it served its purpose. One need of his body taken care, he made it way to the mess to join the few dozen others in seeing to the other needs of their bodies.

    Breakfast was the normal affair of scrambled eggs, some sort of dried meat cooked in fat and water that was supposed to sausage, dense flour biscuits, and generous amounts of gritty—but watered down—coffee. It was not exactly tasty and he had doubts about its value but it was filling and would keep him good and blocked up for the flight.

    They did not talk much during the meal. A few pairs or small groups would gossip but for most of the pilots going out today this would be business as usual. Even the newer pilots like MacKay and Sweet had been out on a few combat sorties and in many other groups would be considered veterans. MacKay already had four bombs on the nose of his plane from bombing and ship hunting missions and he even added a little backwards swastika for the Me.109 he knocked down a week earlier. In the 1st Fighter Group, though, a handful of missions was a drop in the bucket compared to some of the flight leaders who had been bringing the fight to the enemy since Operation Torch began the previous fall.

    Once their trays were empty, the fighter pilots made their way to the pre-fabricated steel building that served as the operations center and briefing hall. Most of the pilots shared a cigarette or two on the way over, covering the glowing embers of the cigarette tips with their hands to maintain light discipline in the pre-dawn darkness.

    At the briefing, MacKay and the others received their orders and the plan for the day. It was not, as they thought, going to be the same old business they had become used to. After the basic introductions the 1st Fighter Group S2 laid out the background of the situation.

    “British Intelligence and the Signal Corps have discovered a build-up of German forces and materiel in Italy and Sicily accompanied by movements of large numbers transport aircraft. We believe that due to the toll our aircraft have taken on German and Italian shipping in the area they are increasing efforts to resupply and reinforce the German Army in northern Tunisia by air. At this time Intelligence estimates as many as four-hundred transport aircraft may be available, mostly Ju.52’s and Me.323’s. These are supported by a similar number of fighter aircraft coming Sicily and Tunisia. Their standard flight route has relied on a quick sprint over the Sicilian Straight to Cape Bon at 150 feet altitude. The Northwest African Strategic Air Force has been ordered to undertake interdiction assaults against these forces as ‘Operation Flax’ while the Strategic Airforce will continue their anti-shipping operations.”

    After the quick summary of the situation, the Group S3 Operations Officer took over the briefing to detail the 1st Fighter Group’s role in Operation Flax.

    “Gentlemen, the 1st Fighter Group will be the spearhead of the entire operation.” He paused to let the implications of that short statement fully register with the pilots in the briefing room. After a brief moment, he continued to explain the operational details and expectations of the mission. The Group will be putting up thirty-two aircraft today: eight, four-plane elements of the 27th Squadron. Standard radio call-signs will apply with the elements of the 27th being PETDOG High and Low Elements with each flight being called Red, White, Blue, and Yellow. He indicated the chalk board with its images of P-38’s in echelon formations and pointed to each member of the squadrons and their position in the flight.

    MacKay took note that he would be PETDOG Low White 3 with the young replacement 2Lt. Warren Holden on his wing. They would be led by Lt. Frank McIntosh in the Low White 1 position with Sweet on his wing. The entire mission would be led by Major Owens himself as PETDOG Low Red 1.

    They were to be at stations by 0615 and departures were scheduled to begin by twos at 0630. They would form up, then fly roughly north-northeast over the Mediterranean before turning east toward the Sicilian Straits, north of Cape Bon. Once in position they were to begin a standard patrol pattern for enemy aircraft.

    From there, he detailed the expected opposition consisting of Ju.52’s, possible Me.323’s, and the usual assortment of fighter escorts they would expect—Me.109’s, Me.110’s, Fw.190’s, and Italian M.C.200’s and Re.2001’s. Photo Reconnaissance aircraft had also identified several groups of Ju.87 dive-bombers in the area so the Group was warned to watch out for them as well. The German transport aircraft were to be the primary targets for the 1st Fighter Group.

    As cover for their flight, B-25’s from the 321st Bomb Group would also be directed to the Straits where they will perform a standard Sea Search operation against enemy shipping. The idea was that any enemy advance spotters, scouts, or radar installations would think that their P-38’s were on their way to rendezvous with the bombers to provide additional escort; but, it was all a ruse.

    “The bombers will be escorted by the 82nd Fighter Group so be aware that there will be friendly aircraft in the area. Most importantly, however, do not worry about protecting the bombers; that is the eighty-second’s job. Your job today to seek out and destroy any and all enemy transport aircraft and close the Sicilian Strait to the enemy.”

    After he finished detailing the operational specifics of the mission he concluded, “Also, be aware that at 0830 the B-17’s of the 97th will depart here on their own mission; so, if you are returning early watch for their formation and keep an eye out for any of their early returns as well. The B-17’s will have Spitfire escorts so watch out for single-engine friendlies.”

    The briefing ended with a weather report, watch synchronization, and a prayer before the pilots were dismissed.

    Outside the hall, Sweet found MacKay, “Johnny, you ever do any hunting back in Vermont?”

    “A little. Squirrel mostly. Some raccoon. What about you? Any good hunting in Minnesota?”

    “Every fall. Ducks, geese, turkey, grouse, and deer, deer, deer. My dad and I would head over to grandpa’s farm in New Brighton to help keep the corn fields clear before harvest.” He paused, “I guess they built an ammunition plant next to it now.”

    “Well, it sounds like you’ll get plenty of good hunting today.”

    * * *

    MacKay walked the flight line to his airplane. He had already grabbed a Mae West, a parachute, and his survival bag and now had to go to the other side of the airbase to get to his airplane. They kept the living and operations building away from the airplanes to keep the personnel safe from enemy attacks and accidents but that necessitated the flight crews cover some distance to get to their stations. Along the line were the big B-17’s of the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) which shared the base with the 1st Fighter Group (Twin-Engine) and the 37th Service Group. Chateaudun-du-Rhumel Airfield also served as the headquarters for the entire 5th Bomb Wing.

    The B-17 ground crews were scurrying around their planes in the early morning twilight, getting them fueled, loaded, and armed for the day’s up-coming mission. MacKay walked past trailers filled with 250 and 500 pound general purpose bombs and others stacked high with boxes of .50 Caliber ammunition for the ‘Forts.

