During the years between the Great War and the outbreak of World War 2, aircraft advocates were able to convince most military planners that air power would play an important role in the next major conflagration. But no one could quite agree on what form air power would take. In many government ministries, the thinking centered on strategic bombing, carrying with it the conviction that large, heavily-armored bombers would fly above the fighters sent to destroy them and make ground combat obsolete.
I kid you not.
Advocates of fighters knew this was crazy, and lobbied for fast “pursuit” planes. All major air powers continued developing fighters; some like Germany and the United Kingdom with better results than others, such as France, Poland, and even the US at first. But fighter theorists themselves were split into two camps: those who believed the next generation of fighter planes should be light, fast and maneuverable monoplanes (e.g., Japan or the US Army Air Corps brass), and those who argued for twin-engine craft with long ranges (Germany with its Bf-110, which started out as a fighter).
While in the United States, the Department of the Army was putting its money on pursuit planes, out of these debates came Lockheed's P-38 Lightning. Its radical twin-boom design resulted from Army Air Corps directive X-608 seeking designs for a "twin engine, high-altitude interceptor" whose mission was to interdict enemy aircraft before they reached their targets. Lockheed was faced with financial ruin at the time, and took up a challenge its competitors avoided as impossible. Turbo-charged Allison engines with counter-rotating props (to minimize torque) were installed in twin booms, something almost no other aircraft used except the famous P-61 Black Widow. Other innovations included an all-metal skin (unheard of in 1941), and dive flaps (not brakes as many think) to fight tail flutter at high dive speeds.
The results were electrifying: the P-38 was the first fighter to fly faster than 400 mph (640 k/hr), and set the cross-country air speed record in 1939. The plane could operate up to 46,000 ft. (14,000 m), but the P-38 proved problematical at lower elevations, where it was less-maneuverable than single-engine aircraft. As a result, the Lightning made its biggest contribution to the war effort in the Pacific, where its long range (1,300-1,700 miles/1,700=3,600 km) made it the ideal fighter platform, photo reconnaissance workhorse and ship destroyer. The Lightning’s most-famous mission was the successful destruction of the airplane carrying Japanese strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in April 1943, requiring a harrowing precise 870 mile/1,400 km flight over water at elevations of 10-50 ft.
The Lightning was also flown by pilots from numerous countries, including China, Portugal, and Australia. French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the children’s classic The Little Prince, was flying an F-5B reconnaissance version when he disappeared. But the Lightning’s most significant distinction is its role as the aircraft of choice for America’s top two aces, Richard J. “Dick” Bong (40 kills) and Thomas “Tommy” McGuire (38 kills).
Kagero Publications has released another installment of their Topcolors series called P-38 Lightning at War that includes a sheet of decals for those interested in modeling this aircraft.
the book & decals
The 34 page book measures 8.25" x 10.5" (21cm x 28cm) and contains multiple high-resolution color illustrations per page, as well as a single sheet of decals in 1/72nd, 1/48th and 1/32nd scale. The aircraft covered by the text and illustrations are all olive drab uppers with gray undersides unless noted; those with decals are in bold:
1. P-38F "Bat out of Hell," Italy 1943
2. P-38J "California Cutie," England 1944 (with invasion stripes)
3. P-38J "Jack," England, 1943-44
4. P-38H-5, "Skylark IV," England 1943
5. P-38J "Journey's End," England 1943
6. P-38J-15 "Sweet Sue/Nellie Ann," Italy 1944 bare metal
7. P-38J "Vivacious Virgin II," Belgium, 1944-45 (bare metal)
8. P-38J "Lucky Lady," England June 1944 (bare metal with invasion stripes)
9. P-38J-15 "Down Beat," the aircraft of America’s top ace, “Dick” Bong; New Guinea, April 1944 (bare metal)
10. P-38H-1 "Pluto," New Guinea, 1943
11. P-38J-10 "St. Louis Blues," Philippines, 1944 (bare metal)
12. P-38J-25 "Eleanor/Seattle Slugger," New Guinea 1944
13. P-38F "Flying Dutchman," Milne Bay, 1943 (bare metal)
14. P-38L-5 "Charlie Jeanne," Lingayen, Luzon, Philippines 1945 (bare metal)
15. P-38G-13 "Miss Virginia," Guadalcanal 1943, the plane that downed Yamamoto
First of all, I should point out that I build almost entirely in 1/32nd scale, so my experience is with larger plane kits. From that perspective, this review is “good news, bad news.” For modelers in other scales, the news is more encouraging, especially in quarter scale.
