What would become one of the best fighters in World War II was created more by happenstance than by design. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was originally designed as a bomber-interceptor and was never intended to be a fighter. Weight was kept to a minimum and it was far more advanced and faster than its U.S. counterparts, the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. It caught the attention of the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) very quickly and it would be in great demand. It was faster than the Zero—even on one engine. It shot down more Japanese airplanes than any other fighter during World War II—seven of the top scoring USAAF aces in the Pacific flew the P-38. It was as versatile as the de Havilland Mosquito, but it was the only truly successful twin-engine fighter of World War II.
It was basically a hand-built airplane and was never meant to be mass produced. All skin sections were butt-joined using flush riveting, and all flight controls were metal covered. The total order was expected to be only fifty aircraft, so when orders started coming in by the hundreds, Lockheed had to scramble to find room to increase production. Over lunch, Lockheed’s president, Bob Gross, made a deal to buy the old 3-G whiskey distillery for $20,000 to make room for an additional production line. However, initial production was slow and by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, on December 7, 1941, only 69 Lightnings were completed.
When first introduced in 1939, the Lightning was able to fly a steady course at 413 mph (665 km/h) making it the fastest production airplane in the world and it remained one of the fastest climbers right up to the end of the WW II. It wasn’t as fast as the Messerschmitt Me 209 which was able to attain a record 469 mph (755 km/h), but this record setting machine was built for the purposes of promoting the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and only four aircraft were built.
In 1937, the USAAC sent out specification X-608 to the leading aircraft manufacturers for a new pursuit aircraft. It would be a radical departure for existing fighters and required the following specifications:
• 360 mph (580 km/h) airspeed at 20,000 ft. (6,095 m).
• 290 mph (467 km/h) airspeed at sea level.
• Sustain full power for 1 hour at 20,000 ft. (6,095 m).
• Reach 20,000 ft. (6,095 m) in 6 minutes.
• Takeoff and land within 2,200 ft. (670 m) while clearing a 50 ft. (15 m) obstacle.
Lockheed had previously competed in 1936, but lost against Bell’s XFM-1 Airacuda. Lockheed was new in the military aircraft market and by competing against Boeing and Douglas, many felt they it was overstepping its boundaries. However, this view wasn’t shared by Lockheed’s president Robert E. Gross and he gave the go ahead for his design team to proceed with a plan.