Some people have bad luck; we called them unlucky. Some vehicles have bad luck; we call them lemons, especially when dealing with cars. What do you call an aircraft with bad luck, though? P-38H #42-66767 might fall into the category of an unlucky airplane. What about a group of machines built at about the same time? #42-66767’s siblings might also fall into this category, but more on them later. Aircraft #42-66767 was a P-38H-5 LO.
First, a little information about military aircraft designations. When a company gets approved to produce a new aircraft, that company produces a first example. In some cases, two or three. These are usually given designations beginning with X, basically indicating the aircraft was experimental. So the first P-38 would have been the XP-38. During that era, the first few production/service examples were given a designation beginning with Y, meaning these were prototypes. So the first few P-38s were YP-38s. The first model of an aircraft to see service, that is full service, is usually followed by A, so there was a P-38A. When the designers make improvements that are major, the aircraft undergoes a model change. The P-38H was a result of many improvements on the original P-38A. Sometimes, during a production run, minor changes or improvements are implemented. If they do not entail a model change, these improvements are marked by block numbers. Block numbers are a way to keep track of minor improvements since the first new model. Usually they jump by five, so the second block would be -5, then -10, then -15, however, that was not always the case. Sometimes these block numbers were followed by letters designating the factory at which the aircraft was constructed. A B-29A -10 BW would have been the third block built at the Boeing Witchita plant. So, P-38H-5 LO #42-66767 had minor differences from the earlier P-38H blocks. LO stood for the Lockheed plant.
P-38H-5 LO #42-66767 was assigned to Ellensburg Army Air Field. At the time, the field was used for training. On the first day of December, 1943, 66767 had already been up twice with two different pilots when Flight Officer Russell W. Senger got into her for a local gunnery mission at a little after 4pm local time. He went through his check lists and then taxied out to the active runway and took off as part of a four ship flight. The aircraft had been checked out and was considered airworthy, which she was. At about 5:30, Senger landed safely on Runway 29. His flight was cleared to taxi. It was 1734 hours, or 5:34pm. At that time of year in Central Washington it begins to get dark at about 4:30pm (in fact as this is being written, November 29, 2009, it is now 5:22pm and I consider it to be completely dark outside). It was well into dusk then, when Senger began taxiing back to the parking area. He had only go about 600 feet when the right main gear left the taxiway and entered a drainage ditch, which was about 4 ½ feet deep. The pilot could not right the situation once it had happened, and momentum carried it another 100 feet where it stopped at a right angle to the taxiway. A P-38 pilot taxiing behind him notified the tower of the accident. The accident board attributed it as 75% pilot error (carelessness) and 25% taxiway construction. They recommended painting marker lines on the taxiway.
Normally, that would be the end of an article like this. The aircraft would have been repaired and sent back to service. However, 66767 was an unfortunate aircraft. 66767’s nosewheel had been damaged in the December 1st accident. A group of workmen from the 32nd sub-depot at Paine Field replaced the entire assembly. However, they were unable to repair the nosewheel door because there was no sheet metal shop facilities at Ellensburg AAF. The Engineering officer decided to have her flown the short distance to the 32nd sub-depot at Paine Field with her wheels locked down.
The gear handle was placed in down and safetied (Captain Laven’s account says it was safetied with wire). The main landing gear shut-off valve was closed to prevent an inadvertant gear-raising. Captain George Laven, Jr. was chosen to fly the aircraft to Paine Field on December 29, 1943. He took off at 3:48pm and encountered no trouble during the flight, except that the propeller on the left engine went out and he had to set to the manual position (What he meant by that was probably the variable pitch propeller was not operating automatically, so he had to operate it manually). He entered the landing pattern at Paine Field at about 4:30pm. Everything was normal until about 200 yards into the landing roll when he felt the ship turning right. He applied left brake, but the ship continued to pull right. He looked over and noticed that the right wing was lowering and felt the ship settle in that direction. He knew then that the right gear was collapsing and so as much left brake as he could to ease the turn. As soon as it left the runway he shut off the booster pumps, batteries, and mixture controls. When the ship stopped he exited the aircraft, no doubt, with alacrity.
First Lieutenant Robert W. Campbell, assistant operations officer at Paine Field, witnessed Laven enter the pattern and land. He watched as the right gear began to collapse and the plane veared off the runway. He jumped in a vehicle and headed for the scene of the accident. When he arrived the pilot was out of the aircraft.
The accident board discovered that the “right landing gear locking pin had been screwed down too far.” This prevented the gear from completely locking. The shut-off valve had also been shut in cold weather on the eastern side of the state while cold oil was still in the line bewteen the main gear and the actuating cylinder. The oil became heated due to engine temperatures and the warmer external air temperatures of the coastal climate over Everett, Washington. The heat expanded the oil sufficiently to partially move the actuating cylinder enough to dislodge the locking pin. The shock of landing and Laven’s application of brakes put enough force on the gear to retract.
As a result of this accident both engines were damaged by sudden stoppage. Three propeller blades were bent. The lower stabilizer and rudder were bent and crushed. Relatively minor dame considering.
I do not have information concerning what happened to 66767 after this. Given the amount of damage described in the report, it seems she was probably repaired and went on to lead a productive life, perhaps eventually becoming a part of the soda can we drink from, or perhaps she eventually made her way overseas and saw a different end. We may never know.
That 66767 was unlucky, may remain to be seen, since the damage she sustained was minimal and she could be returned to flying status. That her sisters were unlucky is no joke. #42-66775, #42-66768, and #42-66778 all met similar fates. I will write of them at a later date, though.
Accident reports for #42-66767, dates: 12-1-1943 and 12-28-1943.
Fighter Planes, http://www.fighter-planes.com/info/p38_lightning.htm