    His plane squatted on its packed earth hardstand and was silhouetted by the gray of the eastern horizon. As he got closer he recognized the skull-and-crossbones his crew chief had painted on the tip of the nose below the muzzle of the 20mm. To the left of that, on the side of the nose cone, were the two dice he painted displaying two pips and one, respectively, with the words “Shoot..YOU’RE FADED” scrawled below. Next to this little bit of Craps humor from the avid dicer were the four bombs of his ground attack missions and beneath those was the lone backwards swastika from his confirmed victory the week prior. The propeller spinners and wingtips were painted Insignia Red, as was entirety of the rear booms from their mid-point to the start of the empennage, marking the airplane as being in the 27th Squadron along with the radio code letters “HV S.”

    The plane had arrived to the group after he had. A shortage of P-38’s had caused him to spend his first few sorties flying spares and old war-weary P-38F-1’s which had made the flight to England as part of Bolero nearly a year earlier. When a delivery of a few factory fresh P-38G-17-LO’s had arrived in mid-March, MacKay was happy to be assigned one as his own, #43-2308. His Lightning was part of the batch that had originally been ordered by the French, then transferred to the British, then cancelled, and finally claimed by the USAAF as standard production P-38’s. Two blocks had been completed the previous summer as P-38F’s and now the rest were being completed in two blocks of P-38G’s. The Block-17 G’s were 174 planes modified specifically for operations in the North African deserts and over the Mediterranean.

    His crew chief handed him the load information: 2000 rounds .50 cal (500 per gun) loaded as MacKay liked with nine rounds of API followed with a single tracer; 150 rounds of 20mm without tracers. Since his plane had the expanded fuel tanks it was filled to capacity with 424 gallons of Grade 130/100 fuel and he would not be carrying external tanks like the P-38F’s would be. Even though this arrangement meant the older aircraft would have more loiter time, MacKay and the other G pilots would still have about forty-five minutes extra reserve (or enough to double their combat time) for the mission which called for 1.5 hours out, 1 hour patrol, 15 minutes of combat, and 1 hour back with a 20 minute cruising reserve.

    MacKay gave the plane the normal walk around making sure all the access panels were secure and the control surfaces were free. He looked in the radiator inlets in the leading edges to check for birds, nests, or debris and did the same with the inter-cooler scoops beneath the engine, also checking the exit flaps and shutters. He double checked that the air intakes under the wings were clear and that all the blast tubes were unobstructed.

    He ducked under the boom and made his way up the ladder hanging from the trailing extension of the central nacelle. After raising and securing the ladder he walked up the left inboard wing to where a member of the ground was waiting and stepped down into the cozy confines of the cockpit. The crewman helped him get strapped in and gave a few tugs on the parachute straps to ensure it was secured to the safety straps of the seat. With a simple “good luck,” the man slid off the wing and confirmed the ladder was secure with a few taps from the ground.

    The sun was just beginning to peek over the eastern horizon. MacKay checked his watch: 0624.

    * * *

    At 0800 the Group of 28 P-38’s—four had to abort early with mechanical trouble—had closed up and were about 40 miles north of Cape Bon. They had come in near the deck and then climbed up to 6,000 feet to begin their sweep for enemy aircraft. MacKay had spent some time on the flight in fiddling with #2308’s radiator shutters to maintain good engine temperature in the warm Mediterranean air but his airplane was otherwise flying smoothly.

    PETDOG White was arranged in a descending echelon left directly off PETDOG Red in descending echelon right. Six thousand feet higher and a few miles behind were the other two PETDOG elements in a matching formation so that the entire squadron formed two broken vanguards.

    At 0812 MacKay heard one of higher planes report B-25’s in the distance heading northeast and shortly thereafter a call came in of P-38’s circling behind the bombers: those would be the 321st Bomb Group and the 82nd Fighter Group.

    Only a few minutes later the radios exploded with activity.

    “Bandits, four-o’clock low.”

    “Bandits, three-o’clock high.”

    “I got a flight of em-ee one-oh-nines, three-o’clock high, four miles out.”

    “Enemy em-vees, twelve miles north-east. Looks like they have a Destroyer escort.”

    “PETDOG High group, PETDOG High Red One, come right to five-zero, climb to engage enemy fighters.”

    “PETDOG low elements, PETDOG Lead, jay-you five-twos on the deck, four-low. Drop tanks and engage.”

    The chatter continued as all of the various elements maneuvered to their places and prepared for the fight. More aircraft were spotted and the groups were calling out different types and location. In the distance, MacKay saw the B-25’s turn directly toward the flotilla of enemy transport vessels while the P-38’s from the 82nd dove toward the escort fighters.

    The fifteen planes of the 27thSquadron low elements—many raining external fuel tanks as they were released—turned right and circled toward the Ju.52’s flying just over the waters below. MacKay pushed RPMs and Mixtures forward and kept his left hand on the red Bakelite knobs of the throttle control, waiting for the moment to attack. They closed to within about two miles before the order came to break and attack. The hunt was on.

    MacKay could not count the number of enemies. He could see at least 40 three engine Ju.52’s accompanied by some twin engine heavies and a few dozen fighters. McIntosh and Sweet broke right to line up on an element of transports so MacKay followed them in, checking over his shoulder to make sure Holden had turned with him. They dropped down to 1000 feet quickly, his speed shooting up to 325 mph even with his throttles still back at 42 inches. The German tri-motors had popped up to 500 feet and were starting to make lazy defensive turns as the Lightnings dove into them. MacKay watched McIntosh and Sweet open on one and its left engine erupt in flame as he lined up his sights on another, now down to 600 feet.

    Rolling his plane slightly left to lead the target at about 60 degrees deflection he opened up all five guns in a series of four, one to two second bursts, peppering the enemy with little flashes of incendiary bursts. He trailed his fire back from the center engine and cockpit across to the right engine and wing as he passed over its top. As soon as it passed under the range of his guns he let up and throttled forward to pull his plane up and away from the quickly closing sea while continuing his left roll and came directly up to another transport.

    A short, ineffective, burst of fire was all he had time for as he climbed past its tail, so he instead he held his fire thinking to save ammunition for another pass.

    Clear of the enemy formation, he saw the Ju.52 he first lined up on losing altitude with the front engine wrapping the cockpit in black smoke. He led Holden away in a zoom climb then at 3000 feet tightened his left roll to bleed some speed and kick the airplane over into a fresh dive at the transports. This time he came it from their four-o’clock, leveling off at 400 feet to attack the right-rear quarter of the burning plane. Opening with his machine guns at 300 yards, he dropped a one-second burst toward the ‘52’s right engine and was rewarded with a large yellow and orange flash just before he pulled up to pass over it. He heard light metallic rattling as bits of shrapnel from the shredded wing ricocheted off his airplane.

