The P-38 Lightning was the only successful twin-engine air superiority fighter of the war. It served in both Europe and the Pacific. P-38s were preferred in the Pacific because flying was either over dense jungle or the ocean; the safety of a second engine was important. The engines of the P-38 were turbocharged, so the aircraft maintained its excellent performance even at very high altitudes. The leading American Ace during WWII was Richard Bong with 40 victories, all scored in P-38s. For a time, Bong flew with the 39th Fighter Squadron. In total, 1,800 Japanese planes were destroyed by P-38s in the Pacific.
The P-38 was designed by a Lockheed Aircraft team that included famous aircraft designer “Kelly” Johnson. It was the only American front-line fighter in production from the beginning of WWII until the end. It was the first 400 mph fighter in history and one of the few with a 40,000 foot ceiling.
This aircraft was dug out of the jungle near Finschhafen Airfield, Papua New Guinea, where it had been buried following the war. It was restored by WestPac Restorations in 2017. It has the most significant combat history of any of the museum’s aircraft. It was assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron.
On a mission on December 31st, 1942, pilot Ken Sparks was flying this aircraft and was credited with two aerial victories. He downed one Japanese aircraft by gunfire and found himself engaged with another. While approaching each other a high speed head on, the Japanese banked left but hit Sparks’ outer right wing. It tore several feet from the wingtip, but the Zero lost its wing and crashed. Sparks went on to have 11 aerial victories in several different aircraft.