Prime Student 6-month Trial

Der Gabelschwanz Teufel
Part Two

By Carlo Kopp

Text and Diagrams 1992, 1999 Carlo Kopp, 1999 Corey C. Jordan

Arthur Heiden photo

Perhaps the best critique of the ETO record of the P-38 is that by former 20th FG Capt. Arthur Heiden, who flew the P-38 during the Spring of 1944, in the company of better known pilots such as Jack Ilfrey, and Ernest Fiebelkorn, later instructed on the P-38 and P-51, and after the war went on to log in excess of 25,000 hrs of flying time:

"The quality of multi-engine training during World War II bordered on the ridiculous. I am convinced that with training methods now in use we could take most of civilian private pilots who might be about to fly the Aztec or Cessna 310, and in ten hours, have a more confident pilot than the ones who flew off to war in the P-38. A P-38 pilot usually got his training in two ways. The first way, of course, was twin-engine advanced training in Curtiss AT-9s, which had the unhappy feature of having propellers you couldn't feather. After sixty hours of this, the student received ten hours of AT-6 gunnery, although he might get his gunnery training in the AT-9, since AT-6s were in short supply."

"At this point he had his chance to fly the RP-322 for another twenty hours. The 322, as you know, was the British version of the airplane, and they came with assorted equipment and things on them that nobody could predict. Upon graduation from the RP-322 he was assigned to a P-38 Replacement Training Unit (RTU) or an Operational Training Unit (OTU) for 100 hours or more of fighter training. A second way to get into the P-38 was to transition from single engine fighters. In this event, someone probably took him up in a multi-engine transport or bomber and demonstrated engine shutdown a couple of times after skimming the tech order, a blindfold check, and then Ignoring the check list (not for real fighter pilots!), he blasted off. More than one neophyte has described his first "launch" in a P-38 as being hit in the ass with a snow shovel."

"Either method of training, probably, made little difference as neither guy knew that much about multi-engine operations and procedures. True, he had been warned about the magic number of 120 miles per hour his Vme (editor:Vmca) or single-engine control speed. He had swam in glue during a couple of prop featherings while in formation with his instructor. He was, also, warned never to turn into a dead engine, never put down the gear until he had made the field, and never to go around with one caged. That was about it until shortly thereafter the old Allison time bomb blew up, and he was in business the hard way. Right on takeoff. "Some people lucked out if the runway was long enough. Some overshot or undershot and they bent the whole thing. Some tried a single-engine go-around anyway, usually with horrible results. Such happenings would make a son of a bitch out of any saint."

"Tony Levier's spectacular demonstrations were an attempt to rectify all these problems, but the damage had been done. The Air Corps, as far as I knew, never did change its pilot training."

"For perspective, it must also be remembered that two other significant events had taken place in training (in England). Theater indoctrination at Goxhill in England had received the same overhaul that had occurred in the States. The most important of all may have been the training units set up by the combat organizations themselves. Here it was possible to up-date training to the latest information and for individual commanders to put their special stamp on things and develop new tactics. "But and this is giant towering BUT this was all for the P-51 pilots."

"What would have happened if the P-38 pilots and their units could have been blessed with the same wonderful opportunity?"

For context, we present a previously unpublished letter from the Commanding Officer of the 20th Fighter Group, to the 8th Air Force Headquarters. The letter spells out the problems faced by the P-38 Groups in clear, unambiguous terms.

20th Fighter Group Headquarters
APO 637 U.S. Army

3 June 1944

Subject: P-38 Airplane in Combat.

To: Commanding General, VIII Fighter Command, APO 637, U.S. Army.

1. The following observations are being put in writing by the undersigned at the request of the Commanding General, VII FC. They are intended purely as constructive criticism and are intended in any way to "low rate" our present equipment.

2. After flying the P-38 for a little over one hundred hours on combat missions it is my belief that the airplane, as it stands now, is too complicated for the 'average' pilot. I want to put strong emphasis on the word 'average, taking full consideration just how little combat training our pilots have before going on as operational status.