    Now his heart was pounding in his ears, almost as loud as the engines to either side of him.

    Everywhere he looked P-38’s were diving, zooming, and twisting to knock the Jerries out of the sky. One blasted at a Ju.87, blowing its left wheel off, then its left stabilizer, and finally tearing apart the rudder with hits flashing along the entire length of the fuselage. The rear gunner disappeared into a cloud of pink mist as he was wracked by fifty-caliber fire or a 20mm shell exploded into him.

    MacKay checked for Holden on his seven and pulled around in a slow right roll, circling once more back to the Ju.52’s. Several of the transports were smoking and several more missing altogether. Even as he worked to line back up two red-tailed P-38’s were feasting on a hurt Junkers, following it down until just before it disappeared into the Med and disintegrated in a great white splash.

    Throttling back again, he coasted in on what remained of the broken enemy formation and was surprised to see a twin-boom airplane flying in the middle of them. His first worry was that a lone P-38 had become trapped in the formation as all the planes maneuvered around but as he came to about 600 yards he recognized the stubby glazed nose of a Focke-Wulf 189.

    This was an opportunity that may not come again: the chance to show the Krauts what a properly built twin-boom can do.

    He did not have much time to plan the attack but pushed his throttles to 54” and kicked right to skid #2308 across the tail of the observation plane. MacKay let loose a one-and-a-half-second burst with his guns. The lightly built scout plane came apart under the weight of the heavy American guns. MacKay watched it all-but disassemble itself and pieces tear off from every portion of the aircraft. The Fw.189 shook like a wet dog shedding water then tucked its twin-tails under its wing and somersaulted down in an uncontrolled twisting dive.

    The Ju.52 directly in front of the Focke-Wulf spouted a black cloud as Holden shot the left engine off of its nacelle. The loose engine tumbled down, actually colliding with the falling wreckage of MacKay’s kill and pushed through it like tornado. The Junkers yawed left with little bits of the wing still coming off. As it did, Holden’s continued fire worked directly over the top of the wings leaving a line of ragged holes along its length.

    Now, too close to the enemy, MacKay yanked back on the wheel to nose his plane up and over Holden’s target and cut directly in front of another transport 150 feet above him, passing no more than 20 yards away. He cranked his head up as he passed it, nearly vertical, and for a split second time held still as his eyes met those of the Junkers’s pilot, brown and wide with fear.

    “…DOG High Bl…or, can...see…!?” A panicked cry over the radio. MacKay continued his climb and started to scan in every direction for any troubled Lightnings as the radio quieted down to give the caller a chance to speak. “I have..tail…” He was breathing hard in his mask and it was distorting his transmission, “can’t…help!”

    MacKay was up to 6,000 feet when he spotted a lone red-tail P-38 three miles away at about 9,000 feet trailing smoke and being chased down by two Fw.190’s at his 11 o’clock. Knowing he had only moments at most to rescue his squadron mate he pushed his RPM’s all the way forward to 3000 and jammed both throttles as hard as he could, forcing them through the block of Rated Military Power and for the first time going into the new War Emergency Power band.

    The P-38 launched forward into its shallow climb, rapidly accelerating as MacKay watched the manifold pressure spin up to 60 inches almost instantaneously. The airspeed indicator climbed past 300 as the Altimeter circled around 6,500 feet and both kept going up. At 7,000 feet, now about two miles away from the struggling PETDOG High Blue 4, he was indicating 380 mph and was gaining. The smoking P-38 and its two pursuers were angling away from him by about 50 degrees and he adjusted his angle to stay ahead of them as he closed in. Even at this speed that meant it would still take him almost a minute to be within firing range.

    Blue 4 continued the occasional plea on the radio, grunting and gasping as he desperately slid and rolled his airplane in its dive in an effort to evade. The damaged P-38 could not quite pull away from the 190’s. Every time he seemed to surprise the Focke-Wulfs with a juke or a change in pitch, the round-nosed Germans would flick their wings and be right with him. MacKay wracked his brain, trying to remember who was assigned Blue 3 in the mornings briefing. High Blue flight was Pate, Szaflarski, and Stemen—who had aborted an hour ago, leaving Blue 4 without a lead...he struggled…who is it?


    “Hil! MacKay. I’m on my way! One minute!” He called over the radio.

    Looking behind him, he noticed that Holden was trailing far behind, his old F had not been able to keep up with the blast of acceleration from #2308. MacKay estimated it would take his wingman a good twenty or thirty seconds to catch up unless something drastic happened.

    Hilgert was in even more serious trouble than MacKay had thought. His tent-mate’s P-38F was trailing smoke form the left engine and the innocuous grey was becoming black as MacKay drew nearer, a clear sign that the engine was beginning to burn. If Hilgert did not do something quickly the entire thing may explode.

    MacKay remembered a time in P-38 Familiarization when they had been shown how to handle engine-out emergencies. The standard practice was for the flight instructor to fly alongside of the students and talk them through the cut-off and feather procedure. Once that was done, the students were talked through managing their airplane’s stability while fighting the torque of the good engine and the drag of the dead engine. The one thing they were drilled, over and over again, never to do was to turn into the dead engine as it could cause the plane to flip and yaw.

    He had an idea.

    “Hil, you need to cut your left engine.”

    MacKay was almost there, just 1500 yards away and merging with their flight path at about 40 degrees. He saw Hilgert’s plane wobble and yaw as the engine cut out. The left wing dropped a little but Hilgert was good enough to bring it back up, just in time jerk away from the cannon fire of the 190’s.

    “Now, Hilgert, when I say, you break left with hard left rudder and full right throttle.”

    Almost there…900 yards…800…700…

    “Ready…?” MacKay dropped his combat flaps.



    Hilgert’s P-38 suddenly rolled over into a hard nose down left hand spin, immediately dropping by about 100 feet as it spun sideways. The Jerries tried to roll with him to follow him down but the Lightning was already gone below them and heading the other direction. MacKay lost sight of Hilgert’s plane when it disappeared beneath the broad shoulder of his wing but the Focke-Wulf’s had turned directly past his nose.

    Machine gun and cannon fire erupted from the nose of #2308 shooting flame and steel. In the two seconds he held the triggers more than one-hundred .50 Caliber Armor Piercing Incendiary rounds were joined by ten or eleven tracers and followed by more than twenty 20mm shells. Only a few of them found their mark on the wing of one of the German fighters, blasting pieces of the wingtip and blowing the aileron loose. The disconnected control surface flapped once, twice, three times in the turbulence then separated from the stubby wing.

