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ALMA HAHN: ‘Can opener’ P-38 airplane was one my father missed

April 11, 2011

My father never looked or acted like a daredevil, but in his younger life, he definitely was. Barely reaching the 5’ 2” mark on the height chart, and wearing a size 5.5 shoe, he barely met the Army’s size requirements.

He took full advantage of the Army’s new Air Corps, flying in every plane it had until the revolutionary P-38 came along. Unfortunately, he watched its frequent takeoffs and landings from the runways because the doctors had grounded him for health reasons.
The P-38 “can opener,” as the men in the armament division where my father officially worked called it, was unlike any aircraft before or since. It looked like two long fuselages, fastened at one end with a wing and at the other with a tail piece. A cockpit sat in the center of the wing section.
The “P” stood for “pursuit,” a type of fighter plane, but the P-38 was more than that; it was a bomber that could carry both explosive and incendiary bombs; it also was a reconnaissance plane and an escort plane for other aircraft. It had outstanding speed and a phenomenal climb rate.
Authorized in 1937, the plans called for a top speed of 360 mph and a climb rate of 6 minutes from zero to 27,000 feet altitude. The design for “Model 22” was drawn, and Lockheed Aircraft received the contract to build it. It was given the serial number 37-457.
The plane was equipped with a 20-mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns. These were mounted right in front of the pilot and provided concentrated firing power.
The plane had the first tricycle landing gear. Its planned cruising speed of 413 mph made it faster than any other plane of its time. It had its problems, but took off on its first flight on Jan. 27, 1939, and in February 1939, it challenged the transcontinental record then held by Howard Hughes. (Remember his Spruce Goose?)
The flight set a record, beating Hughes’ time by just over 23 minutes, but it crashed into a golf course. The pilot sustained no injuries, but the plane was a total loss.
Declared obsolete for the military in 1945, the plane went on to achieve great things before it landed for the last time in 1946. Some of the great names of aviation were among her pilots. My father’s close friend from their early days together in aviation, Charles Lindbergh, was among them.
Most of the P-38s built can still be accounted for. Accurate records of all the planes’ histories are on file. Historians know who most of the pilots and crewmen were on each plane.
There is a list of all the planes that are unaccounted for. One such plane is known as the Maid of Harlech because of where she went down in the sands on an isolated beach on the coast of Wales in 1942. The site was near the historic Welch town of Harlech. The pilot and crew escaped unhurt, but the airmen were unable to fly the plane off the beach.
Taking the nose guns, the crew left the plane where she was and made their way to safety. The ever-shifting sands quickly covered the plane, hiding it where it landed. It lay unknown and undisturbed until July 2007, when winds temporarily blew the sands away, partially exposing part of the wreck. The man who discovered the plane on the beach vacationed there with his family frequently for many years and never before had a hint of what lay beneath the sands.
The plane still lies where she came to rest all those years ago, her exact location a secret still, protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act. Its recovery is being conducted by a group called TIGHAR, an acronym for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, to prevent vandalism and thievery.
(This is the group that has worked so diligently toward solving the Amelia Earhart mystery. If you would like to donate to this organization, check out their website. It explains how the money is spent and ways to donate.)
The plane is the oldest surviving P-38 still in its original condition, and probably the oldest surviving 8th Air Force combat veteran of any type.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.
beajhahn@sbcglobal.net

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