The P-38 had several variations which made it all the more versatile for use in combat.
The Lightning was noted for its powerful firepower in the nose of the plane, but it could also be outfitted with rockets or bombs as part of its armament.
In addition to installing rockets under the wings or switching out the fuel tanks on the bottom for 500‑lb bombs, some P‑38s were designed and built for specific functions:
were gigantic flying cameras, used to take pre-mission target and surveillance photos.
(AKA "Night Lightning") guns had special blast shields on the muzzles to prevent blinding the pilots when they were fired.
were converted P‑38Js with a complete bombardier's station located in the nose
had special ground-mapping radar.
Surveillance is key in any battle, and many P‑38s were converted to camera-equipped F‑4s and F‑5s (affectionately called “Photo Joe”) for this purpose.
The F‑5G carried five powerful aerial cameras which could take pictures vertically and obliquely.
What they didn’t have, however, were guns. Photo Recon pilots were unarmed and alone. These planes were much faster than their fellow P‑38s because they had no heavy armament, ammo or ordnance.
Photo recon P‑38s were used in critical missions for photographing troop movements, airfields and potential targets or, most importantly, bomb-damage assessment.
Early photo reconnaissance P‑38s were painted blue to better camouflage them in the air (as the one in the photo above), but the paint was later discontinued because it added weight to the aircraft.
“Eyes” of the AAF
P‑38 Photo Reconnaissance planes (called F‑4s and F‑5s) and their pilots were the “eyes” of the AAF. Their only weapon was a camera.
Since the plane carried no armament it is under orders to avoid combat. Trips taken by these pilots preceded visits by other, fully-armed planes on combat missions.
The F-4 was the first version of the unarmed Lightning, and the F-5 was an extension of that design (based on the P‑38E). The F-5 carried from 3 to 5 precision cameras in their nose, which could be operated by remote control from the cockpit.
One of the more well-known P‑38 Photo Recon pilots wasn’t even an American. It was a man named Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French aviator and author of the much-beloved children’s book titled “Little Prince.”
Much mystery surrounds his final recon mission, where he just disappeared in his P‑38 F‑5B. The mystery remained until 2004 when the remains of Saint-Exupéry’s plane were recovered and confirmed to be his.
If you can speak French, there was a film drama produced about his last flight (appropriately called “The Last Mission”) and you can see more about it — and watch a clip of the last scene — here on our site.
Nerves of Steel
Photo Recon pilots were affectionately called “Photo Joes.”
Many people have said that photo reconnaissance pilots did everything the combat pilots did — but they did it without any guns (other than the .45 they carried in the cockpit). Speed and altitude were the only protection the Photo Joe’s had.
They were tasked with:
- Flying into enemy territory (without guns)
- They had to participate in dog fights (without guns) — basically by evading enemy aircraft who had spotted them.
- They were valued for pre-strike intelligence gathering and post-strike damage assessment.
Because it has no armament, the F-5 was much lighter and, therefore, faster than the standard P‑38s, a definite plus in the unfriendly skies over enemy territory.
Association Member, Jude BK Pao, was a part of the Chinese Air Force Reconnaissance, and he has an interesting story to tell.
Many of the P‑38 Squadrons had their own insignias, oftentimes created by the men from that squad. We have a few of the Photo Recon Squadron insignia products available in our Zazzle Store.
USAAF Tactical Reconnaissance Missions-North West
They were the first on D‑Day and the last on VE-Day, flying essential, dare-devil, low-level photographic missions over the invasion beaches of Normandy and then in support of the Allied armies as they fought their way through the Ardennes, across the Rhine and into the Reich itself.
Larry Schmidt tells of serving in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, and how a combination of initiative and luck put him in the cockpit of a photo‑recon P‑38 and then brought him home again.
Eyes of the Fifth Air Force: The 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in World War II (X Planes of the Third Reich Series)
Written by our own P‑38 Association Historian, John Stanaway. Beginning operations in April 1942 with a shoestring flight of four Lockheed F‑4 Lightnings, the 8th Photo Squadron gave the American Army Air Forces its only aerial reconnaissance coverage of the Southwest Pacific.