    MacKay passed behind the Germans, swiveling his next to follow their path with his eyes. The damaged one shook then recovered, straightening his roll and diving out while wobbling like a new-born foal. What the damaged Fw.190 did not see was Holden’s P-38 pull up into a high chandelle to bleed off speed and change his angle, then nose down to chase the Kraut to the sea.

    The other Focke-Wulf continued to follow Hilgert’s P-38 as it worked to recover from the spin, drawing its nose ever closer to a line on the smoking plane.

    There was only one thing to do—it had worked for Hilgert so MacKay could only hope that with two good engines he could make it work better and with more control.

    He kept his right engine all the way forward, took a deep breath, then kicked hard left rudder while pulling the left throttle all the way back to IDLE. A turn of his wrist on the yoke and his fast flying Lightning slid sideways into hard left break with its tail slipping out of the thrust line and its nose coming inside in a violent reversal of direction. The airplane creaked and groaned under the unanticipated stresses of the high lateral G-Forces which threw MacKay to the side with only his well secured harness keeping him in place. He watched Hilgert and the German come past his line of sight and slammed the left throttle back into W.E.P. and reversed his rudder and roll. The plane shuddered and complained, but complied, the left engine spewing a great blast of dark smoke from the sudden pressure.

    MacKay and #2308 were now inside of the spiraling decent of High Blue 4. The hard reversal had cost him some speed but that would only help him avoid over-shooting now. He pressed the yoke down to nose over and line up for where he figured the Jerry would be in a few seconds.

    Hilgert was still spiraling down his spin flattening out. MacKay read 5,500 feet and they were a good 1000 lower. Hilgert needed to recover and soon.

    He was at 300 yards with the 190 crossing a more than 90 degrees in front of him when he fired at it. His few tracers flew past the Kraut’s canopy which could only mean that the rest of his machine guns shot high. He pulled the trigger for the cannon. With its lower trajectory the shells whizzed under the machine gun tracers and MacKay saw the yellow bursts of the shells impact directly in front of the windshield.

    Then he was past.

    He looked to his right and watched Holden finish off the damaged 190, a steady stream of tracers seemed to connect the nose of the P-38 to all parts of the German fighter. The 190 gave a sudden upwards jerk then dropped straight down without the slightest roll, plummeting straight into the water.

    Looking back over his left shoulder he saw the other 190 waggle its wings then peel away, rolling to the right away from Hilgert’s Lightning. Content that the E/A was breaking away, MacKay focused on Hilgert where he continued to struggle to recover from the spin. The spiral had widened since it started 3000 feet higher and it appeared to MacKay that it was still getting wider. Then Hilgert started to roll right against the spin with his rudders hard right at the same time he nosed the plane even farther down. MacKay thought Hilgert was done for.

    But Hilgert’s quick thinking was paying off. Against all odds, by nosing down and rolling right Hilgert was able to counter the flat-spin and slowly turn it into a non-spinning dive. At 1500 feet the spin finally stopped and MacKay saw Hilgert’s elevator deflect as high up as it could go.

    With painful hesitance the P-38 started to level off out of its dive.

    MacKay called down to Hilgert where he had finally leveled off at around 200 feet. “Hil, you Oh-Kay?”

    “Yeah,” he gasped, “I’m bugging out.”

    “Drinks are on me tonight.”

    “Cut the chatter you two!” MacKay recognized Major Owens’s voice. “Low White Three and Four, rejoin the group. High Yellow One, join up with High Blue Four and return to base.”

    “White Three, Roger.” MacKay raised his flaps and turned back toward where he could the swarm of fighting aircraft in the distance.

    “Yellow One, Wilco.”

    “White Four, Roger.”

    MacKay continued his circle until he spotted Holden again, “Low White Four, White Three, on your four-o’clock.” He vectored his plane so he could meet up with his wingman, letting the baby-faced kid from Iowa know where he was at. He was closing on Holden rather quickly but he felt a slight but obvious deceleration. Worried that his engines were going, or worse, he checked his instruments and discovered his Manifold Pressures were dropping and all his engine temperatures were running high. He reached over for his throttles and realized he had never pulled them out of W.E.P. He guessed that the drop in pressure was because the new Turbo-Overheat governor he heard was installed on these new planes had taken over. In any event, he thought it would be best to do what he could to help the automated system and pulled back on the throttles until they were in their normal Max. Continuous positions which should let him maintain 44”. To match the throttles, he dropped RPMs to 2600, the new cruise setting on this airplane; then, he opened his coolant and oil flaps to let more air through the radiators and cool the engines down as he and Holden made their way back to the continuing melee. He merged back into a proper pair with Holden about halfway back.

    The radio was still buzzing with bogie and bandit calls as the rest of the group continued their fight. The whole mess was pretty spread out by this time: groups of six or eight Ju.52’s trying to speed away from the Lightnings coming at them in one’s and two’s; zooming and spiraling fighters locked in deadly dances at all altitudes; all of them spread out over a five mile range or more. MacKay looked around to see get an idea for the situation and settled on a flight of five Ju.52’s retreating toward Cape Bon which was just becoming visible on the distant horizon.

    A glance at his engine instruments told him that the six minute cruise back with wide open radiators had done the job and all temperatures were back to the high end of the normal. He had no way of knowing how hot his turbos still were but I figured that against the slow moving transports he could risk having limited boost.

    Not wanting to interrupt the radio chatter, he slid his plane parallel to Holden’s. Once he had his attention, he raised a gloved and indicated the direction and number of enemies so his wingman would know where they were going.

    MacKay kept his radiator flaps open as he and Holden quickly gained on the Junkers. He watched the enemy coast line with trepidation, trying to estimate how much time they would have before the aircraft were within range of A/A. He figured they would only get one good pass but he planned on making it count.

    He closed his radiator flaps, dropped his combat flaps, and nosed down while keeping his throttles back. The nice thing about Ju.52’s was that they were unarmed and MacKay knew that with their fighter escorts far away dealing with the rest of the 27th Fighter Squadron, he could drop into them and just drift back and forth while taking his time.

    Which is exactly what he did.

