The striking appearance and high performance of the U.S. Army’s Lockheed P–38 Lightning made a powerful first impression.
It used liquid-cooled engines, but its twin Allison V–12s made you feel a lot better about flying long distances over water.
Twin-engine reliability and long range were big assets, particularly in the Pacific theater, where the top-scoring American aces, including Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, were flying it to record numbers of victories. Its counter-rotating propellers neutralized torque effects and made the P–38 a smooth aircraft to fly.
Heavy firepower concentrated in the nose, and modern tricycle landing gear, also made the P–38 popular with pilots. Big, heavy, and fast, the Lightning could out-dive any fighter except the P–47 Thunderbolt, but a long, fast dive from high altitude could cause its twin tail booms to oscillate. Unchecked, the booms could break. You had to limit your dive speed, or auger in.
The P–38’s size and weight meant that it couldn’t turn with more nimble fighters, but they combined with its twin-engine power to give the Lightning an excellent zoom climb. Pilots had to keep their speed at 300 mph or better to slam this big, impressive bird through enemy formations, then climb away from Zeros and Oscars to make another diving pass. If you get low and slow with a Zero or Oscar, the folks back home will be getting a telegram from Uncle Sam.
Big, fast, and well-armed, the Lightning is also heavy and slow-turning. Speed and altitude are life to the P–38 pilot. Don’t try to out-turn the enemy in low-and-slow mode.
Use the P–38’s weight, power, and diving qualities to dictate the terms of engagement with “Boom and Zoom” tactics. Attack from above, engage at more than 300 mph, slash through the enemy formation with guns blazing, and then zoom back up in a shallow climb, at a rate the enemy can’t match.
Don’t dogfight against more nimble adversaries; they’ll out-turn you every time, especially at low to medium speeds and altitudes.
The P–38 can out-dive enemy fighters, so dive away from trouble if you have to
—but don’t do this from extreme altitude. You may risk locking up your control surfaces and not be able to pull out of the dive.