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'Lightning' strikes 1st Pursuit Group

A P-38 Lightning. (Courtesy photo)

A P-38 Lightning. (Courtesy photo)

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (AFPN) -- During July 1941, the 27th Pursuit Squadron had the honor of receiving the first P-38 Lightning delivered to the Army Air Force. This aircraft, described as "one of the most radical departures from tradition in American fighter development," evolved into the workhorse for the 1st Pursuit Group during World War II.

Within a short time of the 27th's attrition, the 94th and 71st squadrons also received their P-38s shortly before the war. To display their pride and ownership in these new aircraft, each squadron painted a designated code on the tails of their P-38s.

The 27th carried the HV, the 71st sported the LM codes, while the 94th utilized UN. These markings are similar to the more recent designations assigned to wings.

The P-38's four-year tenure provided the group a number of unique adventures. The group's first tasking was to defend Iceland against any long-range German patrol aircraft. Although a seemingly obscure place to fight a European war from, a pilot from the 27th shared the first kill committed in the European Theater of Operations on Aug. 14, 1942.

During this altercation, 2nd Lt. Joseph Schaffer and a lieutenant from another group double-teamed and destroyed an FW-200 Condor enemy reconnaissance plane. Counting as only .5 credits, or one half of a kill, the group was to achieve 402 more during the course of its involvement in the war.

While the group inched its way closer to the front lines by way of West Africa and Algeria, planners had trouble assigning a specific role for the P-38 unit to take on. The 8th Air Force questioned its ability to out-maneuver the nimble Bf-109s and FW-190s.

In addition, leaders of the bombing forces believed that well-armed bomber aircraft could do their job without fighter escort. With these considerations, the underutilized P-38s conducted training missions and occasional sweeps over France.

After heavy losses, the mindset of the bombing units regarding fighter escorts changed, and the 1st Fighter Group took on the role as a long-range patrol aircraft. In a mission over Rumania, Capt. Walter Flynn of the 27th led a group of 48 P-38s against 80 enemy fighters, attacking bombers attempting to destroy an oil refinery in adverse weather.

During this engagement, the P-38s earned 10 confirmed aerial victory credits, claimed three additional unconfirmed victories and damaged six enemy aircraft. Once the bombers received this help, they suffered no further losses.

These accomplishments were at the cost of only one P-38, whose pilot safely parachuted from his damaged aircraft. Eventually, the Lightning's capabilities as a strike aircraft surprised the allies and axis alike during a top secret mission over Foggia airfield in southern Italy.

This mission resulted in 150 enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged. Another strike mission targeted Ploesti, an oil refinery in Rumania. Over the course of the war, the group flew 20,995 sorties on 1,405 combat missions. The twin-tailed aircraft's ability to successfully perform a variety of combat tasks to include interceptor, bomber escort, and strike missions earned the group 19 aces and three Distinguished Unit Citations.

Today, the wing proudly flies aircraft with the same twin-tail design as its World War II icon through the F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor.

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