    His prey was the Tail-End-Charlie of the German formation and as he drew near he pulled his throttles back even more willing his airspeed to drop below 200 mph. Once his airspeed indicated 250 mph, he pulled the flap lever back and dropped his flaps to 50%. The airplane lurched up with the sudden change in pressure under the wings but they did their job and #2308 was soon cruising along at 180 mph.

    The coast was about ten miles away when he let loose on the helpless transport. Three bursts was all it took. On the second burst his cannon stopped firing and he figured it must have run dry, so compensated by holding it and the third burst for 3-4 seconds, sending all the steel he could into the corrugated airframe and dangling engines of the cargo-hauler. At the end of the third burst he was rewarded when his incendiaries lit the fuel vapors in the right main tank of the Junkers and the wing disappeared in a yellow explosion. The plane bellied over and impacted the coastal Tunisian waters.

    The poor German was not lonely for long, as Holden soon sent one to follow it to a watery grave.

    With the coast now far too close for MacKay’s comfort, he raised his flaps, pushed his throttles back up to 44” and turned away to the northwest, back beyond the Gulf of Tunis. Ten minutes later they had started to join back up with other Lightnings as the entire squadron slowly re-grouped.

    The battle was over.

    * * *

    Of the 32 P-38’s that left Chateaudun-du-Rhumel that morning, 28 had engaged the enemy, and 26 returned. Second Lieutenant Field, flying the High Red Four position, had been lost to a Me.109 and was seen to bail out over the strait; while Hilgert had to land at Le Kouif on the Tunisian border and word had come from that forward airbase that he was injured but not seriously. Ten of the other planes had been damaged, two seriously. In return the 27th was credited with 14 Ju.52/3, 3 Ju.87, 2 Bf.109, 1 Fw.190, and 1 Fw.189.

    MacKay and Holden shared the kill on the ‘190, while individually Holden was credited with two Ju.52/3 and MacKay with two Ju.52/3 and the Fw.189. That left him just half-a-kill short of ace.

    But there were more days to come in Operation Flax, and more opportunities for good hunting.
    Last edited:
    Ch.15 - Operation Flax Pt.2 / Der Gabelschwanz Teufel (Apr 1943)
  • Just a short one. I decided to cut back on a lot of the details for this as it is largely in line with OTL and the gist of what led up to it can be gleaned from the previous chapter.


    A. Combat​
    B. 10 April 1943
    C. 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group
    D. 0910 - 0920
    E. 30 Miles N of Tunisia
    F. Hazy
    G. 20 SM.82 and 6 C.200
    H. 1 SM.82 Destroyed
    I. I was flying my assigned position of Blue 1 in a sweep of the Sicilian Strait with the entire Group. At 0910 a call of Bandits was reported at our 10 o’clock low and I observed approximately 20 SM.82’s with about 6 C.200’s heading generally south at around 500 feet altitude and 6 miles away. The group broke to engage the E/A. I picked out a mottled green and brown SM.82 in the formation. I started firing on it from directly behind and below it at about 350 yards. I fired 3-4 two second burst and observed strikes along the belly and left wing root and left engine. The engine started on fire but I started to come under when passengers aboard another SM.82 began to fire small-arms at me from the open door of the A/C. I disengaged to circle around for another pass. During this time, I witnessed 2Lt. Sweet shooting another SM.82 with the number 604 on its side. This E/A exploded under the sustained fire and I confirm it destroyed by 2Lt. Sweet. By the time I had completed my full circle I was unable to find the E/A I had damaged. Lt. Rush said he saw it ditch, therefore I claim this E/A destroyed. After the first pass, there were too few E/A remaining and my fuel was running low so I rejoined the squadron and returned to base.

    A/C Used: P-38G 17 LO #43-2308
    Ammunition used: 399 rounds 50 CAL API & T, 77 rounds 20mm

    John A. MacKay
    2nd Lt., Air Corps


    I was flying Red 3 when we engaged approximately 30 E/A 30 miles north of Cape Serrat. I saw 2Lt. MacKay fire on an SM.82 from line astern and set it on fire with strikes all over the E/A. I watched this A/C descend and ditch into the sea with the left wing coming off. I confirm one E/A destroyed by 2Lt. MacKay.

    George A. Rush
    1st Lt., Air Corps

    12 April 1943
    III./SKG 10
    Bizerte, Tunisia

    Leutnant Gerhard Limberg looked over his recently repaired Focke-Wulf 190 A-5 airplane. He had joined a flight of Ju.52’s on the 5th as ordered to ferry down from San Pietro, Italy, to the III Gruppe, Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 (III./SKG 10) forward operation airbase near Bizerte, Tunisia. The flight was going well until they were nearing the Tunisian coast when they were suddenly set upon by thirty of the American twin-tail heavy fighters. He had never seen them in person before but had heard of them and remembered being briefed that although they were fast the American heavy-fighters suffered from the same poor maneuverability as any other heavy fighter.

    He had used that knowledge to his advantage and even though his A-5 “Jabo” was only armed with two MG.151 cannons he and another 190 from his flight had separated one of the American’s from his group and set upon him. They had damaged one of the engines of the big fighter and were chasing it down when it suddenly did something he had never seen an airplane do while under control. The twin-tailed fighter rolled and yawed into an impossibly tight left turn and dropped into a shallow spiral.

    Just then, the shadow of another twin-tail blew past him from behind, scattering his squadron mate and leaving Limberg alone in his pursuit of their prey. As he rolled his Shrike to follow the spiraling American he glanced back to gauge the other fighter that had blown by and was relieved to see it in wide left circle. He focused all of his attention back on the damaged American and followed him down and around.

    He was just lining up for another burst of fire when the white spark of American tracers streamed directly over his head. He followed them back and saw the other American had already reversed and was coming directly at him from about eighty degrees to his left. For some reason, all he could remember was seeing an angry pirate’s flag with a crown fire as it came at him. He did not even have time to react before the he heard the blasts of cannon fire directly in front of him. His airplane rattled and shook and the panel that in other Fw 190’s would cover the nose guns blew off his plane.

    Limberg flinched at the shock of the hit causing his airplane to wobble as the American flew overhead. He had had enough and refused to be turned from predator to prey. A fast airplane that was less maneuverable than his could be dealt with, as could a maneuverable airplane that was not as fast as his; but, he had just witnessed both of the Americans reverse their directions faster than anything he was capable of. He rolled right and pressed everything fully forward, praying that the big BMW engine in front of him could pull away from the blood thirsty American devils.

