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P-38 Lightning: A country boy way out of his element

by Budd Davisson

When I flew a P-38 for the first time, I have to admit that I had a hard time hearing the engines over the noise of my knees knocking. What was a grassroots pilot like me doing strapped into such a huge piece of iron? That was simple: I wanted a type-rating in the airplane (type-ratings are required for aircraft over 12,500 pounds empty) because the training would make me a better pilot. I would be a scared pilot, but a better one.

Like everything else with the Lightning, even boarding it is unique. Thereís a little ladder like thing that drops out of the back of the fuselage pod that requires you to put your feet in the rungs sideways to climb up onto the centersection.

Once up on the centersection, youíre acutely aware of how big the airplane is because aluminum seems to flow to the horizon. Also, the sides of the cockpit are level with the top of the wing, so you step down into the seat, rather than climbing over a fuselage side.

Once youíre in the cockpit everything seems different. The engines, for instance, block huge chunks of your vision down and to each side. The usual control stick isnít a stick, but a control yoke. Youíre sitting high over the nose and can see directly ahead, a weird feeling for a fighter. Other than the usual instruments, there is nothing about the environment that even remotely resembles any other fighter.

After you get both Allisons running (a head trip in itself), you find that the nosewheel doesnít steeróyou turn the airplane with differential throttle and brakes. Unfortunately, the brakes are incredibly sensitive and powerful, so thereís a tendency for newbies like me to jerk around
On takeoff, rather than lurching forward like an artillery shell, it accelerates like a luxury automobile; extremely smooth and insistent. When you bring the yoke back to pick up the nose, however, you have to be careful because its really easy to over rotate. I had been warned about that, so had no problem running on the main gear until it flew off at about 120 mph indicated.

I tried my first takeoff without a headset, which was dumb, really dumb!. The airplane isnít very loud because the exhaust is routed behind the cockpit through the turbo chargers on top of each boom, but the noise was like a gigantic dog whistle and really hurt. I grabbed an old headset back in the radio rack, which made things almost bearable.

In the air, the airplane was much more nimble than Iíd expected, courtesy of the hydraulic ailerons. Also, after a short time, the engines seemed to disappear and I learned to look around them or move the airplane to see better. Iíve got to tell you, however, that it pegged my grin meter to look out at those two big engines and know I was actually flying a P-38.

The landing was far easier than I expected. Even on my first landing, the airplane dutifully squatted onto the mains and let me hold the nose up until I was ready to let it down. Then I touched the brakes and started jerking around again.

So now, my ticket has L-P-38L stamped on it. Itís unlikely Iíll be flying a Lightning any time soon, but at least Iíve been there plus the type-rating makes for terrific conversation at parties.Now, if I can just get someone to invite me to a party.

Updated: August 22, 2011 — 2:02 PM
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