3. As a typical case to demonstrate my point, let us assume that we have a pilot fresh out of flying school with about a total of twenty-five hours in a P-38, starting out on a combat mission. He is on a deep ramrod, penetration and target support to maximum endurance. He is cruising along with his power set at maximum economy. He is pulling 31" Hg and 2100 RPM. He is auto lean and running on external tanks. His gun heater is off to relieve the load on his generator, which frequently gives out (under sustained heavy load). His sight is off to save burning out the bulb. His combat switch may or may not be on. Flying along in this condition, he suddenly gets "bounced", what to do flashes through his mind. He must turn, he must increase power and get rid of those external tanks and get on his main. So, he reaches down and turns two stiff, difficult gas switches {valves} to main - turns on his drop tank switches, presses his release button, puts the mixture to auto rich (two separate and clumsy operations), increases his RPM, increases his manifold pressure, turns on his gun heater switch (which he must feel for and cannot possibly see), turns on his combat switch and he is ready to fight. At this point, he has probably been shot down or he has done one of several things wrong. Most common error is to push the throttles wide open before increasing RPM. This causes detonation and subsequent engine failure. Or, he forgets to switch back to auto rich, and gets excessive cylinder head temperature with subsequent engine failure.

4. In my limited experience with a P-38 group, we have lost as least four (4) pilots, who when bounced, took no immediate evasive action. The logical assumption is that they were so busy in the cockpit, trying to get organized that they were shot down before they could get going.

5. The question that arises is, what are you going to do about it? It is standard procedure for the group leader to call, five minutes before R/V and tell all the pilots to "prepare for trouble". This is the signal for everyone to get into auto rich, turn drop tank switches on, gun heaters on, combat and sight switches on and to increase RPM and manifold pressure to maximum cruise. This procedure, however, does not help the pilot who is bounced on the way in and who is trying to conserve his gasoline and equipment for the escort job ahead.

6. What is the answer to these difficulties? During the past several weeks we have been visited at this station time and time again by Lockheed representatives, Allison representatives and high ranking Army personnel connected with these two companies. They all ask about our troubles and then proceed to tell us about the marvelous mechanisms that they have devised to overcome these troubles that the Air Force has turned down as "unnecessary". Chief among these is a unit power control, incorporating an automatic manifold pressure regulator, which will control power, RPM and mixture by use of a single lever. It is obvious that there is a crying need for a device like that in combat.

7. It is easy to understand why test pilots, who have never been in combat, cannot readily appreciate what each split second means when a "bounce" occurs. Every last motion when you get bounced is just another nail in your coffin. Any device which would eliminate any of the enumerated above, are obviously very necessary to make the P-38 a really effective combat airplane.

8. It is also felt that that much could done to simplify the gas switching system in this airplane. The switches {valve selector handles} are all in awkward positions and extremely hard to turn. The toggle switches for outboard tanks are almost impossible to operate with gloves on.

9. My personal feeling about this airplane is that it is a fine piece of equipment, and if properly handled, takes a back seat for nothing that the enemy can produce. But it does need simplifying to bring it within the capabilities of the 'average' pilot. I believe that pilots like Colonel Ben Kelsey and Colonel Cass Huff are among the finest pilots in the world today. But I also believe that it is difficult for men like them to place their thinking and ability on the level of a youngster with a bare 25 hours in the airplane, going into his first combat. That is the sort of thinking that will have to be done, in my opinion, to make the P-38 a first-class all around fighting airplane.

Colonel, Air Corps,

Captain Stan Richardson of the 55th Fighter Group recalls some of his experiences as an instructor (before his tour with the 55th) at a stateside RTU.

The airplane was a "dream" on single-engine. While I was instructing in P-38's at Muroc AAF, on occasion the instructor and three students (four ship flight) would each feather the right propeller (remember, only a single generator, and that on the left engine) for a "tail chase" which included loops, slow and barrel rolls, and just generally having a good time. The exercise was to instill confidence in the pilots ability to control the aircraft on one engine. My area of "expertise" while instructing at Muroc was single-engine demo's in a piggyback P-38. Take-off on two engines, feather the right engine shortly after take-off. Climb to 10,000'. Demonstrate various emergency procedures (landing gear and flap extension), propeller operation in fixed pitch (simulating electrical failure), high speed stalls, a loop, a roll or two, then return to the airfield for landing on one engine. Make a typical fighter approach on the deck, pitch out, drop the landing gear, then some flaps, finally full flaps and plunk it onto the runway.

