The Women Behind the Lightning

During World War II, Lockheed Aircraft would produce one of the wildest fighter designs of the time: the twin-engine P-38 Lightning. The P-38 was unique in the fact that it featured a twin-boom design. It would become known as the “Fork-Tailed Devil.”

The Lightning first flew on January 27, 1939, and would see active combat starting in 1942. After Pearl Harbor, the armed forces started to take a large percentage of the male population to fight the war. This left a largely depleted workforce to produce our vehicles, weapons, and other goods needed for war. For the first time in American history, women entered the workforce in large numbers.

These amazing women would build what would become known as an Arsenal of Democracy. They would go down in history known collectively as Rosie the Riveter. They would work around the clock producing ships, tanks, guns, and, of course, aircraft. Lockheed would hire thousands of women to produce its aircraft including the P-38. One Rosie recalled, “There was a poster in the post office asking for women to sign up to work in an office. I said, ‘No thank you, I want to build fighters.’” During the war years more than 7 million American women entered the workforce to support the push toward victory.

The EAA Aviation Museum’s P-38 Lightning is an L model of the famous fighter that was built by Rosies. When it rolled down the assembly line in California in June 1945, the women working on the assembly line would leave messages inside of different components. Some were notes to friends down the line, some were inspection notes, while others were notes to boost the spirits of the guys in the field out in the war zones who may find them. Some of these messages and notes are still visible inside of our aircraft, signifying an important piece of history preserved. Not just the aircraft, but these messages serve as a look back to the ’40s and an example of the extreme pride in what our nation was building, and the winning war effort.

Once off the production line the aircraft would then have to be test flown and later delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces. Many times this would be done via the women pilots of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Led by famous aviator Jacqueline Cochran, these women would train at Sweetwater, Texas, and then fly stateside routes delivering aircraft from factories to military bases in another effort to free up slots formerly taken up by men.

These women had to learn how to fly every aircraft in the inventory of the U.S. armed forces. During the Second World War, it would not be rare to see a young woman flying a high-performance aircraft such as the P-38. These women would later help pave the way for the generations of female military aviators serving around the globe today.

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