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The Lockheed XP-58  "Chain Lighting"


The XP-58 actually started life in the spring of 1940 as an advanced escort fighter version of the P-38, with the development at the request of the USAAF. Single-seat and two-seat versions were considered, with the two-seat version fitted with additional turret-mounted armament.

The single-seat version was quickly abandoned, and the two-seat version went through a number of radical design changes, particularly with regards to engine fit. With the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, the project was more or less put on the "back burner", with most of the staff moved to higher-priority projects.

The USAAF then began to flip-flop on their requirements, redefining the XP-58 as a ground attack aircraft, then a bomber, then an interceptor, with a bewildering variety of equipment fits considered. The single XP-58 prototype finally flew on 6 June 1944.

The XP-58 was a substantially more radical departure from the original P-38 design than the XP-49. While the XP-58 had the general Lightning configuration, nobody could have mistaken it for a Lightning. It was a monster, more on the scale of the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter, and powered by two 24-cylinder Allison V-3420-11 inline engines with 1,565 kW (2,100 HP) each.

The XP-58 was to mount four 37 millimeter fixed forward-firing cannon and two remote-control barbettes, each with two 12.7 millimeter machine guns, mounted at the rear of the crew nacelle. An alternate forward armament of two 12.7 millimeter machine guns and a 75 millimeter cannon, for breaking up bomber formations, was also considered, but in reality no armament was ever fitted.  

By the time the prototype flew, the USAAF had completely lost interest in the project, and the flight test program was short and indifferent. A second prototype was never completed, and the one flying example was scrapped after the war. Whether the XP-58 would have been a good idea or not, it still would have been interesting to see what would have happened if it had actually hit something with four 37 millimeter cannon!



The Lockheed XP-58 


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The XP-58 was the largest version of the series of aircraft based on the P-38 and continued with the XP-49. The "Chain Lightning" was initially designed as a long-range bomber escort, but was redesigned as a low-altitude ground attack aircraft and finally retro-designed back to a bomber escort/attack aircraft. Besides the many role changes, the XP-58 was plagued by engine, armament and crew changes. In the final configuration, the aircraft had two crewmen; a pilot and a rear-gunner operating two power turrets although the turrets and the forward firing armament was never actually installed. Engine and supercharger problems caused the project to be canceled after one aircraft was built.



Number built/Converted
Larger version of P-38


70 ft. 0 in.
Length: 49 ft. 3 in.
Height: 16 ft. 0 in.
Weight: 31,306 lbs. empty/38,874 lbs. gross
Armament: Designed for one 75mm cannon and two .50-cal. machine guns --or-- four 37mm cannons. Two rear-firing power turrets with two .50-cal. machine guns each.
Engines: Two turbo-supercharged Allison V-3420-11/13 engines of 2,600 hp. each

Maximum speed:
430 mph. at 25,000 ft.
Cruising speed: 274 mph.
Service ceiling: 38,400 ft.



The XP-58  "Chain Lighting"

The XP-58 "Chain Lightning" was initially envisioned as a larger version of the successful Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-boom design capable of downing hordes of enemy bomber formations in single burst shots. The fear covering portions of the country during the Second World War envisioned these hordes of long-range bombers laying waste to American cities. As such, this high-altitude "bomber killer" was designed. The result, however, was far from that as developmental problems and an unpredictable Army brass eventually did the project in.

The XP-58 was designed as a two-man twin-boom design with powerful armament and even more powerful engines. The system would have the pilot at front, operating the aircraft and firing an impressive array of 4 x 37mm cannons which were originally just a twin set of .50 caliber machine guns. Later designs actually took into account the mounting of a massive 75mm cannon it place of the quad cannon mounting. At rear, the gunner would sit and operate two rear-facing .50 caliber heavy machine guns installed in the booms to ward off any rear-approaching enemy fighters. Engine power would be supplied from untested powerplants as developed by the Continental company. After much going back an forth on specifications and capabilities between the Army and Continental, the powerplant development was already in jeopardy. Even when a Pratt & Whitney powerplant was selected to replace the Continental design, Pratt & Whitney resources were allocated to pressing radial designs elsewhere leaving Lockheed to fit the Wright R-2160 Tornado radials into their airframe.

