Stan Wood flew P-38's during WW2

Stan Wood in the cockpit of his P-38

During WW2 I put quite a few hours in those birds (P-38ís) and loved them. I was in the 414th Fighter Group, 456th Fighter Squadron, 13th Air Force. I flew in the South Pacific theater and flew P-47's & P-51's as well as the 38, but for fun of flying and stability it couldn't be beat and is still my favorite of all.

It's been a long time since I have flown a 38 and a 19-year-old kid who is now 74 years old was flying them at the time. They were such a dream that I know I could get back in the cockpit today and not have any trouble taking one around the patch again.

The first plane that I soloed, when I was 17, was a J3-Cub. This was prior to joining the Army Air Corps at the age of 18. In the interim between 17 and 74 I have flown between 35 to 40 types of aircraft and have between 9,000 and 10,000 flying hours.

If I were to have the choice of flying any of those planes again, I would pick the P-38 without hesitation. My flying days have been over for a number of years and now the only flying I do is on commercial airlines or playing some of the computer flight games.

I will always remember a flight, here in the states, when I was stationed at Van Nuys, CA. Four of us, in trail, flew DOWN Hill Street in Los Angeles. I remember looking into the windows of the office buildings as we went by and that is what I mean by flying DOWN Hill Street. I would give a lot to be able to find the other three members of that flight or be able to talk to someone who might have been down in the street at that time.

Checking out in a single seat fighter consisted of reading and understanding what you read and taking a cockpit blindfold check and then just doing it.

The P-38 with tricycle gear was really a simple plane to land. Coming in for a landing over the fence at 110 and flaring out at 90 the main gear would touch down and the nose wheel would feel as though it just dropped into a slot on the runway and would roll out all by itself. Upon touch down and roll out you could actually start filling out the form-one with no fear of losing control.

All fighters during the war would make the normal tactical approach and pitch up. We would take a flight of four from pitch up to touch down in less than a minute. This got us all on the ground in as short a time as possible as fuel could be a factor and the number of planes to land could be rather large.

This landing procedure was standard and old hat, but there were instances when the weather was not the best and it got a little more interesting.

When I was stationed at Van Nuys flying 38s we would do our aerial gunnery practice over the ocean. More than once the weather would deteriorate as we were coming back in from 50 or 60 miles out and get real sticky. I remember the ceiling getting lower and lower as we approached the coast until we were right down on the water and stirring up wake with our props. We would come over the coast in a tight right echelon, turn to the left when we hit Balboa blvd.and fly north. Balboa is just to the left of the runway and we could follow it to the field. On the deck, going balls out and in a tight right echelon we hit the end of the field, did the normal tight pitch up and in a steep climbing vertical turn, up and into the soup, dropped wheels and flaps, chopped our throttle and made sure that you kept the plane that you were flying on close and in sight. As we came out of the clouds we were on the deck and touching down almost at the same time. This looked great from the ground, but in the air it always seemed a little hairy. I remember the time our number four man got lost in the transition and climbed all the way up over the overcast. He just flew out over the desert and bailed out.

I looked over the operating instructions for the P-38 and after all of these years, found a warning on page five that I had never paid any attention to and don't remember reading.

It says, "CAUTION: Do not operate the engines at takeoff power for more than two or three seconds while on the ground."

Am sure that the reason was to not overheat the engines, however, I remember holding the toe brakes, checking the mags, etc., running up to take off manifold pressure, synchronizing the props and waiting, waiting, waiting for what seemed forever for tower clearance to take off. In formation takeoffs this was standard practice. My legs would be shaking with the strain of holding the brakes and when finally released the sense of relief was an absolute joy. No one ever complained about this procedure so I guess I wasn't the only one who paid no attention to or never read the warning.

The first fighter and the first plane that I ever flew with tricycle gear was the P-39. It, however, didn't have the same landing characteristics as the 38. By comparison to the 38 and the other fighters that I did fly it was on the bottom of my like list. However, since it was the first really hot plane that I had flown, it was a big thrill and landed like a regular tricycle-gear bird.

The P-47, with the wide, wide gear was also a great plane to land, however the conventional gear meant that you would have to stay on top of it more than the 38 on landings. The tail wheel locked and that did help when the tail was fully down, but it could still get away from you if you were to go to sleep. My tentmate in the 414th, by the name of Nafe, lost a 47 on landing and took out five P-47's that were sitting on the line. Made him a Jap ace in about 10 seconds. He went right down the line taking out all of the tails and never a scratch on him. The Jug was built like a single engine tank.

Actually the gear was almost indestructible. We made tactical approaches in all of the fighters and from pitch up to touch down for a flight of four, we always landed in less than a minute. In most cases it only took about 45 seconds. Coming back from a mission I had a real hot rock friend who made a great pitch up and landing. After landing, the plane just rolled out and stopped by itself. When we checked on the reason the plane was just sitting there with the engine running we found the pilot was dead, killed from the concussion of the hard landing. Very strange, but true. No damage to the landing gear in any way. For ground support the 47 couldn't be beat with that big radial engine up in front.

