11 February 1939

Wreck of the Lockheed XP-38 at Cold Stream, New York. (Associated Press)
Wreck of the Lockheed XP-38 at Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (Associated Press)
Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, circa 1937

11 February 1939: Barely two weeks after its first flight, First Lieutenant Benjamin Scovill (“Ben”) Kelsey, U.S. Army Air Corps, took the prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, on a record-breaking transcontinental flight from March Field, Riverside, California, to Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York.

Lieutenant Kelsey departed March Field at 6:32 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, (9:32 a.m., Eastern) and flew to Amarillo, Texas for the first of two refueling stops. He arrived there at 12:22 p.m., EST, and remained on the ground for 22 minutes. The XP-38 took off at 12:44 p.m., EST, and Kelsey flew on to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. He landed there at 3:10 p.m. EST.

Kelsey was met by Major General H.H. Arnold, and it was decided to continue to New York. The XP-38 was airborne again at 3:28 p.m., EST, on the final leg of his transcontinental flight.

The prototype Lockheed XP-38 37-457, being refueled at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, during the transcontinental speed record flight, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)
The prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, being refueled at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, during the transcontinental speed record attempt, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)

Kelsey was overhead Mitchel Field, New York at 4:55 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, but his landing was delayed by other airplanes in the traffic pattern.

On approach, the XP-38 was behind several slower training planes, so Lieutenant Kelsey throttled back the engines. When he tried to throttle up, the carburetor venturis iced and the engines would not accelerate, remaining at idle. The airplane crashed on a golf course short of the airport.

Wreckage of the prototype Lockheed XP-38 37-457 at Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)
Wreckage of the prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, at Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)

The total elapsed time was 7 hours, 45 minutes, 36 seconds but Kelsey’s actual flight time was 7 hours, 36 seconds. The prototype had averaged 340 miles per hour (547 kilometers per hour) and had reached 420 miles per hour (676 kilometers per hour) during the Wright Field-to-Mitchel Field segment.

Kelsey’s transcontinental flight failed to break the transcontinental speed record set two years earlier by Howard R. Hughes by 17 minutes, 11 seconds. It should be noted, however, that Hughes H-1 Racer flew non-stop from coast to coast, while the XP-38 required two time-consuming fuel stops.

Wreck of the prototype Lockheed XP-38 37-457 on the Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)
Wreck of the prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, on the Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (Unattributed)

The XP-38 was damaged beyond repair, but its performance on the transcontinental flight was so impressive that 13 YP-38s were ordered from Lockheed by the Air Corps.

Overhead view of the wrecked prototype Lockheed XP-38 37-457 at Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (U.S. Army)
Overhead view of the wrecked prototype Lockheed XP-38, 37-457, at Cold Stream Golf Course, Hempstead, New York, 11 February 1939. (U.S. Army)

Designed by an engineering team led by Hall L. Hibbard, which included the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the XP-38 was a single-place, twin-engine fighter designed for very high speed and long range. It was an unusual configuration with the cockpit and armament in a center nacelle, with two longitudinal booms containing the engines and propellers, turbochargers, radiators and coolers. The Lightning was equipped with tricycle landing gear. The nose strut retracted into the center nacelle and the two main gear struts retracted into bays in the booms. To reduce drag, the sheet metal used butt joints with flush rivets.

The prototype had been built built at Lockheed’s factory in Burbank, California. On the night of 31 December 1938/1 January 1939, it was transported to March Field aboard a convoy of three trucks. Once there, the components were assembled by Lockheed technicians working under tight security.

The XP-38 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 52 feet (15.850 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 10 inches (3.952 meters). Its empty weight was 11,507 pounds (5,219.5 kilograms). The gross weight was 13,904 pounds (6,306.75 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 15,416 pounds (6,992.6 kilograms).

Lockheed XP-38 37-457. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The Lightning was the first production airplane to use the Harold Caminez-designed, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.60-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710 single overhead cam 60° V-12 engines. When installed on the P-38, these engines rotated in opposite directions. The XP-38 used a pair of experimental C-series Allisons, with the port V-1710-C8 (V-1710-11) engine being a normal right-hand tractor configuration, while the starboard engine, the V-1710-C9 (V-1710-15), was a left-hand tractor. Through a 2:1 gear reduction, these engines drove the 11-foot (3.353 meters) diameter, three-bladed Curtiss Electric variable-pitch propellers inward to counteract the torque effect of the engines and propellers. (Viewed from the front of the airplane, the XP-38’s starboard propeller turned clockwise, the port propeller turned counter-clockwise. The direction of rotation was reversed in the YP-38 service test prototypes and production P-38 models.) The engines have long propeller gear drive sections to aid in streamlining aircraft, and are sometimes referred to as “long-nose Allisons.”

The V-1710-11 and -15 had a compression ratio of 6.65:1. They had a continuous power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,150 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. for takeoff. The combination of a gear-driven supercharger and an exhaust-driven General Electric B-1 turbosupercharger allowed these engines to maintain their rated power levels to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).

