May 19-20, 2007
Aviation Flying History Report
Story and photos by: Jim Dunn
Planes of Fame Air Museum P-38 Lightning "23-Skidoo"
the most recognizable American fighter aircraft ever
built is Lockheed's famous twin-engined P-38
Lightning. Fighting in every theater in World War II
it earned the title of "Der Gabelschwanz Teufel"-
the fork-tailed devil from Luftwaffe pilots that had
the misfortune to tangle with a Lightning.
Designed by a team headed by Clarence L. "Kelly"
Johnson, who would later create the U-2 and SR-71
spyplanes, the XP-38 made its first flight on
January 29, 1939 from March Field in Riverside,
California. Though it was
beyond repair in a crash on February 11, 1939 the
Air Corps saw enough to order 13 YP-38s as service
test aircraft in April 1939.
Full production orders soon followed with the 1st
Pursuit Group at Selfridge Field, Michigan becoming
the first unit to operate P-38s and P-38Ds in late
spring 1941. These early Lightnings were armed with
a 37mm cannon with a 15 round magazine and four .50
caliber machine guns, but they were not the combat
ready version needed for the upcoming conflict.
The first model to be deemed combat ready was the P-38F
which had a 20mm cannon with a 150 round magazine to
replace the 37mm cannon. Power for the P-38F came
from two Allison V-1710-49/-53 engines that were
each rated at 1,325 hp.
was in August 1942 that the Lightning would achieve
its first kill of the war, and also a share of the
first victory for the USAAF over a Luftwaffe
aircraft. On August 4th Lt. K. Ambrose and Lt. S.A.
Long of the 54th FS at Umnak Island in the Aleutians
each shot down two four-engined Japanese flying
boats with their modified P-38Es; while on August
14th 2nd Lt. E. Shaham in a P-38F of the Iceland
based 27th FS shared the kill of a FW-200C with a
33rd FS P-40C.
than a year later on April 18, 1943 a group of 16 P-38F
and Gs would conduct one of the most famous fighter
missions of the war. Led by Maj. John Mitchell of
the 339th FS they flew a 435 mile low-level mission
from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to ambush
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. With precise
navigation and timing they shot down the two
transports and five fighter escorts over Shortland
Island with the loss of only one P-38.
the course of the war the P-38 would demonstrate its
value time and again. Besides being a great
long-range daylight fighter it was also the best
night fighter and photo-reconnaissance aircraft in
the USAAF, as well as being able to carry a bomb
load heavier than the standard load of a B-17 or
B-24 heavy bomber.
may be the greatest testimonial to the Lightning is
the fact that America's top two fighter aces of all
time achieved all of their victories exclusively
flying the P-38. Major Richard Bong of the 9th FS
49th FG ended his combat career in December 1944
with a total of 40 kills, while Captain Thomas
McGuire in the 431st FS 475th FG was lost just as he
was resuming combat with 38 kills already on the
in the Pacific with the 475th FG was Capt. Perry J.
Dahl flying his P-38J "23 Skidoo" in the 432nd FS.
The native of Tumwater, Washington scored his ninth
and final kill on March 28, 1945 after earlier
surviving a mid-air collision with a Japanese
fighter that led to a harrowing stay with his
Filipino guerrilla rescuers.
To salute 'PJ' Dahl, who would retire a Colonel in
1978 after flying two combat tours in Vietnam, the
Air Museum Planes Of Fame in Chino gave
P-38J the markings that Capt. Dahl's "23 Skidoo"
wore while with the 432nd FS.
Restored in 1988 the museum's Lightning is P-38J-20-LO
s/n 44-23314 that only saw limited duty with
training squadrons in Texas and Florida before being
surplused. Museum founder Ed Maloney obtained the
P-38 in 1960 with it having less than 120 hours on
the airframe at the time.
Though over 10,000 Lightnings were produced only a
small number of them continued in service after the
war. Today the sight of a P-38 is a rare one with
only a handful still flying.
its service career was brief its legacy is secure in
the history of great fighters. It was the only
American fighter aircraft in service before the
start of the war that was still in production at the
end with additional orders on the books. This is a
fitting tribute to the designers, builders, and
those who took the Lightning to war.
For more information about The Air Museum "Planes of
Fame"; hours, exhibits, exhibitions and events,
visit their website at