For a short period in my life flying P-38's I had as much time on one engine as I did on two. Keep in mind that most of my P-38 flying occurred just after my 20th birthday. Some of my P-38 combat time was while I was a 20 year old snot-nosed kid. No brains, lotsa luck. Gad! I love that bird.....

It was a dandy flying machine in instrument conditions associated with poor weather. I had to return once from Berlin on one engine. No problem."

Capt. Heiden went on to discuss some of the problems inherent with high altitude escort missions over Europe. He points out that all the combat instructors who gained their experience in Africa or in the Pacific, had done the vast majority of their combat flying below 20,000 feet. Therefore, new pilots were trained to fly the P-38 at altitudes below that height. Very few pilots had flown the Lightning at the altitudes required by 8th Air Force mission profiles and were loath to do so. Many of the P-38 trained pilots arriving in Britain requested assignment to the 9th Air Force in order to fly at lower levels where they had both experience and confidence in the ability of the airplane to do the job. Nonetheless, the high priority given to providing escort fighters determined that nearly all the incoming pilots were destined for the 8th. Most P-38 pilots were completely unprepared for high altitude operations nor the technical problems involved.

Capt. Heiden continues:

"These new pilots made their attempts to go to altitude. This is what the curriculum called for and they gave it their best, but those early airplanes, the way they were set up, just wouldn't make it. There were disastrous incidents of ignition breakdown because of high-tension leakage. The oxygen systems were woefully inadequate. This is what they put into the airplane and the pilot in the cockpit was stuck with he had. It just wouldn't do the job. No one liked 30,000 feet anyway. There had been no training for it. There had never been any need for it. It was too cold and the windows frosted up."

"All this piled up on the 8th Air Force pilots, but there they were at 30,000 feet plus and sixty below zero. It was miserable."

"Then things really started to come apart. Now, suddenly, turbochargers were running away. They were blowing up engines on the basis of one engine blow up every seven hours. Intercoolers were separating the lead from the fuel and the result was lowered octane. Hands and feet were freezing; pilots were calling their airplanes airborne ice wagons and they were right. Frost on the windows got thicker than ever. Most disgusting of all was the leisurely way the German fighters made their get-aways straight down."

"Another problem seldom mentioned was the single generator problem. If a generator was lost or a low battery the Curtis Electric prop would lose the Dynamic Brake and go to extreme Low Pitch. This was called a RUN AWAY. It could happen on Take Off with a low battery. Since you couldn't feather it set up a lot of drag making it difficult to make it around to land. The Killer situation was to lose the Generator or lose the engine with the Generator on it while 2 or 3hrs into Germany. Procedure was to SET the Props then turn off all electrical power. Then momentarily turn it back on to reset the props as needed. Being sure everything electrical was also turned off -- No Radios. The forgotten thing was you were at altitude and the OAT was -60degrees and the little old battery was cold soaked. Hence, dead as a dog. Result, with a lot of altitude you have less than an hour with one or two props in RUNAWAY.

I have no statistics to back me up on this, but believe, that more P-38s were lost from this than any other factor including combat. This simple problem did not receive attention until April, '44."

"This leads us to another vague fact. This is the need of boost pumps to maintain fuel pressure to the engines at around 20,000' and above. No boost pumps, a pilot will need to get down to 20K or below, and if he needs more than cruise power he will have to get way down low."

"My only experience in these problems, was of course the runaway prop, and once when the boost pump circuit breakers popped while we were engaged with some 109s. So there I was holding in the circuit breakers with my right hand while flying with my left, hoping to get to a lower altitude before something burned up."

Original photo - W.M. Bodie

"P-38 units from the moment of going on initial operational status were committed to MAX EFFORT. No two ways about it. No time to shake things out, to discover your problems. You got there and zap, you were in up to your eyeballs. This meant that everything flyable went and everything that still had wings would be made flyable. No matter what. This in effect was the same as demanding, by direct order, that everyone and everything must have, immediately if not sooner, 100 percent combat capabilities. Like Casey Jones, the pressure was all the way up without any margins whatsoever."

