The Planes of Fame 2013 Air Show in Chino, California was a special one this year. 5 Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft from the World War Two period flew together at the show. There are only 7 P-38’s flying in the world today (6 in the USA and 1 in Europe – unfortunately the 6th US one could not make it), so for the past 60 years this has been a very rare event to see this many flying together!
The flying P-38 aircraft involved were Planes of Fame museum’s P-38J “23 Skidoo“, Allied Fighters P-38L “Honey Bunny”, Tom and Dan Freidkin’s P-38L “Thoughts of Midnite”, Tillamook Air Museum’s P-38L “Tangerine” and P-38F “Glacier Girl” owned by Rod Lewis (this one has an amazing history, it had to belly land on Greenland in 1942 where it was abandoned. 50 years later in 1992 it was recovered from deep ice 268 feet thick and returned to the US where it was restored to flight status in 2002). The Yanks Air Museum of Chino also had their photo recon F-5G-6-LO Lightning (P-38L) on static display to round out the “Lightning Strikes” theme of Planes of Fame 2013.
I went to the Saturday flying display. It was a warm sunny day but quite windy. Earlier in the day 2 of the P-38’s performed a USAF Heritage Flight display. Normally this would be done with a historic and modern day fighter, but due to budget cuts this wasn’t going to happen this year.
Later in the day all 5 P-38’s took off and circled around the air field to form up. They seemed to have some difficulty in staying in formation though (probably from the windy conditions) and in the end we didn’t get to see them fly past the air show display line in mass formation.
Despite this problem with formation flying, each one did a number of very low flypasts one after the other which was really cool to see. It was great to be able to see so many of these aircraft together again.
Later that afternoon following the air show it seems the air show organisers arranged a formation photo shoot of all 5 P-38’s.
The P-38 was a long-range heavy fighter used for interception, close air support and bomber escort duties in the European, North African and Pacific theatres during World War Two (there were also reconnaissance versions, one of which was on static display at the show too). The Lightning proved to be very successful in all roles and was in production for the entire period of the US involvement in World War Two.
The design of the aircraft by Lockheed began in 1937 in response to an Army Air Corps specification requirement. Following the winning design a prototype XP-38 first flew in 1939 setting an air speed record of seven hours and two minutes from California to New York. Unfortunately it crashed on this flight(!) but the speed of the aircraft was enough to demonstrate it capability and an initial order was placed for 13 aircraft (designated YP-38), all of which were introduced into service in 1941.
The Lockheed design team responsible for the P-38 was led by the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson (1910 – 1990). His design team would later develop a string of successful aircraft for military and civilian purposes including the revolutionary Constellation passenger liner which changed the face of long distance air travel (first introduced in 1943 for military use and then in 1945 for TWA Airlines), P-80 Shooting Star (in 1945 the P-80 became the first operational jet fighter used by the United States Army Air Forces) and the famous U-2 (introduced 1957 and later variants are still in use today) and SR-71 Blackbird (introduced in 1966, retired 1998) spy planes.
With the advent of the Japanese declaring war on the Allied nations and the success of the aircraft, P-38 production continued through numerous variants and improvements until 1945. At war’s end over 10,000 Lightnings had been built. Interestingly they were all built just 45 minutes away from Chino in Burbank, California. By 1950 all variants of the P-38 had been retired from USAF service (by then they were designated as an F-38).
Apart from setting speed records and offering fantastic performance with a maximum speed of 666 kmh/ 414 mph, the P-38 was a formidable aircraft armed with a 20mm cannon and 4 x 0.50 calibre machine guns in its nose and could also carry bombs and rockets. The P-38 became one of the most successful aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces during World War Two.
Dubbed the “Der Gabelschwanz Teufel” (“Forked Tail Devil“) by German pilots the P-38 was credited with sharing the first air to air kill of a German aircraft by US Forces on August 14th, 1942 and went on to be a major contributor in establishing Allied air superiority over Europe. In the Pacific theatre the P-38 was credited with more air to air kills of Japanese aircraft than any other type and was the aircraft used by the United States Army Air Forces top aces Richard Bong (40 victories) and Thomas McGuire (38 victories).
The P-38 also took part in one of the most famous missions in the Pacific known as “Operation Vengeance“. On April 14th , 1943 Japanese communications had been intercepted indicating that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Fleet was going to be flying from Rabaul, New Guinea on an inspection tour on April 18th. He was seen as the principal architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and a major influence on Japanese strategy. Hence the codename “Operation Vengeance“.
This was an opportunity too good to ignore but the problem was the attack needed to be kept secret to avoid the US aircraft being detected early and Yamamoto being able to get away. To do this the aircraft needed to fly a long way from enemy air space before intercepting his plane near Bougainville. The P-38G fitted with drop tanks was ideal for such a long-range mission and 16 of them from the 339th Fighter Squadron set off from Guadalcanal flying no higher than 50 feet in complete radio silence. They intercepted Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber along with another carrying his chief of staff and six escort Mistubishi Zero fighters at around 9:30am on April 18th, 1943. A group of P-38’s took on the fighters while others took on the bombers, both G4M’s were shot down for the loss of only one P-38. An important leader in the Japanese military was negated that day and the success of the P-38 was proven once again. It is fantastic to be able to see this aircraft still flying 70 years later so close to where they were once built.