Prototype. 1 Built.

Lockheed XP-38 Lightning
Lockheed XP-38 prototype.

Evaluation aircraft. 13 Built

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0017465
[Source: USAF Photo]

Initial production aircraft. 30 Built.

Single aircraft fitted with Pressurized cockpit

Delivered and accepted Lightning production variants began with the P38-D model. There were no Bs or Cs delivered to the government as the USAAF allocated the 'D' suffix to all aircraft with self-sealing fuel tanks, armored windshield and armor. 36 aircraft.

The first combat-capable Lightning was the P-38E (and its photo-recon variant the F-4) which featured improved instruments, electrical, and hydraulic systems. Part-way through production, the older Hamilton Standard Hydromatic hollow steel propellers were replaced by new Curtiss Electric duraluminum propellers. The definitive (and now famous) armament configuration was settled upon, featuring four .50 in machine guns with 500 rpg, and a 20 mm Hispano autocannon with 150 rounds.

While the machine guns had been arranged symmetrically in the nose on the P-38D, they were "staggered" in the P-38E and later versions, with the muzzles protruding from the nose in the relative lengths of roughly 1:4:6:2. This was done to ensure a straight ammunition-belt feed into the weapons, as the earlier arrangement led to jamming.

The first P-38E rolled out of the factory in October 1941 as the Battle of Moscow filled the news wires of the world. Because of the versatility, redundant engines, and especially high speed and high altitude characteristics of the aircraft, as with later variants over a hundred P-38Es were completed in the factory or converted in the field to a photo-reconnaissance variant, the F-4, in which the guns were replaced by four cameras. Most of these early reconnaissance Lightnings were retained stateside for training, but the F-4 was the first Lightning to be used in action in April 1942. 210 aircraft built.

Reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38E. 100+ built

Model 322
RAF order: twin right-hand props and no turbo. 3 built.

USAAF trainers. 147 built

Starting in April 1942, the P-38F started to leave the production lines, which incorporated racks inboard of the engines for fuel tanks or a total of 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs. Early variants did not enjoy a high reputation for maneuverability, though they could be agile at low altitudes if flown by a capable pilot, using the P-38's forgiving stall characteristics to their best advantage. From the P-38F-15 model onwards, a "combat maneuver" setting was added to the P-38's Fowler flaps. When deployed at the 8° maneuver setting, the flaps allowed the P-38 to out-turn many contemporary single-engined fighters at the cost of some added drag. However, early variants were hampered by high aileron control forces and a low initial rate of roll, and all such features required a pilot to gain experience with the aircraft, which in part was an additional reason Lockheed sent its representative to England, and later to the Pacific Theater.

The aircraft was still experiencing extensive teething troubles as well as being victimized by "urban legends", mostly involving inapplicable twin engine factors which had been designed out of the aircraft by Lockheed. In addition to these, the early versions had a reputation as a "widow maker" as it could enter an unrecoverable dive due to a sonic surface effect at high sub-sonic speeds. The 527 P-38Fs were heavier, with more powerful engines that used more fuel, and were unpopular in the air war in Northern Europe. Since the heavier engines were having reliability problems and with them, without external fuel tanks, the range of the P-38F was reduced, and since drop tanks themselves were in short supply as the fortunes in the Battle of the Atlantic had not yet swung the Allies' way, the aircraft became relatively unpopular in minds of the bomber command planning staffs despite being the longest ranged fighter first available to the 8th Air Force in sufficient numbers for long range escort duties.

Reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38F. 20 built

Improved P-38F fighter. 1,082 built

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0016786
P-38G Lightning of the 54th Fighter Squardon/11th Air Force.
[Source: Jack Cook Collection via the Warbird Information eXchange]

Reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38G. 180 built.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0016791
F-5A of the 90th Recon Wing on ground in North Africa.
[Source: Jack Cook Collection via the Warbird Information eXchange]

Single airframe converted from a F-5A.

Automatic cooling system; Improved P-38G fighter.601 built.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0017464
P-38H of the AAF Tactical Center, Orlando Army Air Base, FL,
carrying two 1,000 lb bombs during capability tests in March 1944.

[Source: USAF Photo]

based on P-38H. 123 built.

new cooling and electrical systems. 2,970 built

Reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38J. 200 built

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0001098
F-5B Lightning.
[Source: USAF]

P-38J/L conversion. 605 built.

Single airframe. Modified from a P-38G-10-LO (42-13558) by fitting more powerful 1425 hp V-1710-75/77 (V-1710F-15) engines, rated at over 1875 hp war emergency power. This required redesigning the cowlings and making them similar to those used on the P-38J. Propellors with broader-chord were fitted, necessitating the need to increase the diameter of the spinners, which in turn changed the shape of the cowling lines and the interface at the oil cooler/intercooler inlet.

Tests of the P-38K were carried out between February 24 and April 30, 1943. The performance of the P-38K was quite a bit better than that of the production P-38J--in fact its performance was superior to all other American fighters then in production. Maximum speed at 29,600 feet was 432 mph an at 40,000 feet, the P-38K was 40 mph faster than that of the P-38J. It was projected that top speed at war emergency power could be in the 450 mph range. The P-38K's initial rate of climb was 4800 feet per minute, allowing a climb to 20,000 feet in approximately five minutes. Service ceiling was projected to be above 48,000 feet. The aircrafts range was projected to show a 10-15% increase.

While clearly superios to the P-38J in many regards, the intense pace of production meant that the War Production Board was unwilling to allow even a short production suspension in order to rETOol for the required changes to the engine cowling. As a result, the P-38K remained a singular model.

Improved P-38J with new engines and new rocket pylons. 3,810 built

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0010414
P-38L Lightning of the 70th Fighter Squadron, Phillipine Islands, 1945.
[Source: Jack Cook Collection via the Warbird Information eXchange]

113 P-38L Lightnings built by Vultee

Reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38L

Night-fighter, 75 built

Lockheed P-38 Lightning WRG# 0017472
Lockheed P-38M Night Lightning (44-27234 c/n 422-8238).
[Source: USAF Photo]

Reconnaissance aircraft

The Complete Encyclodepia of World Aircraft, 1997, Barnes & Nobles Books, ISBN: 0 7607 0592 5
Green, William - War Planes Of The Second World War - Fighters - Vol. 4, 1964, Doubleday And Company, Inc., New York
AN 01-75-1, Pilot's Flight Operating Instructions for Army Models P-38H Series, P-38J Series, P-38-L1 and F-5B Airplanes