High Desert Hangar Stories: Pushing the envelope with the P-38

It was still dark at 4:30 in the morning on Aug. 27 as the P-38F was taking off from the Palmdale Army Airfield (Plant 42), heading east with famed Lockheed test pilot Milo Burcham at the controls. What was about to be undertaken was classified and the mission would push man and machine to their limit.

It was 1942 and Gen. Hap Arnold was in a bad temper. It was the early days of World War II and his highly touted AAF was tasting defeat on virtually every front. The one high point was the advancement of the Lockheed P-38 and his relationship with test pilot and engineer Ben Kelsey, who was working hard on getting the P-38s to the front lines. Ben kept selling to General Arnold that he could, with the right drop tanks, give the Lightning a range that was unheard of in the early days of World War II for a front-line fighter.

It was not long before a message arrived at Lockheed in Burbank, ordering them to proceed with a carefully documented demonstration of the max range capability of the P-38F.

A stock P-38 was drawn out of a lot of 100 planes and was given no special treatment except the installation of the newest and smoothest 300-gallon dual drop tanks. The plane also retained all its armor plating and a full combat load of guns and ammunition. That morning, as the P-38 sat on the runway in Palmdale, it was loaded with 300 gallons of internal gas and no less than 638 gallons in the two external tanks, there was also 26 gallons of oil on board, takeoff weight was verified at 19,128 pounds! A very prodigious load for the very early F-series Allison’s.

Palmdale was chosen to avoid taking off over a populated area for obvious reasons, and using no more than 35 inches of manifold pressure, Burcham slowly climbed to 10,000 feet over the tiny community of Daggett. Flying east he arrived over Oklahoma City at 9:36 a.m., where he reduced power, turned 180 degrees, and headed back to Palmdale, arriving there at 3:18 p.m. after dropping his fuel tanks near the Colorado River (wonder if those are still out there somewhere!) He still had plenty of fuel on board, so he pushed on to Burbank and he then turned south and headed for San Diego. Turning at North Island at 4:33 p.m., he headed up U.S.99 still maintaining his 10,000 foot altitude, until he arrived over Bakersfield at 4:53 p.m., where he switched to the forward internal tanks and headed back to Burbank. The time was now 5:08 p.m. The Allisions and the aircraft up to this point had performed flawlessly as the camouflaged Lockheed plant came into view. Although Milo was suffering from saddle soreness beyond description, he turned west and headed to Oxnard and arrived over the coast at 5:55 p.m., circled Point Mugu, and headed back to the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank.

With evening shadows covering the field and with just 38 gallons of fuel on board, the throttles were cut and the wheels touched down at 6:09 p.m. after a long day in the office.

Milo Burcham crawled out on the wing after having been aloft for 13.67 hours while covering a distance of 2,907 miles! And he still had enough reserve fuel to push that number to 3,026 miles! Taking in all the variables of the flight with headwinds and an increase in the flight speed from 204 to 213 mph the range could have been pushed to a staggering number for its day, 3,167 miles!

To sum this up, the flight from Palmdale to Burbank was kept under wraps but some quick calculations says that a round trip to Berlin from London was 1,269 miles. If word of this had gotten out, it would have given the German Army something to think about! Milo summed this up by saying the airplane was up to the task but not every pilot could have endured the pain of 13 and a half hours in a bucket seat! Milo Burcham deserved a medal, but he didn’t even get a mention in the newspapers, But early on that August morning, the sound of two V-12 F-10 Allisions under power sang a song in the quiet air of the Antelope Valley that the winds of war were changing in favor of the Army Air Corps of the United States of America, and that the fork-tail devil could go a long way on a tank of gas — and Palmdale was its start point ….

Till next time, Bob out!

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