Just Flight's P-38 Lightning
A review by John Allard

January 2008

Lockheed P-38J late model


I've been an aviation buff from the time I was old enough to notice airplanes. As a child, any ride in the car would include a detour past the airport if Dad could be persuaded; Dad was plane-crazy too, so it never took much to convince him. During all the considerable intervening span of time, my favorite airplane, bar none, has been the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. There's just something about it that I've always found captivating.

I've been fortunate enough to have seen the P-38 fly at air shows four or five times. They were always uncommon in the postwar years and are becoming increasingly rare. Only a handful of airframes still exist and only a few of those are flyable. Those that can still fly are flown carefully and infrequently compared to more common warbird types.

You can imagine then, my excitement when Just Flight announced the impending release of their P-38 package. I managed to acquire one very quickly after it became available.

The Aircraft

The P-38 is unique. The configuration is unusual and easily recognizable; it was considered quite unconventional at the time it was conceived. The Lightning was designed to meet a US Army Air Corps requirement for a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor in the late pre-war years. Originally named Atlanta (after the god, not the city) by Lockheed, the RAF re-christened their early P-38s Lightning and that's the name that stuck.

Designed by Lockheed's famous Kelly Johnson, the aircraft incorporates some innovative technologies and was ahead of its day in several respects. Tricycle landing gear, counter-rotating engines, turbo-chargers versus the more common engine-driven superchargers and centreline-mounted guns (including a cannon) were all unusual for that time. So too was the twin-engine, single-pilot layout.

Even though the prototype crashed at the end of a very long demonstration flight, the Lightning met the Army’s challenging acceptance criteria and was soon put into high-volume production as the US entry into the war approached. Though reasonably capable, it soon acquired a chequered reputation due to technical faults, some with the airplane itself, some resulting from the training that was being provided, and some with the support services that were available, especially fuel quality.

Considered a mediocre performer as a long-range escort fighter in the European Theatre of Operations, it was supplanted in that role by the P-51 Mustang as that superb aircraft became available. After being largely displaced as a bomber escort the Lightning was employed in the ETO primarily for ground attack and photo-reconnaissance, where specialized variants performed admirably in both roles.

The story in the Pacific was quite different. Though the technical faults were known and the training was the same, the attitude toward the P-38 was very different from that in Europe. Differences in climate, geography, and the tactical situation in that region, coupled with the availability of better quality fuel, combined to enhance the strengths of the P-38 and minimize its faults, real and perceived. America's two top scoring WWII aces, Bong and McGuire, both achieved their record of victories entirely with the P-38 in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

From the J-model onward, the Lightning's technical problems were largely a thing of the past. Small, quick-acting dive recovery flaps had solved the compressibility problem in high-speed dives; hydraulically-boosted ailerons greatly increased roll-rate and correspondingly reduced control forces; a new turbo-charger intercooler arrangement resolved problems that had earlier led to frequent engine failures. The late J-model and all of the L-models of the P-38 (there was only 1 K model) proved to be superbly capable, effective and reliable. About 11,000 Lightning's were built; nearly 7,000 were of the definitive J- and L-models.

The Software

Created by Aeroplane Heaven and published by Just Flight, this eagerly awaited package lives up to expectations. Supplied in five variants (including the F4 and F5 photo reconnaissance types but not the ultimate L model) in seventeen paint schemes, everyone should find one that pleases them. The external models are accurate and detailed.

The JF/AH P-38 package is compatible with both in FS9 and FSX. All my flying with it has been in FS9.

The first thing you notice about this package is that there is no 2-D cockpit provided. When starting you begin in 2-D mode with an unrestricted forward view; there’s no part of the aircraft in the view. One press of the W key brings up a set of seven instruments at the screen’s bottom edge. These include five of the six basic flight instruments, but oddly, no gyro compass. The remaining two are a dual-indicating fuel gauge and an instrument depicting landing gear and flap positions. All seven are genuine period-style gauges, not the FS/Cessna gauges that normally appear here in W-key view. Though the aircraft can be flown from this view, it’s a very unsatisfying experience – why would you want to?

To quote Elmer Fudd, “Th..th..that’s all, folks!”

The Cockpit

So, on to the 3-D cockpit – it’s not as if there’s much choice. I’m not an expert on 3-D cockpits; I normally fly the 2-D. This is my first experience spending any significant amount of time in the 3-D office of any aircraft. Because of that, I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on whether the implementation of this one is good or bad in comparison to other products. What I can say is that the cockpit appears to be authentic – and accuracy appears to have been a primary criterion for the developers of this package.

The cockpits look and feel right to me and they work. The authors of this software have gone out of their way to avoid any hint of a gamey look and feel. For instance, there are none of the familiar sim-icons anywhere. The radio and GPS (the hand-held Garmin) can be accessed via top-line menu pull-downs (or Shft-2 and Shft-3), as can the ATC window, but you won’t find any visible controls for anything that wasn’t put there by Lockheed or the Army.

Vintage panel

The radios are vintage, as are all the instruments. Looking for an HSI, or an OBI or a glide slope? Forget it, Mac, this is 1944. They haven’t been invented yet.

Transistors won’t be invented for another 20 years or so

The manual and advertising copy for this package indicate that the 3-D cockpits are very authentic, and that the aircraft can be flown “by the numbers” from the 3-D view, including cold starts. This would seem to be the case. I couldn’t identify anything important that was missing or that didn’t work. It is necessary, however, to become familiar with the eye-point controls for leaning left, right, forward, etc. As must be true of the real aircraft, you can’t just sit immobile in a central position and expect to see and reach everything. Oh, for a TrackIR!