I’m glad to see attention turned to this important aircraft. The Lightning was a workhorse in the Pacific, and also shouldered a significant portion of the aerial combat duties in Europe during the time the Army Air Force was dealing with the failure of unescorted strategic bombers. While the Lightning failed in the role of escorting heavy bombers all the way to Berlin and back, it was not alone: both the P-47 and the Spitfire were equally unsuited for that role. Still, a Lightning got the first US kill in the war: a FW-200 Condor shot down in August of 1942.
From a modeler’s standpoint, the plane makes for a spectacular build, either quarter or especially in 32 scale, thanks to its revolutionary configuration and huge wing span. Even in Braille scale, it will stand out due to its shape. Camouflage options are somewhat limited to the early OD or the complexities of bare metal aluminum (with the occasional invasion stripes added), but planes serving in the Pacific weathered in very interesting ways— “bare metal” was a misnomer, given that the surfaces were lacquered with a nitrocellulose varnish that turned brownish as it aged. Even on bare metal aircraft, the engines tops were often painted OD to reduce glare in the pilot’s eyes.
The bad news for the growing audience for 1/32nd scale planes is the only kit is Trumpeter’s P-38L-5 (or the rare Hobbycraft boxing). Retrofitting the L variant to the earlier G, H or J celebrated in this book requires resin upgrades no longer commercially available. Since I've never seen a styrene model company release a kit to take advantage of new decals, the applicability of this set to large scale planes remains debatable. Is that any reason to knock the book? Yes, and no, since modelers in the larger scale will be faced with some big challenges if they intend to build all but one of the planes included in the set.
In 1/48th scale, the news is better: Hasegawa, Academy and Minicraft all have Lightning kits in general circulation that portray earlier variants, along with older kits from Italeri, Revell USA and Nichimo that still turn up. For 1/72nd hobbyists, there are only Academy and Dragon kits for the J variant, as well as special variants like the recce version.
That having been said, the book offers some pleasures to modelers of all three scales, especially those willing to apply its treasures to their own builds, either through scratch-building or scouring up a Jerry Rutman upgrade set for the big bird. The book begins with a brief introduction about the P-38 and its markings, then proceeds to the profiles of each plane. There are ample color illustrations showing national insignia, stenciling, pin-ups and weathering, including chipping and flaking. In addition there are blurbs about the aircraft’s pilots, their squadrons and the time period when the profile is taken from.
The decals are excellent in quality, with sharp registration, accurate colors, and good graphics. The quarter scale ones are especially impressive in their smaller size. There doesn't appear to be any loss of sharpness or registration problems in dropping down even two levels. All three scales are color-saturated, which should make for good transfers to these aircraft. Be warned that some of the OD Lightnings were shipped from the States with tape over the cockpit nacelle’s panel lines. The tape was then removed in theater with inevitable residue left behind, as well as color differentiations that make the demarcation of the taped areas prominent and challenging to replicate accurately, especially in the smaller scales.
I'm glad to see so many P-38s from both the ETO and PTO get their place in the sun. For the price, it would be nice to see all the planes get decals, too. Other Kagero offerings have included two sheets of waterslide transfers, so I was disappointed that the very hot “Vivacious Virgin II” pin-up art was not made available. While there seems to be a bottomless appetite for P-51s , Bf-109s and Spitfires, we need to have these important aircraft represented.
Highs: Some very good decal options for both the ETO and PTO, including the plane that downed Yamamoto's Betty.Lows: Only a portion of the planes profiled have decals. .Verdict: Recommended, though with reservations.