Though a much powerful engine, the Tornado forces Lockheed engineers to rework virtually every internal system of the XP-58, delaying the project even further but alas the US Army was happy with the Wright engine capabilities.

With the added power, the Army and Lockheed now both began salivating at the added armament capabilities afforded to the ever-increasing power of the XP-58. As such, the original twin .50 calibers mounted in the nose gave way to the aforementioned 4 x 37mm cannon array. Further twin .50 caliber machine gun mounts could be added in a top and bottom turret assembly increasing the forward firing damage ten-fold. The system was becoming quite capable in downing a bomber or fighter in a single shot!

As with any high-altitude aircraft, the issue of cabin pressurization was addressed. Couple the weight of such a system with the weight of the added cannon armament and new engines and the XP-58 weight began to soar to new heights (no pun intended).

When it appeared that the hordes of enemy bomber formations infiltrating the American skies would never materialize, the US Army came back to Lockheed and ordered a reclassification of the XP-58 Chain Lightning as a close-support strike aircraft. The 37mm cannons would neatly fit this bill except that the aircraft's size had ballooned considerably, making it an enticing low-flying target. The complex substructures were also noted as being quite fragile, meaning the slightest damage from small arms fire or flak could easily spell doom for the craft and its pilot.

As such, the XP-58 was once again redesignated as a bomber-killer. Further developmental and production delays doomed the Tornado powerplants and low-powered Allison radials were fitted instead. Flying on D-Day itself, the XP-58 Chain Lightning made its maiden voyage over California. By all reports, the system proved quite stable in handling. Nonetheless, the complicated internal workings, delayed production and development and the propensity of the turbosuperchargers to catch fire did the massive program in. After barely 20 such flights, the XP-58 was dead.



The Lockheed XP-58

By  Joe Baugher


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The Lockheed XP-58 is almost a textbook example of what changing requirements, military mismanagement, and vacillating officialdom can do to a promising military aircraft project. The XP-58 started life as a fairly straightforward development of the P-38 Lightning fighter, evolved in stages into an escort fighter, then into an attack plane, then into a bomber, then into a tank buster, and then finally into a bomber destroyer. These incessant changes in requirements, combined with several changes in power plants, resulted in the XP-58, which started life in 1940, being delayed until nearly the end of the war.

In early 1940, the US Army reserved for itself the right to refuse permission for its American military aircraft suppliers to export these aircraft to overseas customers. This was particularly true if the Army felt that the foreign order might possibly result in undue delays in deliveries of these aircraft to its own squadrons. Consequently, when Britain and France wanted to purchase the Model 322 Lightning from Lockheed, the Army was reluctant to give its approval since it had already ordered YP-38 Lightnings for its own use. However, the USAAC finally did grant authorization to export the unturbo-supercharged Lightning to Britain and France, but only under the condition that Lockheed agree to develop and produce at no cost to the U.S. government a prototype of an advanced version of the Lightning. The formal agreement was signed on April 12, 1940.

This advanced Lightning was given the company designation of L-121, and James Gerschler was named as project engineer. The L-121 was to be powered by a pair of turbo-supercharged Continental IV-1430 liquid-cooled engines. It was to be offered in two versions, a single-seater and a two-seater. The single-seat version was to retain the standard P-38 armament of one 20-mm cannon and four 0.50-inch machine guns. The two-seat version was to have an additional armament of a single 0.50-inch machine gun mounted in a remotely-controlled barbette situated at the end of each tail boom. Gross weight was estimated at 16,500 pounds, and the aircraft was expected to attain 450 mph at 25,000 feet.