The 51 also has a great wide gear, but you had to stay on top of the landings with it also. In all the planes that I have flown, the 51 is the only plane that I ever almost lost on landing. It is like a big AT-6 Trainer but with a wide gear and a hell of a lot more power. Making a three point landing is fine in most cases, however if one wing tank is heavier on fuel than the other it can make for a hairy time. Coming in for a normal three point landing, I flared out and stalled a little too high. The wing with the most fuel just fell out from under me and my right wing scrapped the ground. I did manage to straighten it out after taking about an inch off the end of the prop and scraping a good piece from the wing tip, but the embarrassment was never lived down. From that time on I always just took it easy and wheeled them in. Torque on takeoff in a 51 was really a bitch if you failed to have the trim tabs set to compensate for that big fan in front. Trying to hold it on takeoff without the trim was almost impossible. I did it once and it taught me never to forget to set it again.

Reading SPIN CHARACTERISTICS on page 8 of the operating instructions for the P-38 reminds me of one unintentional spin recovery that I will never forget:

I had intentionally spun the plane before and the normal spin recovery is simple and easy to accomplish, opposite rudder, pop the stick (wheel in a 38) and dive out of it. However, this day, as I was upside down on my back with my gun cameras blasting away at my wingman during a rat race, I stalled into a really great flat spin. After about three turns I managed to come out of the spin and pulled back on the yolk. The ground looked to be coming up in a hurry, so being in too much of a hurry I pulled back too hard on the yolk and went into a secondary high speed stall and went into a spin in the opposite direction. This is not good and when hearing my buddy calling the field telling them that a 38 was going in and to send out the crash trucks I felt that this really wasn't my day. Opposite rudder, pop the stick to come out after another two turns and then pulling back slowly. This time I did manage to come out of the spin. I pulled out over a little meadow not more than five feet from the ground. I can still see the trees on both sides of my plane as I pulled out and up. The lesson here is that you never give up. Never stop flying the airplane. Wait until you have landed before you panic. From that experience I have to admit that I was shaking a bit after I had landed. I have seen friends die because they gave up and didn't fly the plane all the way to the ground.

I just noticed on Page 1 of the operating instructions for the P-38:


I wonder what that meant?

Two engines in the P-38 gives a person a feeling of security that one engine can never do. I came back once with an oil fire in my right engine and landing with the remaining engine was no trouble. Still remember the crash trucks following me down the runway, as I was landing and sliding off the wing after I had stopped rolling. Those wings are a long way above the ground too. My C.O. chewed me out for bringing it back and not bailing out. That was before I had ever jumped out of a plane and I wasn't too thrilled about the prospect, even though I was in friendly territory. Guess I was lucky it didn't blow up on me.

Regarding flying the 38 with one engine feathered, I was told that one should not turn into a dead engine. However, I remember a demonstration by Tony Lavier who feathered an engine on takeoff and then did a slow roll into the dead engine. Tony was one of the original test pilots on the 38 for Lockheed and could do things with it that were almost impossible. I wouldn't have even tried it at altitude let alone on takeoff.

Most P-39's were sent to the Russians - so I guess that was an American secret weapon against our Russian allies.

Those Russian pilots had a lot of guts and they did use the 39 to good advantage. When they were ferried to the Aleutians and picked up by the Russian pilots the first thing they did was take out all of the armor plate, radio gear and excess weight. They really had NO love for the Germans and shot a lot of them down with the P-39.

We lost a lot of pilots while training on the P-39 and I was almost one of the casualties when I flew them at Victorville, California. On a go around after pulling up my wheels I couldn't get any boost and it just putted along about 5 miles above stall speed. Couldn't even milk up my flaps at that altitude. A few miles off the end of the runway are huge high tension towers and lines that look like they hang down almost to the ground. As I got closer, and still on the ground about ready to stall out, I knew that I could never get over them, so I just went under them. The 39 had carburetor heat that was put on when landing and when I finally remembered to take off the carburetor heat the engine decided to run again and I was able to continue. I am sure the tower thought that I must be a grandstander or that I would be just one more casualty.

The supercharger was said to be mismatched to the engine, and gave a much lower service ceiling than intended. Was this true in your experience?

I don't know about the mismatched thing. I do know that above 20,000 feet I always felt as if I was balancing on a tight wire ready to slide off one side or the other. The ceiling was around 40,000 ft, however I never did fly much over 20,000 ft. I always did have a fear of heights.

