Shedding Light on the Lightning
for most of the past five decades, the National Air and Space Museum’s Lockheed P-38J Lightning remained disassembled in crates in a dusty storage facility in Suitland, Md., denied a space at the Smithsonian Institution’s crowded downtown site. However, in 2001, construction began on the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the museum’s 760,000-square-foot satellite facility near Dulles International Airport, where the restored plane would finally be presented to the public.
Aside from the plane’s serial number, 42-67762, and the information contained in the brief notes from its flight forms, the museum knew nothing of the history of the aircraft, which it had acquired in 1950. A weeklong investigation by museum volunteer Herb Brownstein at the National Archives in College Park, Md., revealed that the twin-engine aircraft, delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in November 1943 as a single-seater, served as an instrument trainer at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and not as a combat fighter.
The P-38 had suffered high accident rates in training, as pilots struggled to control the plane when they first flew it. Consequently, in early 1944, Lockheed refitted a number of fighters, including 42-67762, with an additional seat for an instructor. Thus the Smithsonian’s plane became one of the first “piggyback” P-38s. In April 1944, the War Department ordered Lockheed to return 42-67762 to its original configuration and update it with the combat modifications featured on the next-generation P-38s, which the company was building. Brownstein’s discovery enlightened the museum’s restorers, who were puzzled by several of 42-67762’s features that were associated with later models of the aircraft. The changes were made so that Col. Benjamin Kelsey, the original project officer responsible for the P-38’s development, could test 42-67762 in combat mode at Wright Field. Earlier that year, a number of P-38s’ engines had failed in battle, and Kelsey was directed to solve the problem. From the documents he found at the archives, Brownstein surmised that Kelsey’s test-flights with 42-67762 led to production improvements in existing and subsequent P-38s.
Brownstein then made his most exciting discovery, in a document describing a 42-67762 test-flight on April 16, 1945, at Wright Field. According to the file, the plane’s right engine blew up during a flight by a pilot named Major Bong, who was able to land the plane safely. The museum’s aeronautics division ultimately determined that the pilot was Richard Bong, the World War II Ace of Aces who had downed 40 enemy planes while piloting P-38s in the Pacific theater.
Today, P-38J 42-67762, its historical significance having been established by Brownstein, resides on the main floor of the Udvar-Hazy Center under the left wing of the Enola Gay and alongside such notable aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and an Air France Concorde. “It was very satisfying,” Brownstein says of his research. “Every time I came up with a piece of paper—there were hundreds of pieces of paper before I found something—I thought it was a miracle that I found it. It was very thrilling.”