During a meeting at Wright Field in May 1940, it was decided to drop the single-seater and proceed with the two-seat version, which was assigned the designation XP-58. In July 1940, it was concluded that the XP-58 would be underpowered with the Continental engines, and the decision was made to switch to a pair of 1800 hp Pratt & Whitney XH-2600-9/11 liquid-cooled engines. The re-engined XP-58 was given the company designation of Model 20-14, and revised specifications were issued by Lockheed on September 10, 1940. A second 20-mm cannon was added to the forward-firing armament. The tail boom guns were deemed to be highly impractical, and were replaced by a single remotely-controlled dorsal turret containing a pair of 0.50-inch machine guns. The serial number 41-2670 was assigned to the prototype. Estimated gross weight had crawled upward to 24,000 pounds, and estimated top speed had fallen to 402 mph. Range on internal fuel was anticipated to be 1600 miles.

However, scarcely a month after these revised specifications had been issued, Lockheed's new project engineer, Neil Harrison, was told that Pratt & Whitney was suspending development of the XH-2600 engine. The XP-58 was now without an engine. Attention focused on the XH-2470, the Continental XH-2860, and on the Pratt & Whitney R-2800, as possible choices for the XP-58 power plants.

Lockheed preferred the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine, and estimated that with these power plants the XP-58 would have a a loaded weight of 26,000 pounds and a maximum speed of 418 mph at 25,000 feet. However, the USAAC considered this performance to be inadequate, and suggested that Lockheed turn to the experimental Wright XR-2160 Tornado forty-two cylinder, six-row engine offering a power output of 2350 hp. One advantage of this engine was that it had an extremely small frontal area. However, the Tornado engine was highly complex, and its development was fraught with problems from the start. Nevertheless, in March of 1941 the USAAC announced that it was going to go with the Tornado for the XP-58.

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Two months later, the USAAC issued an change order for the installation of cabin pressurization for the pilot and the aft-facing gunner, and for the addition of a remotely-controlled ventral turret to supplement the dorsal turret. These changes caused the estimated gross weight to soar upward to 34,242 pounds. Estimated range had dropped to 1300 miles. Nevertheless, the top speed of the Tornado-powered XP-58 was estimated to be no less than 450 mph.

The XP-58 was scheduled for delivery to the USAAF in August of 1942, and to meet this deadline the project team grew to a peak of 187 people by October of 1941. However, following Pearl Harbor, the XP-58 was assigned a lower priority and most of the engineering staff were moved off to other more pressing projects. By early 1942, the XP-58 staff was down to twelve people.

In March of 1942, Lockheed suggested that the USAAF order a second XP-58 prototype using Government funds. Since the Tornado engines were already experiencing serious delays and were now not expected to be delivered until the spring of 1943, Lockheed felt that there was sufficient time to redesign the second XP-58 machine in order to provide it with enough fuel capacity to increase the range to 3000 miles. The USAAF agreed to this request and indeed placed the order in May of 1942.

However, shortly thereafter, the USAAF began to go through a protracted series of flip-flops in their thinking about the ultimate mission for the XP-58. First, the USAAF suggested that the nose-mounted forward-firing armament should be changed to a 75-mm cannon with a 20-round automatic feeder plus a pair of 0.50-inch machine guns. This was an odd choice of armament for an escort fighter, so the USAAF began to think seriously of the XP-58 as a ground attack aircraft. This in turn led to considerations of several different alternative configurations, including a two-seat attack aircraft with six forward-firing 20-mm cannon and a three-seat bomber with a bombardier in the nose, an enlarged central nacelle containing an internal bomb bay, and with or without the 75-mm nose cannon. In both the attack and bomber versions, the dorsal and ventral turrets were to be deleted, and un-supercharged engines were to be used.

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It was soon realized that the last thing the USAAF need was another attack bomber. The Douglas A-26 Invader was already in production, and it more than adequately filled all USAAF attack bomber requirements. The experimental Beech XA-38 Grizzly then under development showed considerable promise as a low-altitude tank buster and ground attack aircraft (this airplane always looked to me like a Beech Model 18 on steroids :-) ). Consequently, the USAAF decided that there was little point in trying to make the XP-58 into a low-level attack plane.