    He made it to Bizerte on the deck never getting more than 200 feet about the water or ground as he came in and was thankful to avoid pursuit. Two of his fellow Focke-Wulfs had also made it in, but the fourth of their troupe—the one with whom he had hunted the Lightning—never returned and Limberg could only assume he had fallen prey to the American counter-attack.

    So, he was left without an airplane until his was repaired or they found a spare, something that became less likely with each day as English and Americans continually attacked the airfield and all the others around. He heard that Flying Fortress bombers had hit El Aounina and Sid Ahmed especially hard that same day, while the pilots bringing planes and supplies every day for the past week had shared horror stories of flying a gauntlet of American and British fighters and bombers to get to Tunisia. Those few who made it through were bringing stories of even more damage to their airfields in Italy and Sicily.

    Just the night before he had overhead one of the Ju.52 pilots who had run the gauntlet three times in the past week share his story of almost being rammed by one of the fighters on the 5th and of narrowly avoiding another one on the 8th. His most recent close call was on the 11th when a group of American fighters and Mitchell Bombers had flown into their formation. The side and turret gunners on the bombers were trying to shoot down the Luftwaffe transports even as the Lightning fighters would zoom through the formations and tear them to shreds. He poor man was still shaking even days later and Lt. Limberg was certain the pilot had lost his nerve would be useless to Fatherland with all of his muttering about “der Gabelschwanz Teufel.”

    The Fork-tailed Devil.
    Ch.16 - The Next Lightning (Apr 1943)
  • 20 April 1943
    Burbank, California, USA

    Beneath the elaborately painted canvas awning which stretched over the entirety of the Lockheed production facility, Ralph Virden walked among the rows and rows and freshly completed P-38’s. In the past few days the first few dozen P-38H’s had started to roll off the assembly floor and were now having their final checks and getting all of the little details added that they would need before delivery to the Army Air Force.

    Today, though, Ralph would be flying AAF serial number 42-13566 which was the last of nine P-38G-15-LO’s that Lockheed kept as testing and development planes. The airplane had been part of the P-38H development group and so had previously been upgraded to P-38H-1-LO standards but had also recently been upgraded even further.

    The modifications to meet P-38H-1-LO standards were extensive and included:
    • New Allison F-17 engines (V-1710-89/91)
    • A new War Emergency Power setting offering 60 in/Hg. of boost
    • Automated Coolant and Oil Radiator flaps
    • Automated Inter-cooler exit shutters
    • A new cabin heater and ventilation system
    • Minor improvements to the cockpit switch layouts
    • Re-designed magazine and ammunition feed for the AN/M2 machine guns
    • Removal of the spent cartridge ejection chute control from the cockpit
    • Removal of the manual gun charging handle from the cockpit
    • Combination of machine gun and cannon switches
    In addition, the airplane was set to receive a new A/N-M2C 20mm Cannon by the Army as well as new radios, which allowed Lockheed to completely remove the low band aerial antenna and its associated wires which used to run from the tops of the vertical stabilizers to a post behind the cockpit. From what Ralph had heard, these were almost always removed in combat groups anyway since the military did not use low band radio in Theater.

    The new heating and ventilation system was a great improvement over the previous models. Ralph had been involved with some of the testing several weeks prior after the order came down from the Air Corps to replace the existing system with one similar to that used in a P-39. Where the old heater system drew air through blast tubes on the upper nacelles and ran around the hot exhaust pipes to heat the air before ducts brought it under ram pressure through the center wing section to the cockpit, the new system consisted of a simple air-box placed directly behind the coolant radiators about half-way along the center wing span. The air boxes collect hot air from the radiator exit and pipe it directly into the cockpit with one vent on the cockpit floor between the rudder pedals and another vent stretching around the forward dash to blow hot air directly onto the front windshield to prevent any fogging or icing at high altitude. The engineers kept the old blast heat in place to continue providing heat to the armament compartment while the old cockpit floor heat duct was terminated in the radio compartment to reduce fogging on the rear canopy and minimize the risk of icing to the hydraulic regulator.

    Cockpit ventilation had also been improved by moving the old cold-air inlet from the left wing-root farther outboard and mirroring the setup of the right side. The new vent inlets were now integrated into the leading edge slots and consisted of three inch flaps above the coolant radiator which could drop to form a small scoop up to three inches down into the air stream. The new heating and cooling vents were controlled together by two small levers on either side of the cockpit. The lever on the left controlled the mix of hot and cold to the floor vent, while that on the right changed the airflow mixture going to the windshield vent.

    In testing at the end of March, Tony LeVier had reported flying an airplane with the new heat/vent system at 35,000 feet with an Outside Air Temperature of around -65°F (-54°C) for one hour and was able to keep the cockpit above 35°F (2°C) the entire time. At lower altitudes of between 25,000 and 30,000 feet Ralph himself was able to fly the airplane for more than two hours and maintain the cockpit at a cozy 60°F or warmer.

    Another modification, made possible by the new heating system and the removal of the old floor heat duct, was the rearranging of the trim tab control wheels to a single location on the raised center console directly between the pilot’s legs. A transverse wheel at the rear controlled aileron trim, a longitudinal wheel to the left for elevator trim, and the same turn knob front and center for rudder trim control as always.

    Not all of the desired improvements were available or ready by the time H-model production started either because of continued development or due to lagging production from the required sub-contractors; so, even though the Block-1 P-38H’s were only just starting to come off the line the production teams were already preparing for Block-5 production and were starting to test the final round of improvements for would be called Block-10.

    The Block-5 airplanes were scheduled to replace the old electrical fuses from their hard to reach locations in the nose at the rear of the armament compartment and in the forward landing gear bay with a new electrical circuit breaker system in the cockpit to the pilot’s right directly in front of the flap control lever. The breaker system had already been tested in three different configurations on airplanes #41-13563, #42-13564, and #42-13566 and the final production models were expected to use the breaker boxes and arrangement from #566.

    This new electrical system was, in turn, the pre-requisite for the improvements being worked on upstream for the planned Block-10 airplanes which would include a completely revised engine switch box including new unified energizer/mesh switches for each engine, an automatic engine primer combined with the oil-dilution switch, simplified engine master switches, and a new electro-mechanical fuel management system with automatic fuel booster pump switching.

    Ralph knew from talking with Tony LeVier that the fuel management system, in particular, would be a great improvement but from his personal experience he was more excited about the starter controls. Flying the variations of the P-38 since the old YP-38’s nearly three years prior the biggest hassle for him had always been the lack of a third hand to get the engines turning.

