On Quora, somebody asked “Why was the P-38 never used in the European theater against the Germans?” and the reply from Nick O’Dell was particularly entertaining.
A survey of Stateside training bases in 1941 showed that 87 percent of prospective pilots requested to be assigned to the big, sleek, twin-engine Lockheed Lightning. â€œWe were in awe of the P-38,â€ said future ace Jack Ilfrey. â€œIt looked like a beautiful monster.â€ â€œIf you were a boy in America, you wanted to fly it,â€ said another future ace, Winton â€œBonesâ€ Marshall. â€œIf you played with Dinky metal toys and balsa wood airplane models, you wanted to fly it.â€ On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the P-38 captured the imagination of young Americans like no other fighter. Eighth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. James H. â€œJimmyâ€ Doolittle would later call the P-38 â€œthe sweetest-flying plane in the sky.â€
With tricycle gear, twin booms and a centerline fuselage pod brimming with guns, the P-38 was powered by two 1,600-hp Allison V-1710-111/113 liquid-cooled engines driving three-bladed, 9-foot Curtiss Electric propellers. Although a fully loaded Lightning weighed more than 10 tonsâ€”nearly twice as much as a P-51 Mustangâ€”a skilled pilot could fling the P-38 around like a lightweight. The problem was that while American pilots were generally well trained, they werenâ€™t well trained for a complex twin-engine fighter. …
The P-38 performed usefully but suffered from a number of problems. Its Allison engines consistently threw rods, swallowed valves and fouled plugs, while their intercoolers often ruptured under sustained high boost and turbocharger regulators froze, sometimes causing catastrophic failures.
Arrival of the newer P-38J to fill in behind the P-38H was supposed to help, but did not help enough. The J modelâ€™s enlarged radiators were trouble-prone. Improperly blended British fuel exacerbated the problems: Anti-knock lead compounds literally seethed out and became separated in the Allisonâ€™s induction system at extreme low temperatures. This could cause detonation and rapid engine failure, especially at the high power settings demanded for combat.
The P-38â€™s General Electric turbo-supercharger sometimes got stuck in over-boosted or under-boosted mode. This occurred mainly when the fighter was flown in the freezing cold at altitudes approaching 30,000 feet, which was the standard situation in the European air war. Another difficulty was that early P-38 versions had only one generator, and losing the associated engine meant the pilot had to rely on battery power.
In an article on Air Power Australia, Carlo Kopp noted that in their early days in the European theater, â€œMany of the P-38s assigned to escort missions were forced to abort and return to base. Most of the aborts were related to engines coming apart in flightâ€¦.[due to] intercoolers that chilled the fuel/air mixture too much. Radiators that lowered engine temps below normal operating minimums. Oil coolers that could congeal the oil to sludge. These problems could have been fixed at the squadron level. Yet, they were not.â€ …
The arrival of the improved P-38J-25 and P-38L models, modified on the production line based on lessons learned in Europe, helped, but problems remained. Lightning pilot 2nd Lt. Jim Kunkle of the 370th Fighter Group remembered: â€œThe critical problem with us was we didnâ€™t have much heat in the cockpit. On high altitude missions it was very cold. And we didnâ€™t have the engine in front of us to help keep us warm. Bomber guys had those heated blue union suits that they wore but we tried heated clothing and it didnâ€™t work for us.â€
The only source of heat in the cockpit was warm air ducted from the engines, and it was little help. Lightning pilots suffered terribly. â€œTheir hands and feet became numb with cold and in some instances frost-bitten; not infrequently a pilot was so weakened by conditions that he had to be assisted out of the cockpit upon return,â€ wrote Freeman.
Major General William Kepner, the fiery commanding general of VIII Fighter Command, wondered, as so many others did, why the P-38 wasnâ€™t producing the results everyone wanted, and what to do about it. Asked to provide a written report, 20th Fighter Group commander Colonel Harold J. Rau did so reluctantly and only because he was ordered to.
â€œAfter 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 â€˜averageâ€™ pilot,â€ wrote Rau. â€œI want to put strong emphasis on the word â€˜average,â€™ taking full consideration just how little combat training our pilots have before going on operational status.â€
Rau wrote that he was being asked to put kids fresh from flight school into P-38 cockpits and it wasnâ€™t working. He asked his boss to imagine â€œa pilot fresh out of flying school with about a total of twenty-five hours in a P-38, starting out on a combat mission.â€ Rauâ€™s young pilot was on â€œauto 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.â€ So, flying along in this condition, wrote Rau, the kid suddenly gets bounced by German fighters. Now he wonders what to do next.
â€œHe must turn, he must increase power and get rid of those external tanks and get on his main [fuel tank],â€ Rau wrote. â€œSo, 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.â€ To future generations this would be called multi-tasking, and it was not what you wanted to be doing when Luftwaffe fighters were pouring down on you.
â€œAt this point, he has probably been shot down,â€ Rau noted, â€œor 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.â€