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Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning certainly served in desert locales during World War II, but the green and gray fighter looked very much at home over Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Against a perfect desert sky, the fighter banked and hung off our wing. It’s lines were unmistakable. It could have been 1943; the desert north of Lockheed’s Burbank plant, the Mediterranean, or the ragged mountains of Italy. But this was present day over the Estrella Mountains on the southwest border of Phoenix, Arizona.

New Fighter for a New War

Europe, China-Burma, the Aleutians, Italy, France, Rabaul, New Guinea... Each WWII theater was no stranger to Lockheed’s twin-boom, twin-engine fighter. Tricycle landing gear, long range, concentrated firepower and good flying qualities allowed the Lightning to serv as an escort fighter, attack aircraft, interceptor, dive bomber, pathfinder and a recon platform.

Engineer Kelly Johnson designed Lockheed’s first fighter in response to a 1936 Army Air Corps requirement for a high altitude interceptor. The only way to achieve the required 360 mph at 20,000 ft was to use two of Allison’s new V-1710 engines, turbo superchargers, and a unique twin-boom design with a central pod to house the pilot and armament.

The late thirties saw baggy looking biplanes in use with the Navy, and conventional designs like the Curtis P-36 and P-40 in the Air Corps. Lockheed’s P-38 would appear absolutely futuristic, and give pilots in the upcoming war several advantages over German, Italian, and Japanese aircraft. As it turned out, Lockheed’s design would be able to hit 417 mph at altitude. The fighter would also give pilots their first look at compressibility, a scary nose tucking tendency that lead to several airframe breakups before it was fully understood.

The Lightning represented a move towards a larger and heavier fighter aircraft, much along the lines of the massive Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. These fighters combined speed, firepower, attack capabilities and range. Even though the Lightning used liquid cooled engines, it could absorb battle damage and return to base on its operating engine.

There were no -A or -B P-38s, and the early -D versions were not considered combat aircraft. They lacked self-sealing fuel tanks, adequate brakes, pilot armor and oxygen, and the ability to carry external tanks or stores. The P-38F addressed these issues, and the aircraft was delivered to training and combat units. -G and -H models followed; they used different engine models and had wing stations rated for more weight.

Pacific Combat

The P-38 was a unique aircraft perfectly suited for the Pacific Theater. Its four .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannon could cut any Japanese aircraft in half, and getting one engine shot out meant the other could get the plane home. Long over-water flights, poor weather and a tough enemy put the Lightning to the test. Like other American fighters, the Lightning would not engage in turning dogfights with more agile Japanese fighters. The pilots knew to make slashing passes, climb back up, and come back again.

Prior to the new fighters debuting in 1943, pilots had to rely on outdated and poorly performing Wildcats, Hawks and Airacobras. These low-altitude aircraft were hard pressed to overcome more maneuverable Zeroes, Hamps and Tonies.

The 80th Fighter Squadron was one squadron that flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra. Captain Edward "Porky" Cragg, took command of the squadron on April 8, 1943. He had joined the squadron in early 1942, and proved to be an outstanding fighter pilot. It was Cragg that coined the squadron name "Headhunters." He also directed crew chief Yale Saffro, a former Disney artist, to design the squadron’s insignia. The name and logo drew upon the local New Guinean tribes that hated the Japanese, and helped American pilots who had been shot down.

Headhunters First

When new P-38s were slated for delivery, the aggressive and talented Cragg flew to Port Moresby to lobby his commander for the planes. He wanted the new Lightnings before the other two squadrons in the 8th Fighter Group got them. Two weeks later, he had them. Two more months would transpire as the pilots traded in their weary ‘Cobras and checked out in the twin-engine Lockheeds. The squadron returned to Kila Aerodrome, where the Lightnings of the 80th flew attack missions against Japanese forces on Wewak Island. Rabaul was next, and thus started the process that lead General MacArthur’s forces to Japan’s front door.

Headhunter P-38s were painted in typical Army Air Corps camouflage; olive drab upper surfaces and neutral gray undersides. Yellow letters identified each aircraft, while green spinners let other pilots know which squadron the aircraft belonged to within the group. Cragg, now a Major, had named his P-39 "Porky I," and continued this tradition by naming his new P-38H-1 (42-66506) "Porky II." He would score nine of his 15 air to air victories in this aircraft.

One day after Christmas, 1943, Cragg was leading a flight of 12 P-38s against a force of 20 Japanese bombers and 50 fighter escorts. During the attack, nine of the enemy aircraft were downed and the bombers were forced to drop their load prior to the target. The success of the mission was marred by the loss of the enigmatic 24 year old squadron commander. "Porky" Cragg was observed bailing out of his P-38 and had a good parachute; but he landed in the water and was never seen again. He had just shot down his 15th enemy aircraft to become a triple ace.

Like so many young servicemen, Major Cragg is remembered as a brave and decorated officer in the Pacific campaign. Even though some accounts paint him as free-wheeling and somewhat lax with flight discipline, he had earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross with four Oak Lead Clusters, Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster.

Current Day "Porky II"

Steve Hinton’s Fighter Rebuilders had restored their Lockheed P-38J as "Joltin’ Josie" some years ago. It wore a silver European theater scheme with D-Day invasion stripes. Last year, the fighter was repainted for a national fighter tour that occurred last airshow season. Although the 80th FS flew early model Lightnings during Cragg’s tenure, the new paint scheme on the P-38J honors the fallen fighter pilot, his efforts, and his sacrifice during WWII.

Glendale, Arizona hosted one of the early airshows of the 2004 season. The Chino Planes of Fame Museum flew two rare fighters in; Kevin Eldridge in the F-86 Sabre and Steve Hinton in the P-38. Both of the historic aircraft flew as part of the US Air Force’s Heritage flight, a popular demonstration featuring past and present Air Force aircraft flying together in formation.

The P-38 can be seen flying at numerous airshows this summer as it continues in the U.S. Air Force’s Heritage Flight. For more information, contact the Planes of Fame Air Museum at 909-597-3722.

Thank you to Dale Churchill (camera plane) and Patrick McGarry (camera plane pilot).

Story by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. 

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