"Despite these revolting developments, the pilots of the 8th knew that the P-38 could outturn, outclimb, outrun and outfight anybody's airplane in the air so they set about rectifying their problems."

"Every one of these problems was solved with the introduction of the P-38L."

"Let me repeat this again and again. It can never be emphasized too strongly. It makes up the Gospel Word. The P-38L. Now there was the airplane."

"Nothing, to these pilots, after the hard winter of 1943-44 could be more beautiful than a P-38L outrolling and tailgating a German fighter straight down, following a spin or split-S or whatever gyration a startled, panicked and doomed German might attempt to initiate. You just couldn't get away from the P-38L. Whatever the German could do, the American in the P-38L could do better." (cited from [8] with permission from Arthur W. Heiden).

Captain Stan Richardson comments on the slow initial roll rate of the early P-38H and J models deployed with the 8th Air Force.

"The P-38 was a large fighter with much mass. 52' wingspan and long, wide-chord ailerons contributed to slow response along the longitudinal axis of the early airplanes. The higher the indicated airspeed, the slower the response. At very high IAS it took plenty of muscle to roll the airplane. I don't believe that a joystick would have improved matters over the wheel. The Luftwaffe soon recognized the slow roll rate of the "H" and early "J" model Lightnings and used it to their advantage. It also learned of the dive restrictions caused by "compressibility" and used that advantage also.

Sometime in the development of the P-38, the design engineers must have realized that P-38's didn't have great roll capability. When Tony Levier, Lockheed test pilot, visited the 55th FG, he heard a common thread of complaints from the pilots. Cold cockpit, poor "flick" roll rate, and inability to dive after the Bf-109's and FW-190's from high altitude.

The complaints were relayed to the Lockheed factory, and design changes were incorporated in the P-38L. Prior to the arrival of the "L's" at Wormingford, many modification kits were shipped to Langford Lodge, North Ireland, for field modifications of the "J" model Lightning then arriving in the theater. Unfortunately, an early shipment aboard a DC-4 was lost at sea when the Brits shot the cargo plane from the sky. It took several months to replace the lost modification kits. Early P-38J-5-LO's were modified at Langford Lodge by the addition of the replacement kits. The kits added dive recovery flaps under the wings, outboard of the engines, and a 3000psi hydraulically boosted aileron system. The P-38L's were now coming down the production line with the aileron boost and "speed boards" installed.

P-38's from the J-25's onward were what we should have had when we went operational in October 1943. The compressibility problem of the P-38 was also experienced by P-47 Thunderbolts, and was not a mystery to aeronautical design engineers.

The P-38J25-LO and P-38L's were terrific. Roll Rate? Ha! Nothing would roll faster. The dive recovery flaps ameliorated the "compressibility" (Mach limitation) of earlier Lightnings. An added benefit of the dive recovery flaps was their ability to pitch the nose 10-20 degrees "up" momentarily when trying to out turn the Luftwaffe's best, even when using the flap combat position on the selector. Of course the nose "pitch-up" resulted in increased aerodynamic drag, and must be used cautiously. High speed is generally preferred over low speed in combat situations. Properly flown, the Fowler flaps of the P-38 allowed very tight turning radius."

Arthur Heiden observed first-hand how tight a well flown P-38 could turn.

"I remember an amusing incident, Apr '44. We had run into a real mess and the Luftwafe was bouncing everybody. My flight had just been bounced, did the break, and the Luftwaffe kept on going. While I was on guard, I saw this other flight get bounced. While the rest of that flight did a halfhearted break, old tail-end Charlie's P-38 emitted a cloud of exhaust smoke (thought he had been hit), saw his nose come up and wrap up his turn. Before I could think, old #4 was in the lead of that flight. Impressed the hell out of me. Turned out to have been Fiebelkorn -- he was off to a good start."

The decision to replace the P-38J in the 8th AF with the P-51, rather than the P-38L, meant that the 8th never got to exploit the full performance and combat potential of the P-38.

Capt. Heiden makes some further interesting observations.

