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

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

When I flew a P-38 for the first time, I had 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 airplay (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. There’s 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 center section.

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 you’re 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 isn’t a stick, but a control yoke. You’re 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 doesn’t steer — you turn the airplane with differential throttle and brakes. Unfortunately, the brakes are incredibly sensitive and powerful, so there’s 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 120mph indicated.

I tried my first takeoff without a headset, which was dumb, really dumb!. The airplane isn’t 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. It’s unlikely I’ll be flying a Lightning any time soon, but at least I’ve 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.



  1. Good for you, Budd!

    Most of us have only been able to fantasize flying ANYthing, let alone a P-38-L Lightning!

    Great article, as usual!

  2. Funny thing, Budd: I’ve never flown a P-38, and I’m sitting on a couch in my living room but I was grinning just like you were! Great flying! And congratulations, you lucky bum!

  3. I got to ride in the Planes Of Fame P-38 in 2011, Budd and I envy you for being able to actually fly the P-38 and I can only imagine the Rush you got being at the controls.

  4. HI, this is Asher, I met your son in Maui, Hawaii. on a snorkel tour they told me about you and Jim in the Vietnam war.

  5. This is probably my favorite of all your podcasts. I’ve listened to it over and over! Is there a web link to your recording?
    PA – Flight Journal isn’t the same without your guidance at the helm. You are missed!

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