The XP-58 program was then re-oriented back to its original role as a high-altitude aircraft. However, this time it was to be bomber destroyer rather than an escort fighter. The turbo-superchargers and the dorsal and ventral turrets were put back on. The first prototype was to have four forward-firing 37-mm cannon, whereas the second was to have a 75-mm cannon and two 0.50-inch machine guns. Gross weight was now up to an astronomical 38,275 pounds, and top speed was down to 414 mph at 25,000 feet. Range was only 1150 miles.

However, at this stage of the war (late 1942), the enemy bomber threat had largely disappeared, both in the European and in the Pacific theatres. The P-58 was being designed for a role it was unlikely ever to have to perform.

By early 1943, the XP-58 program was in utter chaos because of the constantly changing Army requirements. In desperation, Lockheed recommended in January 1943 that only one prototype actually be built, and that it have interchangeable noses that would permit the fitting of either type of forward-firing armament.

To make things even worse, the trouble-ridden Tornado engine program finally collapsed in February 1943, leaving the XP-58 without engines once again. Lockheed and the USAAF both agreed to switch to a pair of turbo-supercharged Allison V-3420-11/13 twenty-four cylinder liquid-cooled engines, rated at 2600 hp for takeoff and 3000 hp at 28,000 feet.

With these Allison engines, the XP-58 (serial number 41-2670) was finally completed in June of 1944, more than four years after its design had begun. Its company designation was now Model 20-86. When the XP-58 rolled out of the factory it was really only half-finished--no cabin pressurization equipment was provided, no forward-firing armament was installed, and dummy dorsal and ventral turrets were fitted in place of the real things. It made its initial flight from Lockheed Air Terminal at Burban on June 6, 1944 (what else happened that day? :-) ), piloted by test pilot Joe Towle. On its first flight, it was ferried to Muroc AAB (later Edwards AFB) Twenty-five flights were made at Muroc prior to the delivery of the XP-58 to Wright Field in Ohio on October 22, 1944. These flights were marred by turbo-supercharger problems.

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Once at Wright Field, the XP-58 quickly became a white elephant--by the end of 1944, the USAAF certainly had no further need for bomber destroyers. Maintenance of the prototype proved to be such a headache that it was very rarely flown. In early 1945, it was transferred for use as a non-flying instructional airframe. I don't know anything about the eventual fate of the XP-58. In all likelihood, it was scrapped. However, perhaps there is the odd chance that bits and pieces of the XP-58 are still sitting today in some forgotten corner of a hanger at WPAFB, waiting for a patient restorer to come along and discover them.

The second XP-58 was abandoned before construction could be completed.

The XP-58 project, which started off its career as having absolutely no cost to the US government, ended up costing the taxpayer over two million dollars. $400,000 of this money covered the USAAF-requested changes to the first prototype, and the rest of the money covered the government-ordered, but then cancelled, second prototype.


Specifications of the XP-58:

Performance: Maximum speed: 436 mph at 25,000 feet, cruising speed: 274 mph at 25,000 feet, initial climb rate: 2660 feet per minute, service ceiling: 38,400 feet, normal range: 1250 miles, maximum range: 2650 miles. Weights: 21,624 pounds empty, 39,192 pounds normal loaded, 43,000 pounds maximum. Dimensions: wingspan 70 feet 0 inches, length 49 feet 4 inches, height 16 feet 0 inches, wing area, 600 square feet. Armament was to consist of a quartet of 37-mm cannon with 250 rpg or, alternately, one 75 mm cannon with 20 rounds and two 0.50-inch machine guns with 300 rpg, all mounted in the nose. Two 0.50-inch machine guns were to be fitted in each of two remotely-controlled turrets. It was anticipated that external military loads of up to 4000 pounds could be carried. The XP-58 was, in fact, never fitted with any armament.


  1. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.
  2. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1987.
  3. War Planes of the Second World War, Fighters, Volume Four, William Green, 1964.
  4. American Combat Planes, Third Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

By  Joe Baugher




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