The Lightning has a yoke, not the more common stick. There’s a deck-mounted pylon on the right side of the cockpit. At its top, a bar extends horizontally to the left over the pilot’s legs and it’s on this that the wheel is mounted. That horizontal bar also carries a handful of switches and controls. Pitch inputs move the entire pylon fore and aft through its pivot point at the deck.

No stick here…

There’s quite a lot of variation from model to model in the panels, equipment and layouts. For instance, both the J-model combat variants have a huge, hulking, gun sight and also an extra horizontal frame member at the bottom edge of the windscreen that blocks a good part of the forward view. The F5 photo-reconnaissance model has the frame but not the gun sight. Neither the F combat model nor the F4 photo-ship have either the sight or the extra frame member. Forward visibility from them is considerably better.

In the later models the magnetic compass protrudes from the panel and masks most of the altimeter, situated just below it. Most of the altimeter face can be viewed by leaning forward and left but it’s awkward and inconvenient, particularly during approaches.

Flying the Lightning

Ground handling is relatively easy. The nose gear steering is crisp and precise. Even in the models fitted with the Sight, gun, massive, aviation, view-blocking, Army, Mark I, Mod 3, the obstructed area of view is narrow. It’s easy to see both edges of the taxiways and any impending turnoffs well ahead without swivelling the view.

Ground view

The engine sound is very good – the suggestion of muted power is there, but if you’re used to flying Merlins, it’s not like that at all. Instead of eight-inch long exhaust stacks, the Allison’s exhausts are routed aft through the booms to the turbo-chargers on the top of each, almost as far back as the trailing edge of the wings. The turbochargers and exhaust plumbing are fairly effective mufflers and there’s none of that burbling, barking exhaust noise. You won’t mistake it for a Cessna however, nor for a radial. Other sounds, flaps, landing gear, wheel noises and such also seem about right.

When you’re lined up to go and push the throttles, you’ll experience something unique for a high-performance propeller AC – or rather you won’t experience it. There’s no torque, thanks to those counter-rotating engines. It tracks dead straight, just goes where you point it, even with the reality sliders all the way up. If there’s no wind you can take off without touching the rudder pedals, as long as you’ve lined up well. It’s one of the things that pilots loved about the Lightning.

The P-38 with full fuel (including the drop tanks that are included on every model) is a heavy airplane and it doesn’t exactly leap off the ground in 1,000 feet. Maximum weight is on the far side of 20,000 lbs and even with no weapon load you can expect to be above 16,000 with all the tanks full. Once off and the gear retracted, initial climb is breath-taking for a piston engine aircraft. You can exceed 4,000 fpm for a minute or two, though you soon run out of steam and have to lower the nose.

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…

Engine management is important in all phases of flight. The throttles and manifold pressure gauges are the primary tools for this; there’s no separate boost control. At low and intermediate altitude, there’s enough throttle to easily over-boost the engines, so keeping one eye on the MP is important when making changes. Mixture control is, of course, important as well.

The Lightning is an agile and well-behaved aircraft. Manoeuvrability is quite good, considering the size and weight. There’s ample power, but energy management is necessary. High-g manoeuvres eat away at the airspeed and can’t be maintained indefinitely. Turn rate is phenomenal; put the lift line through where you want to go and pull hard, but watch the airspeed. Roll rate is good, but not stunning.


This aircraft doesn’t seem to have any bad habits. Stall recovery is easy and conventional.

The AC must be bullied into a spin and once in it, recovery is nothing unusual – lower the nose, reduce power, kick opposite rudder and you’re flying again.

Bearing in mind I’m not a 3-D guy, I found landings a challenge.

The P-38 is easy to land – it’s difficult to land well. Forward visibility is OK with some flaps out to pitch it down a little, but too much of a good thing causes problems.

With full flaps the AC will pitch down a lot. That coupled with the long nose strut means you have to really haul hard to get the nose high enough in the flare to touch down on the mains.

I wheel-barrowed more than one landing and soon learned that two notches of flap was about all that was easily manageable.

Approach, touchdown and stall speeds are all comfortably low and long runways are not needed if the approach is flown reasonably well.

Yanking and banking



Full flaps approach  No Wheelbarrow here

In flight, the magnetic compass is “noisy”, just as in the RW. In every FS aircraft I’ve ever flown, the magnetic compass is steady as a rock. That’s just not so in the real world, where you’re taught to only trust it in “…straight, level, un-accelerated flight”. Someone took the time to make this one behave realistically, the first time I’ve seen that.

There’s no index needle on gyro compass. Fly a heading of 133 degrees? Well somewhere between 120 and 150 ought to be about right…


This is a great package modelling a great airplane. Its immense fun to fly in its own rite, but all the more so if you have some appreciation for the history of it.

The appearance is excellent. The credit for that has to be shared between Airplane Heaven and Lockheed, though. I never get tired of looking at it.

There’s nothing else like it!

The external models are quite good and that broad range of paint schemes, including some nose art, add to the effect. For some reason, though, the nose art only appears on the port side. The animations, including an opened gun bay, are very good. Engine starting has those counter-rotating propellers cranking correctly, outboard at the top, and you see the blade pitch adjust just before they start to turn over. There was a lot of attention to detail in this production – no doubt a lot of it escaped me, but I’ll find most of it sooner or later. I’m certainly not done flying this thing, not while there’s breath in me.

Bong’s “Marge”, gun bay open

This is a very well-done, very pleasing piece of software. It is clearly intended to be long on authenticity, on fidelity to the original aircraft. This appeals to a certain kind of sim pilot. This is not the sort of aircraft you’ll make long IFR flights with, though many brave young men, now old or gone, did that during the war. It’s not likely to be a good Cargo Pilot airplane or one you’ll buy for your VA. This package was intended for the aficionado, the warbird buff, the history lover, the guy who values realism above convenience

– in a word, for me! Thanks, JF and AH. I love it!

John Allard


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