    Sitting down into the cockpit of the modified #566, Ralph reviewed the new controls before going through the revised pre-flight checklist and start up procedures. The most obvious visible difference is the new electric fuel control box on the lower left of the instrument panel where the old gun charging selector knob used to be and conveniently placed directly below the fuel gauges. This box was dominated by a single large four-position free-turning dial with each 90° position corresponding to a tank selection (clockwise from the 12 o’clock position): MAIN, RESERVE, EXTERNAL, and OUTER WING. Above this knob, at approximately the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock location were two small fuel level check/warning lamps; while directly below it were two Fuel Selector Override switches, one for each side.

    Looking down and to his left, next to the seat behind the landing gear lever, Ralph noted that the old manual fuel selector valves were still installed with a fifth position, CROSS-SUCTION between the MAIN and RESERVE positions. Behind these two valves was the Auxiliary Fuel Control switch box witch had the two Fuel Booster Pump Speed Control switches and a single Outer Wing Tank Low Level Check button.

    Directly in front, beyond the offset yoke and at the bottom of the instrument panel, was the Main Switch Box. The new box had been re-organized to simplify start up and basic operations. The circular Ignition circuit was more-or-less the same with a central Ignition Master switch and two individual engine ignition turn switches which control the individual magnetos on each side.

    Left of the Ignition control were the two new Fuel Pump/Dilution switches, one for each engine. These now operate by being OFF when all the way down, ON when locked in their center position, and when pressed all the way forward act as the Oil Dilution Switches which automatically return to ON when released.

    These switches were directly related to the two starter switches. Where on previous airplanes there was a switch to energize the starters and separate switch to engage the starters, with one engine being activated when the switches were down and the other when the switches were up; the new switches now each controlled their own engine. When down the starters were OFF, when pushed halfway forward they energized the starters and (so long as the Fuel Pump switches were ON) automatically primed the engine, and when forced all the way forward through a resistant stop they engaged the starters. These new switches were designed to simplify engine start and enable simultaneous startup of both engines, something that was impossible with the only starter switches.

    To the right of the starter switches was the Pitot Heat switch, the Position Lights switch, the Landing Lights switch, and finally the battery switch—all of which were simple OFF/ON type switches. Beyond this was the same Voltmeter that was installed.

    On the front of the Main Switch Box were now only six switches in three circuits and two round rheostats. Each circuit had two switches for Left and Right sides and were, from Left to Right: Oil Flap Override, Coolant Flap Override, and Intercooler Shutter Override. These each operated the exact same way and enable the pilot to manually open or close the respective flaps and exit shutters separate from the automated system installed in all H-Model airplanes. The override switches were at AUTO when centered and the automatic system could control the flaps. Moving the switch up would override the automated system fully close the respective flap or shutter and, conversely, moving the switch down would override the system and fully open the appropriate flap or shutter.

    Farther to the right, below the Voltmeter were the Cockpit light Rheostat knob and the Gunsight light Rheostat knob. There had been talk about moving the gunsight rheostat to the control column but from what Ralph understood this modification had been put on hold because there was a rumor of replacing the obtrusive off-set column with one of a different design.

    Contrary to Air Force request, the individual Generator switches were kept as they had been on the lower Instrument Panel as Lockheed test engineers had determined it is easier for the pilot to check the generator when the switch is directly below its associated Ammeter.

    After securing his harness and familiarizing himself with the fuel and starter controls, Ralph started the pre-flight checks and prepared to start the engines. He would be running this test without a battery cart, so he first switched the Battery switch up to the ON position and confirmed the Voltmeter was registering current.

    Following the new procedures, Ralph’s first job was to test that the Low Fuel Level Warning lights were functioning by pressing directly on the lights themselves and forcing them deeper into their sockets. Both lights glowed amber, which meant the bulbs were good and the warnings working.

    The next series of checks were unchanged from previous P-38 models, checking Oxygen pressure, moving the throttles ¾ of an inch open, setting propellers to INC. RPM, propeller constant speed switches to AUTO CONSTANT SPEED, propeller circuit breakers ON, and mixture was at IDLE CUTOFF for both engines. After that, Ralph checked that both oil radiator flap override switches were in AUTO, both coolant flap override switches were in AUTO, and both intercooler shutter override switches also in AUTO before switching on both generators and the inverter switch to his right.

    Since he would be flying with external Drop Tanks today as part of the fuel system tests he also turned the Bomb selector switches (with also controlled the drop tanks) ON and made sure they were SAFE just in case he needed to jettison them on takeoff due to an emergency.

    Ralph ensured the Ignition Master switch and both engine ignition switches were OFF then called out of the open canopy for the ground crew to turn over the propellers while he set about checking the new fuel system. He first moved the old manual tank selectors to the recommended RESERVE position and checked that the Booster Pump Speed Controls were both at NORMAL. He followed that with confirmation that the Fuel Selector Override switches were both in the down, OFF, position and then turned the electric fuel selector knob to the 9-o’clock OUTER-WING position and moved both Fuel/Dilution switches to ON.

    His fuel pressure gauges jumped up to hover between 6 and 8 pounds per square inch pressure, perfect. A flick of his fingers moved the Speed Control switches to EMERGENCY and the fuel pressure jumped up even farther, to about 18 pounds per square inch. After returning the speed controls to NORMAL, Ralph pressed the Outer Wing Tank Low Level Check Button and was happy to see that neither low level warning lights lit up, indicating there was at least five minutes of fuel in the tanks.

    He then repeated the fuel pressure tests for the MAIN, RESERVE, and EXTERNAL to confirm proper operation of each of the new individual booster pumps. Although there was no way to gauge the fuel level in the external tanks, the MAIN and RESERVE tanks each had their own fuel gauges so there was no need to test levels through a separate procedure as there was with the outer-wing tanks. He left the selector on RESERVE and made one final confirmation that the speed selectors were at NORMAL.

    Once he received the OK from the ground crew, he flipped on the Ignition Master Switch. Now was when he would test the new starter system and confirm that it allows both engines to start simultaneously as intended. With his left hand ready on the mixture controls, Ralph reached his right hand past the yoke, turned both Engine Ignition Switches to BOTH to equally share the load between the magnetos, and pressed both Left and Right Starter switches until he felt a resistant stop, indicating they were in the center ENER (Energize/Prime) position.