In relation to the superchargers, since I flew the last model I assume that they were the correct version of supercharger. Therefore since I never flew one much over 20,000 ft. I really don't know how it reacted up to the ceiling of 40,000. All I know is that it always felt like the plane was going to stall and fall off on a wing and that I was walking a tight wire.

The term "on modified airplanes", occurs frequently in the flight manual. Does it have to do with superchargers or....?

COULD, but not necessarily just superchargers. Any later model of the original P-38 had modifications to the previous one. I flew the L model which was the latest fighter version and was a modification of the previous models.

Was it as maneuverable as it looks - also compared to the P-47 and P-51?

I would probably have to say no. With the combat flaps it did turn pretty tight, but the 38 was better as a hell-bent-for-leather-downhill-attack and then keep-on-going plane. Also I have a preference for a stick rather than a wheel and am sure I could left hand break with a 51 tighter than a 38. There is no doubt that the 51 was by far the better combat plane of the day. The Jug was for it's size surprisingly very maneuverable and built to withstand a lot of punishment. I remember flying a 47 through a thunderstorm in the South Pacific. I slowed it down, put it on Auto Pilot and although I almost lost my eye teeth, it came through with no problem except for a canopy-bumped head. This was back in the days before hard hats and leather helmets don't take up a lot of shock.

The cockpit seems much more "vulnerable" than in other aircraft with normal fuselages - did you feel that way?

No, the visibility was real good and the seat had good armor protection. It also had a little mirror on top of the canopy that showed your six to good advantage. I remember watching a 38 taking off when the left engine failed and the plane rolled, and rolled all the way around before it hit the ground. The plane skidded between a tower and a building which took off both of the engines and left the canopy bouncing along all by itself. Think this guy got a little beat up, but it didn't kill him. There is a time to be born and a time to die and it just wasn't his time.

The P-38 is said to be one of the few propeller aircraft capable of nearly reaching the sound barrier in a dive - is this true?

The 38 could reach compressabity in a dive and your controls would reverse I am told. The dive breaks did a good job of taking care of that and I never did have any problems. In a dive bombing run I did forgot to use them once and almost overran the plane in front of me. I did throttle back and didn't notice any problem except I was going way to fast.

The Mustang is said to have been unsuitable for ground strafing as it was very vulnerable to ground fire damage, and that it didn't take much to knock it out. How did the Lightening stand up to ground fire? Was it robust - able to take "punishment"?

If you get hit, you are going to get hit. I never did. At least with a 38 you have another engine to rely on. The Jug was ideal for ground work as that big engine was just like a shield in front of you. Don't know anyone who has flown them both that wouldn't rather have flown the Jug for ground targets. I lost a secondary cowling in a dive that came back and wrapped around my wings leading edge. Made a heck of a racket and scared the H out of me. Don't know if it was a hit or someone did a lousy job of fastening a Zeus fastener. That same day coming back over Manila bay my wingman, for no reason I could see, just rolled over and flew straight into the bay. No radio call. No nothing. Don't think he had been hit by anything. I also lost one of my best friends, who I had gone all the way through flying school with, when he was killed in a P-51. The right wing of his 51 broke in a power dive, came back across the top of the plane and cut off the canopy. When we pulled him out of the rice paddy the top of his head had been sliced off as if with a knife.

How did the P-38 compare to Japanese aircraft - speed, turn, climb etc.?

The 38 was built much better and could outdive and outclimb but in a turn the lighter Japanese planes could easily turn inside a 38, even with combat flaps down. Make a diving attack from above. Hit and run and keep on going to regain altitude and make another attack from altitude if necessary.

Were they well built? I am thinking of quality control at the factory.

Don't think we ever found any wrenches left in the engine compartments. I never had any trouble with the quality of the P-38 and they all seemed to do what I wanted them to when I flew them. I don't remember having to red-line any plane that I flew for any reason.

What were the major faults of the aircraft? What didn't work well, and what were the circumstances that it was bad to fly in general and more specifically in combat?

I can't be much help to you as I never had any real trouble with them and I really loved flying them. There was NO torque. Guns fired straight ahead so you didn't have to think about the interception point. Guess my main complaint would be about the relief tube. Although I have flown 8 hour missions without having to use them. Not anymore. Lockheed did a real good job as far as I was concerned when they built the Lightning P-38.

Art Heiden writes that the P-38 cockpit is "Adequate for a 6-footer. About the same as P-40/P-39. I was 6' 2" .. tended to make me stooped shouldered sitting on dingy using a backpack chute.....P-51 had a larger/better cockpit.The P-51 was a new airplane and we were eager to fly it and were happy with it. It was so easy and comfortable to fly. The P-38 had kept us on our toes and constantly busy--far more critical to fly. "

I don't know if it was because this guy is 6 ft something and I was only 5'10" but to me the 38 was more comfortable and friendly than the 51. I never considered it to be critical to fly. However, to each his own.

