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The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was designed in 1937 as a high-altitude interceptor. The first one built, the XP-38, made its public debut on Feb. 11, 1939 by flying from California to New York in seven hours.
Because of its unorthodox design, the aircraft evolved for several years before becoming the fighter destined to see combat in all theaters of World War II. The P-38 Lightning introduced a new dimension to American fighters - a second engine. The multi-engine configuration reduced the Lightning loss-rate to anti-aircraft gunfire during ground attack missions.
Late in 1942, it went into large-scale operations during the North African campaign where the German Luftwaffe named it "Der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--"The Forked-Tail Devil."
Equipped with droppable fuel tanks under its wings, the P-38 was used extensively as a long-range escort fighter. A very versatile aircraft, the Lightning was also used for dive bombing, level bombing, ground strafing and photo reconnaissance missions.
As with any long-term production aircraft, the P-38 underwent many modifications. The fastest of the modifications was the P-38J with a top speed of 420 mph, and the version produced in the greatest quantity was the "L," of which 3,735 were built by Lockheed and 113 by Vultee. The P-38J intakes under the engines were enlarged to house core-type intercoolers. The curved windscreen was replaced by a flat panel, and the boom mounted radiators were enlarged. Some were fitted with bombardier type noses, and were used to lead formations of bomb-laden P-38s to their targets. The P-38M was a two-seat radar-equipped night fighter, a few of which had become operational before the war ended.
By the end of production in 1945, 9,923 P-38s had been built. Only 27 of the aircraft exist today.