Project XP-38N

A site dedicated to the memory of those who designed, built, flew, and maintained the Lockheed P-38 Lightning in defense of freedom.

Fiction about the XP-38N

Fiction about the XP-38N

[The following is fiction, but is based on some fact.]

About the time of the first test flight of the P-38M Night Lightning, work began on the next series to be labeled 'N.' Lessons learned from the successes and failures of the L series and some of the technology used in the M upgrades were incorporated into the functional specifications for the N series. In addition, some ideas and concepts tried in the XP-49 and XP-58 (both based on the P-38) were added to the N-series plans.

From the onset, Lockheed hoped the N-series would be the next generation, or third generation, of Lightnings. (The original prototype up through the H were the first generation, and the J and L/M were the second generation.) The USAAF was highly critical of the N-series plans, for they felt Lockheed's attention should be focused squarely on jet fighters, particularly the P-80 Shooting Star which was just on the verge of production. Yet, a few visionaries realized that jet fighters, while vastly superior in speed, were also severely limited in range. It was thought that a faster P-38 equipped with modern advances in space engineering, material sciences and avionics could still fill a needed role in the air force.

Lockheed had toyed with the idea of using a different engine for their twin fighter. The Rolls Royce Merlin was the usual candidate to replace the Allison, but various factors always pointed back to the Allison. As the N specifications were being drawn up, a close-knit group of Lockheed engineers secretly procured several Rolls Royce Griffon 85 engines for a concept feasibility study on an old P-38 'mule' airframe. While the mule never actually flew with the Griffons, the clandestine experiment proved that it would not take much to graft the Griffon onto the plane. And, on paper, when the Griffons were combined with the paddle-props from the short-lived P-38K program, the results looked very impressive.

Knowing that the entire N program was a gamble from the start, top brass at the company decided to gamble on the new engine as well. Packard was burdened heavily with making Merlins under license, so Lockheed sought out a company to build the Griffons under license. No deal was ever reached, but had the N ever gone to production, it was considered that the Caterpillar Tractor company -- makers of diesel engines -- would have converted one of their plants to produce the Griffon under license.

Even without a Griffon supplier, Lockheed pressed ahead with a firm strategy in mind: to re-vamp the P-38 into a next generation long-range, high altitude, multi-purpose attack/defense platform. While doing so, designers also addressed "legacy" features that were thought useless. For instance, after too many pilots were killed striking the horizontal stabilizer's external mass balances as they bailed out of doomed P-38s, orders finally were issued to remove them from the design. As Kelly Johnson had predicted years earlier, they affected the flight dynamics very little. A replacement design was never needed. (During the development of the YP-38, these balances were added in an attempt to fix a severe buffeting problem. The problem was solved when fillets were added where the main wing joins the fuselage but the balances remained on all subsequent variations.)

When VE day came, the US turned its full attention to the Pacific, and the need for longer and higher altitude escort and photo-reconnaissance increased. Anticipating a large-scale invasion of Japan, the military asked designers to delete the retractable boarding ladder and move the components in the rear of the fuselage to make room for an additional fuel tank. This could free the wing pylons from fuel duty and allow them to carry ordnance, or it could permit longer range missions with the gas-guzzling Griffons. When the rear components were moved, new innovations in space engineering along with smaller components allowed the cockpit to be enlarged a little to give pilots a little more room to stretch their arms and legs on long duration flights. Also, it was thought that the extra room would facilitate conversion to a two-man configuration should the need arise. During the planning, Lockheed returned to a concept explored in the short-lived A-series experimental program, a pressurized cockpit, and considered it for the N. Even an ejection seat was considered for later variants of the new cockpit.