"The P-51 was a new airplane and we were eager to fly it and were happy with it. It was so easy and comfortable to fly. The P-38 had kept us on our toes and constantly busy--far more critical to fly. You never could relax with it. We were disappointed with the 51's rate of climb and concerned with the reverse stick, especially if fuel was in the fuselage tank, the rash of rough engines from fouled plugs, and cracked heads which dumped the coolant. With the 38 you could be at altitude before landfall over the continent, but with the 51 you still had a lot of climbing yet to do. The 38 was an interceptor and if both engines (were healthy), you could outclimb any other airplane, and that's what wins dog fights. When you are in a dog fight below tree tops, it is way more comfortable in a 38 with its power and stall characteristics and, for that matter at any altitude."

To summarise the performance of the P-38 in the 8th AF, Capt Heiden notes:

"Aug 43, 8thAF has retrieved some Bomber Gps and has several original Spitfire/P-47 FGs. Two P-38 FGs, 1-P-51 FG that will not be operational till late Oct and have to workout tactics and maintenance problems, which all are severe. Highly inadequate supply of A/C."

"Nov. 43, P-38Hs and P-51Bs beginning ops, find themselves in a climate environment none had experienced before and a superior opponent with 10 times the numbers. Forced to take the bombers to, over and withdraw them. Lucky to get half of what they had to the target after aborts/early returns. Sometimes as few as four fighters made it to target under attack continuously going and coming. Five minutes of METO power was planned into the profile. Meaning that if you fought over five minutes you wouldn't make it home. Remember, you were being bounced continuously."

"Feb 11, 44, 357thFG goes on Ops (P-51). 4thFG converts to P-51s. 2-weeks later and other groups are converting by end of Feb. Now fighter groups don't have to go the whole to, over, and from target. The escort is now Penetration, Target, and Withdrawal, each leg is assigned to only one FG. and many operational problems are being resolved. Internal fuel on P-38s has been greatly increased with Wing and Leading edge tanks. P-47s are starting to get external fuel tanks."

"The last half of 43 brought horrendous losses, had forced German manufacturing underground and had forced Germany to go to synthetic oil. This had increased the cost of war exponentially to the Germans."

"Feb 44 we went back to Schwienfurt with acceptable loses. March 3rd the 20th & 55thFGs went to Berlin--Bombers were recalled. March, April, and May brought vicious battles, often with heavy loses. However, Germany were throwing their valuable flight instructors and 100hr students in to the battle. The Luftwaffe was at last starting to die."

"The 8th was, at last, being flooded with Mustangs and well trained pilots. The Mustang was a delight to fly, easier to maintain cheaper to build and train pilots for, and had long legs. In those respects you can rightfully call it better, but it could not do anything better than a P-38J-25 or L. Just remember who took the war to the enemy and held on under inconceivable odds. Enough of the crap."

P-38, P-47, P-51 deployments with 8th AF

The Best of the Breed - the P-38J and L

The P-38J resolved the intercooler efficiency problems of the earlier subtypes via the use of a core type intercooler in the forward nacelle chin. While prototypes were being tested in early 1943, P-38H production continued. The new nacelle chin provided increased oil cooling capacity, and automatic control of the intercooler vent, resulting in the full availability of the 1,600 HP War Emergency rating of the F-17 powerplant. Other design changes were introduced, including enlarged glycol radiators in the tail booms, in later build aircraft additional outboard leading edge tanks, and two major control system changes. These were hydraulically boosted ailerons which decreased control forces by a factor of six, and electrically actuated dive flaps under the wings which cured the dive compressibility problems.  The latter were fitted standard from the P-38J-25-LO, sadly almost all retrofit kits intended for earlier P-38J subtypes were lost in a friendly fire incident in early 1944, thereby delaying the introduction of this important modification to theatre units by several months. Curiously, the modification entered production as a kit in late 1943, yet was not incorporated into production aircraft for another six months, until the P-38J-25-LO, although some P-38J-10/15-LO aircraft were retrofitted in the field.

In addition, the windscreen was changed to flat armour glass plate, the control wheel was changed and proper cockpit heating and defrosting fitted. Although the heating and defrosting problems were not fully cured until the arrival of the P-38J-25-LO, which was nearly identical to the penultimate P-38L. The electrical fuses were replaced with breakers allowing the pilot to reset the breaker in flight rather than suffer the loss of a system.

Go To Der Gabelschwanz Teufel: Part 3

Return To Planes and Pilots of WW2 Main Page