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P-38 "Lightning"

Lockheed P-38J-10-LO "Lightning"

Lockheed P-38J-10-LO "Lightning"

Lockheed P-38J-10-LO "Lightning"
S/N 42-67638

Crew:   One
Engine:   Two Allison V-1710-89/91 inline, 12-cylinder, liquid cooled; 1,425 hp each
Wingspan:   52 ft 0 in
Length:   37 ft 10 in
Height:   9 ft 10 in
Weight:   12,780 lbs empty; 21,000 lbs max
Speed:   414 mph at 25,000 feet
Range:   2,260 miles with drop tanks
Ceiling:   44,000 ft
Armament:   One 20mm cannon, four .50 cal machine guns, 4,000 lbs bombs, or ten 5" rockets
Cost:   $97,147 (average P-38 unit cost as of 1944)

This P-38J-10-LO, S/N 42-67638, was manufactured by the Lockheed Company in Burbank, California, and accepted by the USAAF on October 23, 1943. In May 1944 it was assigned to the 54th Fighter Squadron of the 343rd Fighter Group, 11th Air Force, flying out of the Army air field at Alexai Point on the small island of Attu in the Aleutians. The 54th Fighter Squadron was the only one of the four squadrons in the 343rd Fighter Group to be fully equipped with P-38s. The other three squadrons flew a mix of P-38 and P-40 aircraft. This machine became squadron aircraft number 85.

Early in 1945 the P-38s of the 54th Fighter Squadron began to fly special high-altitude missions aimed at intercepting Japanese balloon bombs drifting eastward toward North America on the jet stream. These last-ditch weapons of terror were launched into the upper atmosphere from the home islands of Japan in hopes of dropping incendiary charges onto the United States and Canada. 

The first Allied territory in the balloons' flight path was the Aleutian Islands, where Army and Navy planes had first chance at shooting the devices from the air. The air field at Alexai Point on Attu was directly in the flight path of the unmanned balloons, which passed overhead at between 30,000 and 37,000 feet.

On February 2, 1945, 1st Lt. Arthur W. Kidder, Jr., flew aircraft number 85 on a local test hop following a 50-hour inspection. Lt. Kidder was an experienced P-38 pilot, having flown 54 combat missions on a previous tour of duty in Italy. He had four enemy kills to his credit, three of which came on one mission. The test flight with aircraft 85 was to take about two hours, checking the aircraft's operation at the extremes of its performance envelope.

After flying the test mission, Lt. Kidder radioed Alexai Point for clearance to land and headed down through the clouds. The controller gave him a vector heading and said he was only about 15 miles from base, but when Kidder broke out of the clouds at about 1,500 feet above the icy Pacific there was no land in sight. 

He tried to radio the control tower again for further directions, but discovered that ice had formed on his primary radio's antenna wire as he had descended through the overcast, causing it to snap off. He climbed back through the clouds to try a backup line-of-sight radio, but received no reply to his calls. He again let back down through the clouds and began to search for the base, flying a rectangular search pattern and extending each side of the box by five minutes each time.

For four hours Lt. Kidder searched in vain for his home island. Running low on fuel, he began to look for any dry land to set the plane down. Ditching in the frigid ocean was out of the question. Even in a life raft he would not last long. Finally he spotted a tiny island below and circled it looking for a suitable landing site. Only a small patch of relatively flat terrain existed on the mountainous little island, but he headed straight for it. 

Knowing that the P-38 was fairly smooth on the bottom and prone to slide great distances in belly-landings, Kidder decided to lower the gear and then retract them at the last moment, leaving the gear doors down to plow into the ground and slow his slide. This worked perfectly and the P-38 slid only about 300 feet before coming to rest in the tall grass. With only 385 hours on its airframe, the short career of aircraft number 85 came to an abrupt end.

Five U.S. Army soldiers stationed at a tiny weather outpost on the otherwise uninhabited island heard the crash-landing and ran to help the pilot. They informed Kidder that he had landed on Buldir Island, 100 miles east of his base on Attu. They immediately began sending messages on their low-powered weather reporting radio, but since no one was expecting a report from them at that time there was no response. 

Late that night a ham radio operator in St. Louis, Missouri, picked up their distress calls and contacted the War Department. A Navy patrol vessel picked up Lt. Kidder two days later and returned him to Attu.

Besides the major damage inflicted when the plane crash-landed, over time it was demilitarized and even used as a ground target for other P-38s on air-to-ground gunnery training. What remained of the aircraft rested on Buldir Island for nearly fifty years, until August 1994 when the Air Force Heritage Foundation of Utah staged an expedition to recover the derelict from its crash site. 

Arthur Kidder, now retired and living in Colorado, was located and invited to accompany Heritage Foundation members and personnel from the 405th Combat Logistics Support Squadron from Hill AFB on the recovery expedition. The recovered aircraft was delivered in October 1994 to an aircraft restoration company in southern California, where it underwent a complete rebuild. The finished P-38 arrived at Hill Aerospace Museum in August 1996. It is one of approximately 30 P-38s which still exist around the world today.