When did you fly the P-80? Do you know anything about the circumstances regarding how Major Bong died August 1945 at Burbank, California in a P-80?

Thirty P-80s were sent to Manila on an aircraft carrier. They were to have been the first test of the 80 under actual combat conditions. However, with the usual snafu situation that prevails during wartime the carrier arrived late. The Navy had also forgotten to bring along the aircraft batteries and the tip tanks. This meant a delay before they were finally delivered. The planes sat on the carrier in. Manila Bay for almost 30 days waiting. It just happened that I was in Manila on TDY for something or other and to kill some time I took an engine course on the P-80 which was being given at Clark Field. My Group at Florida Blanca was given the planes when the batteries finally did arrive. Guess what? This time they had also forgotten to bring any tip tanks. Without wing tanks the 80 had about 30 minutes of flight time.

Well, at least now we did have the batteries, however by this time the bomb had been dropped and the war was over, so now testing the jets under any semblance of combat conditions was eliminated.

They were all trucked into the Group and looked real neat sitting on the line. Everyone was Gung Ho to get to flying them. Surprise, Surprise we were all informed that until we had had the ground school and been certified to fly them it was a NO NO. The Group Commander and my Squadron Commander checked out and you guessed it, because I had taken the course in Manila I was the third pilot in the South Pacific to fly jets.

The panel on the 80 looked as though they had also forgotten to put in any instruments. Basic instruments and a stick. It sure did look bare. I remember there was a fuel gauge that ticked off the gallons as they were being sucked up. On the ground it was a constant tick, tick, tick, tick per gallon, almost as fast as you could count. You wondered if you would get to the end of the runway before running out of fuel. It did get a little better mileage in the air, but without outer tanks you only had a little over 30 minutes of flight time.

These 80s were a real joy to fly. They flew just like pushing a baby buggy and the first thing that you notice is that all you hear in the air is the ticking of the fuel gauge. One of the first flights that I made was a trip to the Navy Base at Cavitie. I remember flying down the runway, 10 feet off the deck, heading directly toward the tower doing about 500 mph indicated. At the last minute I pulled up, did three slow rolls on the way up and leveled off at 12,500 still doing 250 mph. That was like a neener, neener, neener to the Navy and I really loved it. We didn't have all of the comforts and the clean sheets, good quarters and the goodies the Navy did, but WE had the jets.

I never met Bong,.....and I never read the accident report of his death at Burbank, however from what I have heard the plane blew up on take off. I feel sure that I know what happened as I saw the same thing happen to one of our group. I was in a jeep at the end of the runway when an 80 was ready to take off. I was directly behind the jet and heard it start to come apart. It was a terrible sound and I knew what was happening. The tower couldn't hear it and the pilot apparently couldn't tell what was happening. I had no radio and no way to get through the fence in time to stop his taking off. He was in the air and almost to the end of the runway when it blew up. One of the turbo fan buckets had broken loose putting the whole engine out of balance. With power they all went and the engine just disintegrated It was truly a terrible feeling knowing that he was about to die and not being able to do anything to stop it. It is one of the things that I never will forget.

I read the history report on the Internet of the 367th Fighter group. What they went through in the ETO was pretty rough. I had it so easy by comparison that I am almost embarrassed. We also lost about the same number of pilots while training on P-39's at Victorville, CA but my experiences in the South Pacific was nothing compared to the losses that they had in Europe.

If your squadron was flying P-38's how did the squadron get the new aircraft types - P-51's, P-47's etc.

We went from 38's to 51's to 47's and where they went afterwards I am not sure. We ended up overseas at the end of the war with 47's and then we got the 80's. I never bothered to ask any questions, just flew what happened to be around.

The 457th was not always stationed at the same location. The 38's were flown when the 457th was stationed on Palawan. The 51's we flew when we were stationed at Clark Fld. in Manila and we transitioned into the 47 when we opened the base at Florida Blanca on Luzon. Why we had some 38's at Florida Blanca I really don't remember.

What training did you receive in these new types of aircraft?

Read the" how to fly these things book" and took a cockpit check and pushed the throttle forward. One plane is like another after while.

After the war was finished, I was still in the Philippines. We were flying 51s and 47s but still had a number of 38s on the field. I remember ferrying what were basically brand new 38s down to Clark Field and then taxiing them through a field to a huge hole where they were bulldozed into and burned. Some of these planes had less than 10 hours on the form one. They all had full gas tanks and all instruments. They could have been purchased for one hundred dollars ($100). The gas alone would have been worth that. The instruments could have been salvaged if a person didn't want to keep the plane. How sick do you think I feel today, when there are very few left in the world and now would sell for close to, if not more than, $1,000,000. I did take one of the control wheels out and brought it back home with me. Should have had the whole plane.

Stan Wood in front of his P-38


Thanks to Stan Wood for sharing his experiances with us!