The -11 and -15 were 7 feet, 10.46 inches (2.399 meters) long. The -11 was 3 feet, 6.59 inches (1.082 meters) high and 2 feet, 4.93 inches (0.7348 meters) wide. It weighed 1,300 pounds (589.7 kilograms). The -15 was 3 feet, 4.71 inches (1.034 meters) high, 2 feet, 4.94 inches (0.7351 meters) wide, and weighed 1,305 pounds (591.9 kilograms).

The XP-38 had a maximum speed of 413 miles per hour (664.66 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) and a service ceiling of 38,000 feet (11,582.4 meters).

The XP-38 was unarmed, but almost all production Lightnings carried a 20 mm auto cannon and four Browning .50-caliber machine guns grouped together in the nose. They could also carry bombs or rockets and jettisonable external fuel tanks.

Testing continued with thirteen YP-38A pre-production aircraft and was quickly placed in full production. The P-38 Lightning was one of the most successful combat aircraft of World War II. By the end of the war, Lockheed had built 10,037 Lightnings.

Lockheed P-38L Lightning.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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15 thoughts on “11 February 1939

  1. Hello Bryan

    Great article.

    I love the stories of X-planes and prototypes. I wish you could turn you story into a book about the P-38 prototype.


    Henry Matthews

    1. Thank you for the compliment! The x-planes and test pilots of the post-war area are my favorites. I guess I was strongly influenced by William Holden’s movie, “Toward The Unknown.” When I grew up, my father, and the fathers of almost every kid I knew, worked in the Southern California aerospace industry. Dad was always bringing home publicity photos of the airplanes. It was an exciting time.

  2. Like you, I grew up in SoCal around the airplanes. I lived near Lockheed and spent my youth during WWII hanging on the fence watching P-38s, Hudsons, B-17s, and eventually P-80s. Years later I would be a Lockheed test pilot / engineer on the F-104 and SR-71 and other airplanes.
    This P-38 story fascinates me in that only 2 weeks after the first ever flight, it was on a transcontinental flight, ending not so well. Basically, the airplane had hardly been flight tested at all. Big difference from today’s world. I wonder if the flight idea was the Army’s more than Lockheeds.

    1. Mr. André, what an honor!!!!! My father also worked at Lockheed, as Configuration Manager on the S-3 Viking and CP-140 Aurora, etc. (I worked in Tool Control at the Burbank plant while trying to figure out what to do after leaving the Air Force.) Tony LeVier was a friend of my mother’s family, and was a frequent visitor to their home in Whittier, CA. My mom recalls sitting in his lap as a little girl. So we are closely tied to Lockheed. 🙂 From what I understand, yes, it was specifically Lt. Kelsey’s idea to try for the transcontinental record. Lockheed was opposed, because, as you say, the XP-38 hadn’t really been tested at all. But in those days, favorable publicity was important to the Air Corps, so Gen. Arnold approved the flight. . . Kelsey was a real backer of the Allison V-1710 engine, and was very much involved in testing the Curtiss XP-40, as well.

      Mr. André, thank you for visiting my blog. I hope that you liked it.


  3. Is there a way to contact you directly? I’ve got some information related to one of your older posts that you may find helpful. I couldn’t find contact info on your site, just the form to comment on the current posts.

  4. Great aviation history from another era, like before “smart” ( or not so much) phones! Good stuff & those of us who have been in the aviation bidnez for a bit love reading & learning about ALl this neat history. I flew for 40 yrs total, civilian, US Army Aviator & airlines for over 31 yrs. I never wanted to do anything else even as a small boy of 4 or so. I was fortunate to find my calling very early on, I guess. Now, all I do is fly “off the handle” & that’s not nearly as gratifying. Thx for your chronology of this! Carb ice, of all things! Ice belongs in a suitable glass with some adult beverage unless you sip it neat! I wonder what happened to the pilot, 1st Lt. Ben Kelsey?? Any disciplinary action(s) taken?

    1. No, not at all. (I’ve read that Lockheed was not very happy.) It’s possible that the crash short-circuited the normal test and evaluation process. The Army immediately ordered 13 YP-38 service test prototypes, and the rest is history.

      General Kelsey was a very influential in the development of military aircraft.

      See TDiA’s article, “Benjamin Scovill Kelsey (9 March 1906–3 March 1981”: https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/9-march-1906-3-march-1981-benjamin-scovill-kelsey/

  5. Thank you for posting this, Bryan. Reminds me of reading Christina Olds’ book “Fighter Pilot” about her dad, Col Robin Olds flying the P-38. He absolutely loved flying this airplane. He told some great stories about this airplane, it’s a great read about a remarkable airplane and an extraordinary pilot.
    When he was finally assigned to fly P-51’s, he always had a special place in his heart for the P-38!

  6. Certainly a trend setter and ahead of it’s time … got a lot right but a few things wrong, crew need to be kept warm enough to function at high altitude and engine controls need to be well thought through, so one can concentrate on the job at hand…
    Ohh but for a decent supercharger on that Allison …

    Kelsey was obviously a go getter and can’t see that accident was really his fault at all.. obviously that sort of flying uncovered things that needed sorting out. That’s called the test flying.. isn’t it ?

  7. Great story about this aircraft. Also notable is the highest scoring American fighter ace with 40 victories, Maj Richard Bong, achieved that status flying the P-38. It was also the fighter used in the highly successful ambush intercept of Adm Yamamoto.

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