World War II aerial combat was a crucible that transformed young men into men of steel.  Just being there in Europe, doing the job they came for, made heroes of them all.  This is the story of one such hero, told by his own hand.  It gives the rest of us just a glimpse of real history; not one written by historians in broad, big-picture brush strokes, but written by he who lived it every day, through each mission, never knowing if it would be his last.

By Pat Brown

Prologue and editing by Ron Fox


Just a short statement concerning the “hows and whys” we flew as we did on combat missions: First of all we flew in flights of four airplanes.  Secondly’ two flights would weave back and forth with each other all the way to the target and back home. A pilot’s blind spot is directly behind him. Therefore we weaved back and forth. By doing this each flight was watching the other flight’s tail.

When attacked from the rear, which is the typical attack method because the attacker hopes he is not detected. The entire flight does a 180 degree turn toward the attacker in order to get into firing position. If the attacker climbs back up or proceeds on down, the flight makes another 180 degree turn back on course to escort the bombers or whatever else they were doing. If the attacker does not leave by one of the methods described, the fight starts and who knows what will go on from there.

The airplane that has the altitude has a definite advantage in combat. He can trade altitude for airspeed, or airspeed for altitude. He can dive down on the lower airplane and gain airspeed, then after making the attack and firing, he can use the excess airspeed to regain altitude, or he has the option of continuing the dive on down below after his attack. In either instance, the attacked airplane cannot pursue the attack airplane very well because of the lack of airspeed to keep up the chase.

If the enemy makes a head-on pass toward the flight, both groups have a head-on shot at each other. If you need to protect the bombers you are escorting, just continue on course.  If you want to engage the attacker, make a 180 degree turn, and pursue him if he does not have too much airspeed to outrun you.

If a flight was jumped by the enemy from two directions, the flight would split up into two elements, and each element would take on one of the two attacker groups. If the engagement broke off or never really developed, the two elements would rejoin as a flight and proceed on as usual.

A single engine airplane will normally attempt to escape with a left turn.  Because of torque and P-factor, it can make a sharper turn to the left than to the right. In a P-38 if we were trying to escape an enemy single engine fighter, we would normally make a turn to the right, with counter rotating props we could turn equally well in both directions, but remember the enemy single engine fighter didn’t turn quite as well to the right as to the left.  That is why we would turn right.

In extremely tight turns, the stall speed increases dramatically. Many times a single engine airplane would spin in from making too tight a turn.  However, the P-38 when stalled in a tight turn would not spin, but just buffet (shake) a little. Thus we could stay right on the ragged edge without fear of a stall/spin accident.

Another combat situation was called a Lufberry Circle, so named for the World War I German Ace named Lufberry. This is like a dog chasing his tail, two airplanes chasing each other in a tight circle. The first plane to attempt to break off the situation normally had to reverse his direction of flight, and in so doing had to pass through the line of fire of the other plane. The single engine fighter pilot normally wanted to fly this maneuver to the left, and the P-38 to the right, for reasons previously mentioned. Editor's note:  A reader sent in the following historical correction:  Gervais Raoul Lufbery (March 14, 1885 – May 19, 1918) was a French-American fighter pilot and flying ace in World War I. Because he served in both the French and later the United States Army Air Service in World War I, he is sometimes listed as a French ace and sometimes as an American ace, though all but one of his 17 combat victories came while flying in French units. His actual number of victories is estimated at 25-60.


Raoul Lufbery was an ace of aces for the Allies and his techniques taught to those flying canvas and wire planes is still taught today.

Other than the tactics mentioned above, it was just a dog-eat-dog affair. Each trving to outflv or outsmart the other, there was a lot of luck as well as lots of skill involved in aerial combat. Above all else, we must remember that the German Air Force was always waiting for our arrival. Its impossible to get 48 - 72 bombers, and a like number of fighters to a target many hundreds of miles away without being detected. The enemy always started out with the advantage. They were above us and thus had the airspeed/altitude advantage, and they were also fighting over their territory, close to their home base. They also did not have to sweat out the fuel situation as we did.  We had to get home after everything else was accomplished, (our combat mission purpose).

Diary of a P-38 Pilot will be uploaded in serial form, accompanied by historical records and Pat Brown's  personal WWII photographs.  Check back with us from time to time for more.

[GO to the NEXT Diary Page]

[GO to the P-38 Photo Album]

[Return to the Front Page]

Copyright 2003 Bushpilot, all rights reserved