In all, the following changes were proposed for the N-series:

  • Rolls-Royce Griffon 85 engines, turbocharger, 2400 hp ea. (WEP)
  • high-activity "paddle" propellers, as demonstrated on the short-lived P-38K program
  • redesigned mid-boom scoops (turbo ram air, carburetor intake, etc.)
  • no external mass balances
  • slightly larger cockpit interior
  • ejection seat
  • all bullet-proof glass - deleted head armor for better visibility
  • thinner window frames for better visibility
  • stronger frame for higher speeds
  • more powerful hydraulic systems (more powerful hydraulically boosted ailerons, faster flap deployment)
  • improved turbo chargers for better high-altitude performance, faster response
  • better cockpit heating/defogging system (better cockpit seals, insulation)
  • steerable nose wheel
  • two landing lights (inset in leading edge of each wing)
  • single wire main antenna
  • re-arranged cockpit controls, panel, etc. based on pilot input
  • simplified and more reliable fuel management system
  • more rugged gear and flaps (for landing on crude runways and deployment at higher speed, respectively)
  • one-piece rear canopy window for better visibility (no center frame piece)
  • OPTIONS: pressurized cockpit / rear fuselage fuel tank / or rear gun (ladder was to be deleted, replaced by fasten-on rope ladder)

The first N series prototype, dubbed 'XP-38N', and equipped with a pressurized cockpit and rear fuselage tank, was scheduled to roll out the second week of August '45. But two significant events, both occurring on Aug 6th, postponed the roll-out and flight test program: 1) The first atomic bomb, and 2) the untimely death of P-38 ace R.I. Bong. Maj. Bong was working at Lockheed as a test pilot at the time and was scheduled to take part in XP-38N's roll-out ceremonies. Out of respect for the Ace, the program was postponed until after his burial. By the time XP-38N rolled out, Japan had surrendered and the war was over.

When XP-38N finally made its first appearance, onlookers observed that its airframe was pretty much the same as the J and L series, with a few extra bulges containing the new engines. However, the prototype's paint scheme stunned USAAF dignitaries: matte black with large black and white, D-Day style invasion stripes, and twin shark mouths.

Legend has it that one set of orders came through that said XP-38N was to be painted black with minimal markings, similar to its immediate predecessor (the M series, Night Lightning). Another set of orders (from a different chain of command) specified D-Day style high-visibility markings to emulate what might be used in a large-scale invasion (though to be the N-series' primary purpose). Yet no specifics were given. The end result was a practical joke by the painters, who were never told which order to follow. They simply followed both, resulting in an ironically contradictory livery. The shark mouths (which were a common feature on large cowl aircraft in the field) were added as 'icing on the cake.'

The airplane was ordered stripped of its unique paint scheme and returned to an all-metal look. Paying homage to the original XP-38, detailers painted the old-style red, white, and blue stripes on the tail.

XP-38N just after roll-out

A rare image of the XP-38N in flight.

Due the end of the war, the XP-38N program was in jeopardy and work tapered off dramatically. As end-of-war celebrations diverted most people away, the XP-38N was performing standard engine run-up and taxi tests. Finally, on a warm morning in late Aug 1945, the XP-38N took to the skies of Southern California for a brief 30 minute flight. The very next day the XP-38N program was officially cancelled and the plane never flew again.

[The preceding is fiction, but based on some fact.]

The Model

The model is available from the model page.  Here are a few screen shots of it in the virtual skies.


The idea that started it all -- "what if ...?"

I had been a fan of Microsft Flight simualtor since the very first version.  How well I remember playing that old DOs-based, line-drawing simulator on my dad's original IBM PC controlling the cessna around Meig's field and Chicago with keyboard.

 In late 1997 when I purchased Flight Simulator '98 I also found a budding collection of freeware creations, and I was finally able to fly my favorite plane: the P-38. I soon began to dream of flying a P-38 around the world. Not just any P-38, but a what-if P-38, a fictional next-generation P-38, the answer to the question "what if...?". About a year later, after trying my hand at making 'mods' and repaints, I obtained some of the tools of the trade and went to work on the very first version of my flagship XP-38N.  

What followed was a 10-year effort devoted to exploring the P-38 through flight simulation.

I penned the article on this page to accompany my XP-38N model, to explain why it looked and flew the way it did.