    A familiar electrical hum started from both sides and starting building into a whining crescendo. After a few seconds the crescendo peaked and Ralph forced the starter switches through the stop until they were fully forward. The electric whine dropped in pitch but with a series of short pops the propellers jerked around in a few partial revolutions before both engines sparked to life. Ralph pushed the mixtures to AUTO RICH and the comforting roar of the big V-12’s filled his ears.

    He released the starter switches, letting them spring back to their resting places, and watched the oil pressure gauges to confirm both engines were fully smooth and operational. As he let the engines warm up he made a note of the ease and success of the new startup procedure. He also took the opportunity to test his radio and hydraulic systems.

    Once the engines had warmed up sufficiently, he increased to 2300 RPM and tested the propeller controls—finding he had to fine tune the right propeller a little to synchronize it with the left. Then it was the standard magneto checks, generator tests, as well as testing the radiator flaps and intercooler shutters before throttling each engine up to take off levels briefly to confirm the turbos were working and to adjust the throttle lever friction.

    He was ready for takeoff.

    * * *

    Ralph’s flight tests today, with the starter procedure out of the way, was entirely related to fuel management. He was to test each tank through the electric control, the manual control, and to test cross-feeding between sides for all tanks, including the outer wing tanks which were now fully integrated into the main fuel tank selector valve.

    His first tests were simply to go through the four different tanks with both engines drawing from their own side. The procedures for normal operation were very easy. He simply needed to confirm the Fuel Selector Override switches were both in the down, OFF, position, then turn the single fuel tank selector dial. Doing so changes a series of actuators on both sides to open fuel flow for the the selected tank. So, with both overrides OFF, moving the one free-turning knob to RESERVE switches both engines to draw from their respective Reserve Tanks and an electrical contact automatically turns on the Reserve tank booster pumps.

    The way the engineers explained it to Ralph was that when the overrides are in the OFF position they activate the electrical circuits for the electrical fuel management systems and close a master valve actuator off the manual valve output line. The master actuator is set up so that when there is a steady low current flowing into it the valve remains closed and when the current ceases the valve automatically opens. The individual tank valve actuators--which are on bypass lines around the manual valve--are the opposite, so that their natural state is to be fully closed but when a tank is selected the valves for that tank remain open as long as there is current into the actuator. Therefore, the tank selector dial has a total of six contactors for each position—two to maintain current to the valve of the selected tank on each side, two which open the current to the fuel booster pumps on the selected tanks, and two more which connect the selected tanks to the Low Level Warning Lights above the selector knob.

    While this system means that there is a constant low electrical drain to keep the master valve closed and the selected tank valves open, it does ensure that in the event of electrical failure or even just failure of the electric fuel management system all tank valves on the bypass lines automatically close and the master opens allowing fuel to flow from the old manual valves to the pilot’s left. Likewise, moving the override switch for one side to ON interrupts the current for the entire circuit on that side which causes all associated valves to close and that side's master to open and fuel can then be managed by the manual valve.

    For the flight the airplane had been only partially fueled so Ralph could test not only the fuel tank selection but also the low level warning. This system, which was just an expansion of that put in place for the outer wing tanks in previous models, was designed to automatically ignite the Low Level Warning lights for the selected tanks on each side when there was only 5-6 minutes of fuel remaining in the tank, based on normal consumption at Maximum Cruise, or about six gallons of usable fuel. The idea was to give an obvious and visible warning to the pilot that his selected tanks were about to run dry with enough time for him to switch to a tank with more fuel. The hope was that this would dramatically reduce the number accidents resulting from fuel starvation when a pilot failed to switch tanks.

    Once the tests for normal operation were complete, Ralph start testing the ability properly draw fuel across the airplane by cross-feeding the fuel from a single tank on one side to the engine on the opposite. To do this, he first moved the tank selector dial to desired tank, then turned the manual valve for the engine which would cross-feed to the CROSS SUCTION position, then simply switch the Fuel Selector Override for the cross-feeding engine to ON.

    Ralph moved the tank selector dial to EXTERNAL and with his left hand moved the right engine manual fuel valve to CROSS SUCTION. With that set, he just reached forward and moved the right side Fuel Selector Override switch up to ON. He flew in this condition for ten minutes to confirm the cross-feed was working properly, then turned fuel selector dial from EXTERNAL to OUTER WING. The change happened without difficulty and he was relieved to discover that both engines continued run without interruption.

    He flew on the left outer wing tank for about 25 minutes before the left Low Level warning light started to glow a soft amber. Ralph then switched on to the MAIN tanks, with the right engine still in CROSS SUCTION. He made a note of when the warning light turning on—when he landed the test engineers would check the fuel remaining in the tanks and those tanks when he switched off when the light came on should each have around five gallons of fuel.

    Ralph repeated this process, draining the left MAIN tank down, before he switched the right side Fuel Selector Override back down to OFF. He ran on both MAIN tanks until the left warning light once again started to glow, it being drained before the right because of running both engines off it for a while. When the waning light turned on, he turned left manual selector valve to CROSS SUCTION and flicked the left override ON. Immediately the warning lamp turned off as fuel began to flow to the left engine from the right MAIN tank for a moment before he turned the selector dial down to EXTERNAL.

    The plane flew for a good 10 minutes on the right drop tank before Ralph once more made the switch to the OUTER WING. This time, the fuel flowed form the right wing to right engine and through the cross suction valve to the left. He flew like this for another 20 minutes before the right low level warning light began to glow and he was forced to make a switch to run both engines from the right MAIN.

    Half an hour later the right low level warning once more turned on and Ralph knew the flight testing was done. He turned the selector RESERVE, flicked the left override OFF, and turned back toward Burbank.

    * * *

    Later that day the engineers reported back the fuel levels remaining in each tank. Ralph had only run each drop tank for 10 minutes, they started with only 50 gallons each and after landing it was discovered that left tank had 31.4 gallons and the right 30.7 gallons which meant they each lost just under twenty gallons—exactly as expected for running both engines for ten minutes at 2300 RPM and 35 in/Hg. manifold pressure.

    Both MAIN tanks and both OUTER WING tanks had been run down until the low level warning light came one and they were found to have (from left to right) 5.6, 5.2, 6.1, and 5.8 gallons. The RESERVE tanks were used to fly in and were not run dry but had 14.2 gallons in the left and 12.7 gallons in the right.

    In the end, Ralph and the engineers all agreed that the test was a resounding success. If they could get the new switches and new fuel management system produced in bulk and be allowed permission to interject them into the production they could only hope these improvements could arrive to the front by mid-summer.
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